Circus! Circus! Circus!
Montreal’s 10-day festival of contemporary acts highlights the city’s long love affair with acrobatics, farce and derring-do
All through last winter, near my place in Montreal’s Verdun borough, a demolition company carefully stripped out most of what had been a small arena overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The airy, $11.2-million cultural centre now being completed in and around the shell of that old building will include a small theatre and new teaching studios for l’École de cirque de Verdun.
Unlike l’École nationale de cirque, which is also in Montreal, the bustling Verdun school is not meant to train professionals, but to teach circus arts to anyone. Its offerings range from one-day workshops to specialized courses for kids and adults, which tells you something about the depth of Montreal’s love affair with contemporary circus.
So does Montréal Complètement Cirque, the international festival that begins its seventh season on July 7. The festival’s raison d’être is that with so much local strength in circus production, from Cirque du Soleil down to the smallest new companies, it’s important for Montrealers also to see work from elsewhere.
“We want people to discover what’s going on all over the world,” said Complètement Cirque director Nadine Marchand. In that sense, her festival resembles the longer-established Festival TransAmériques, which complements a robust theatre scene with a menu of productions from Europe.
This year’s circus festival has no particular theme, unless it’s a theme to have no two things alike. “What’s important is that there be a big diversity,” said Marchand. “Very often people think that all circus shows are the same, and that’s not true.”
Cirque Le Roux’s The Elephant in the Room, for instance, tells the story of a woman on her wedding day, blending physical theatre and acrobatics with the visual style of film noir. “It’s a little bit like Feydeau in circus,” Marchand said, alluding to the master of French farce.
There’s also Cirque Aïtal’s Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, a show about two life partners on the road performed by two life partners on the road. It’s a small intimate show, Marchand said, and it shows that circus can encompass autobiographical elements.
Since no festival in Montreal is complete without something being performed or projected in the street, there’s also a plein-air component. On each of the festival’s 10 days, 50 acrobats will assemble on a section of Saint Denis Street, perform there for about 10 minutes, and then lead the crowd to a stage at the Place Émilie-Gamelin for a free, half-hour staged show.
“We want to be on the street because the circus came from the street,” Marchand said.
That may be true of some companies that got their start busking or performing outdoors. But circus in Montreal actually started not in the street but in a purpose-built, permanent theatre that went up near the intersection of McGill and Notre-Dame streets in 1797. Montreal was scarcely more than a village at the time, but Rickett’s New Amphitheatre seems to have been quite a fancy place. It had a sky-blue dome adorned with garlanded cherubs, rose-pink boxes for the gentry and a festooned blue stage curtain.
It’s often said that a distinctive feature of contemporary circus is its use of narrative, which wasn’t a strong point of the Barnum & Bailey-type tent shows. But there was plenty of story at Ricketts’ New Amphitheatre, where circus shows included pantomime presentations of Robinson Crusoe, The Death of Captain Cook, and something called Harlequin in Montreal.
The most important thing about the Amphitheatre, however, is that it was the first circus theatre in Canada. The scale of its ambition, in a small northern trading town, was an early precursor of the audacious plan for world domination waged since 1984 by Cirque du Soleil.
Montréal Complètement Cirque is part of a matryoshka-doll structure of circus organizations in Montreal. The festival is produced by TOHU, the circus-arts performance complex in the city’s north end; but the founding partners were Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, l’École nationale de cirque and En Piste, the national circus network organization. Some of the same big players were behind the birth of the not-for-profit Cité des arts du cirque, whose main physical manifestation is the TOHU complex.
TOHU, where some of the festival’s shows appear, is at least as remarkable as Ricketts’ New Amphitheatre. It includes the only round theatre for circus arts in North America, and is one of the anchors for Montreal’s long-term recovery of a large disused limestone quarry and landfill in the St. Michel district. Cirque du Soleil is headquartered in the same neighbourhood, along with École nationale de cirque. The physical proximity hints at the historic links – École founder Guy Caron was also the Cirque du Soleil’s first artistic director – that set the pattern for what remains a surprisingly close-knit scene.
It would have been easy for Cirque du Soleil, with its multiple permanent shows in Las Vegas and long-term global touring shows, to turn its back on much smaller fry in Montreal. Remaining engaged in the local scene, through TOHU, the festival and more, was a smart decision. Healthy conditions for small companies means lots of ideas, and a bigger pool of active performers. A little troupe can try things that a big one with a 10-year touring horizon might not. Lots of options for the public means a more knowledgeable and engaged audience.
During its past two iterations, Montréal Complètement Cirque’s audience grew by 46 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. TOHU claims to have presented over 1,000 circus shows since it opened 12 years ago. Far from being an annual event as it was during the Barnum & Bailey era, going to the circus in Montreal is a regular and extremely varied activity. Clown noses are optional.
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