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Out of Order's North American premiere is online this week through Vancouver’s the Cultch.

Sébastien Lozé/Handout

  • Title: Out of Order
  • Directors: Isabelle Chassé & Gypsy Snider
  • Cast: Samuel Renaud, Mikaël Bruyère-L’Abbé, Louis Joyal, Éline Guélat, Vincent Jutras, Maude Parent, Antino Pansa, Tuedon Ariri, Anna Kichtchenko, Guillaume Biron
  • Company: The 7 Fingers
  • Presented by: The Cultch, thecultch.com
  • Year: Runs March 18 to 21, 2021
Critic’s Pick

The “hand to hand act” – the very name sounds dangerous in our pandemic times – is a particular type of two-person circus routine, a mix of gymnastics and acrobatics that involves one performer holding another performer aloft in poses of increasing difficulty.

When someone says circus, your first thought might be of acrobats flying through the air with the greatest of ease; but hand to hand, by contrast, is about how impressive stillness can be.

It is a feat of strength and balance that makes a spectacle out of how much effort it can take not to move – when, for instance, you are doing a one-arm handstand on top of another person.

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Out of Order is set in the near future.

Sébastien Lozé/Handout

Out of Order, a new filmed circus performance from the Montreal circus collective the 7 Fingers, having its North American premiere online this week through Vancouver’s the Cultch, climaxes with just such a display.

The Tintin-haired performer Louis Joyal is suspended upside down, the only thing connecting him to the earth being his hand held in the hand of his strongman partner, Samuel Renaud.

The sight seems like a physical metaphor for all our struggles this past year, each ripple of Joyal and Renaud’s muscles a reminder of the strain it actually takes on a body to stay in one place in an impossible situation. It made my three-person bubble burst into tears, helped along by the lyrics of the song accompanying it: “We will find a way back from it all.”

Out of Order’s directors, circus greats Isabelle Chassé and Gypsy Snider, focus the camera as much on the moment where Joyal and Renaud first graze gloveless fingers, however.

That is breathtaking in its own way, sending shivers down the spine given our current taboos regarding touch. The bravery of circus performers has never been in doubt, but now it is apparent from the instance bodies brush up against each other.

Set in the near future, Out of Order begins with its 10 performers entering an abandoned big top wearing gloves and masks, as well as a mix of costumes that seem half inspired by Moulin Rouge and half ransacked from a Le Chateau going-out-of-business sale.

What we’re watching was originally created with the expectation that it would be presented in front of audiences in Montreal last fall – but the window in which live, in-person performance was allowed in the city’s salles de spectacles was too brief.

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No matter. Chassé and Snider filmed it instead, in an immersive way, from all angles. There are no static proscenium-style shots. (If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to have a dozen heavy juggling clubs flying back and forth right over your head, you can now find out from the POV of a cowering clown.)

This result is ultimately one of the most moving works of art I’ve seen that has engaged directly with the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The French singing and speaking has English subtitles.

Antoine Seychal/Handout

The opening routine involves the cast holding two-metre-long wooden poles, and using them to stay that approved government distance from one another. But then they turn the poles into hurdles that everyone takes a turn jumping, diving or tumbling over or under. It’s a fun-house mirror reflection of how we all navigate the world today.

A contortionist act later on involving two women and a big sheet of see-through plastic is disturbing, like some sort of Dexter dance routine. But, again, we’re only watching a slightly distorted version of our pandemic lives of plexiglass partitions, and turning ourselves into grotesque pretzels to keep apart.

While Out of Order doesn’t hesitate to tap into current anxieties about our fragile and freakish bodies, it is also full of joy. There is plenty of humour amid the high-wire acts and hoop tricks – including the funniest bit I’ve ever seen involving a mask, executed with extreme seriousness by Vincent Jutras.

There is a little singing, and a little speaking – in French with English subtitles. The roguish ringmaster (Guillaume Biron) has a wry monologue about the “unessential” business he and his colleagues are about to conduct; later, he recites the well-chosen Charles Baudelaire poem Enivrez-vous. “One must always be drunk; that’s all there is to it,” it begins. “So as not to feel the horrible burden of time crushing your shoulders and bending you toward the earth.”

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But drunk on what? Baudelaire wrote: “On wine, on poetry, or on virtue. The choice is yours.”

Judging by social-media activity, many folks are getting through the pandemic by getting drunk on virtue in public; judging by the line-up at the liquor store, wine is the method of choice in private. What we haven’t got wasted on enough through the past year is poetry – and Out of Order is that, poetry in motion and in stillness. I recommend a deep, long drink.

Out of Order runs March 18 to 21 at thecultch.com; tickets are $29 or $58.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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