When most of us think about Montreal circus arts, we think about Cirque du Soleil.
A Cirque du Soleil performance is incredibly impressive. And yet, watching the effortless midair flinging of bodies and seeing the throngs of sweatily enthused philistines give standing ovation after ovation, it’s hard not to be overcome by a strange numbing effect, almost like that of porn. Sure, those trapezists have magnificently throbbing forearms and everyone’s inner ear seems surgically calibrated, but the whole thing is still just Vegas glitzy. In Cirque du Soleil’s defence, there are no fine arts delusions up in the corporate machinery — it calls itself, after all, an “entertainment company.”
Enter experimental circus, a growing community of circus artists with a different philosophy. They hold that circus performers can still be technically virtuosic but cozy up a little closer to the fine arts, and find the cerebral in the razzmatazz. Basile Philippe and the duo Clara Prezzavento and Luisina Rosas are young circus artists working on the periphery of the mainstream, part of a line-up at la Chapelle Theatre called l’Autre Cirque, an offshoot of this year’s ninth edition of Montréal Complètement Cirque.
Philippe, a floor acrobat, is presenting Within/Beignade, in which he interacts with an immense donut-shaped mat. Prezzavento and Rosas are performing La mort d’un cerf-volant, a piece for themselves and a German Wheel (two large metal hoops connected with spokes). Philippe gets enthused just talking about the vibrations the donut makes when it hits the ground, how the audience is close enough to feel the resonations through the floor. He describes the show as “sensorial and private,” even referring to himself and the donut as “us.” Prezzavento and Rosas also have a very emotional engagement with their piece. Their duo simply concerns the idea of “carrying the load,” both literally and figuratively.
All three of these circus artists are recent grads from l’École nationale de cirque, all trying to create their own paths outside of entertainment circus. They continue to prioritize their bodies and their athleticism, but seek out ways of rendering their movements more intimate.
Prezzamento talked about how, with feats of traditional circus, “it’s almost like you’re seeing a superhero. It’s not something a normal human can do.” She and Rosas want to build on a more human connection with the public.
Watching excerpts of La mort d’un cerf-volant, it is difficult, I will admit, not to demand the very same trashy razzle-dazzle you would otherwise critique. Where are the death defying leaps? Where are the glutes barely encased in sequins? What’s more, these artists are still doing work that’s dangerous, even if it may seem subdued. Phillipe spent five months just last year recovering from a concussion. But whereas circus acts with big companies are insured and well paid, circus artists working on their own or with small companies and who are trying to push the boundaries of something that is part art and part sport, are left in a precarious situation.
Nevertheless, this branch of circus is growing. In part, it serves as a cultural response to the hollow feeling even glittery superhumans can leave you with. Philipe talks about the lack of a coherent vocabulary to even talk about circus: “You choreograph a dance piece, you direct a piece of theatre, but you don’t have any word to speak about how you create a circus piece.” Still, despite the absence of a critical dialogue around circus, and the corporate rigidity of big circus companies, there is a growing new circus community in Montreal that is beginning to create circus differently. ■
L’Autre Cirque is happening at la Chapelle Theatre (3700 St-Dominique) from July 8–10, $23.50