Montreal is the undisputed world hub for circus arts. In addition to being the home of the National Circus School and the venerable Cirque du Soleil, the city hosts an annual festival of international circus acts every summer and is also the base of two other acclaimed companies: Cirque Éloize and Les sept doigts de la main. The latter is in town this weekend as part of the PuSh Festival, in a co-presentation with Théâtre la seizième and Tom Lightburn.
Founded in 2002 by alumni of Cirque du Soleil and San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus, among others, Les sept doigts eschews the large scale spectacle and Las Vegas showmanship of Guy Laliberté's various Soleil franchises. Instead, they create shows that are more intimate, designed to play venues the size of the Vancouver Playhouse and to appeal in part because they showcase the individual personalities--alongside the incredible physical talents--of their performers. In the case of Séquence 8, a young, polyglot cast of eight comprises the ensemble. Colin acts as our impresario, keeping up a running comic banter throughout the evening, when not doing backflips or flying through a series of stacked hoops, or crooning a moving ballad as Camille leaps and flips through the air, alighting on Tristan's shoulders or upturned hands. Eric juggles blocks of wood with the dexterity and virtuosity of a master sculptor, so that it is impossible for us to determine where wood, air and arms come together and come apart. Dev scales the pole planted upstage right like he is running up the side of a wall, only to wrap one lonely limb around it before sending his whole body sliding downward, somehow stopping and suspending himself before crashing into the ground. Alexandra does impossibly high somersaults and half pikes off of a springy Russian bar perched on the shoulders of two of the men, landing each time with the precision and elegance of a trained gymnast on a balance beam; later she will also twirl and spin through the air in a dizzying display of acrobatics on a circle that descends from the rafters. Finally, even though they only joined the cast two weeks ago, Guillaume and the smallest male member of the troupe (whose name I've forgotten) prove themselves as adept as their cast mates at defying gravity, with Guillaume working a trapeze with fluid grace before later sending his companion vaulting and spiralling through the air by jumping with Colin onto one half of a see-saw.
The circus, premised as it is on the live performance of risk, is a profoundly kinetic form. We marvel at the agility and physical prowess of the artists, but there is also a way in which their daring literally moves us to the edge of our seats. In this physiological or muscularly empathic connection between performers and audience, circus shares something with dance. Thus, it is fitting that amid all of the more traditional acrobatics in Séquence 8 there is also a lot of choreography that would not look out of place at a contemporary dance show (this is, after all, the troupe that choreographed the acclaimed revival of Pippin that just finished its run on Broadway). In this respect, the transitions between individual routines were, for me, a particularly compelling aspect of the show; here we saw, through the execution of more pedestrian--though no less complex or agile--movement sequences, that this ensemble, like fingers on a hand, is very much the sum of its parts.