No stars. No words. No nations.
Just bodies in motion, devising, and revising a language that has been around, in various guises and disguises, for centuries now – the language of the circus.
That said, if the body speaks a language all its own, what language was Cherepaka delivered in?
That was the name of one of the shows featured at the 2015 Montreal Completement Cirque, a festival of circus arts, that runs concurrently alongside the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal during the first couple of weeks every July in Montreal. (The 2017 Jazz Fest takes place June 29- July 08).
And for the past two years, you can throw in the Montreal Comiccon, which ran from July 8-10.
Montreal Comic Con, 2015. Photo courtesy Stephen Hunt
I always knew that besides their iconic Cirque du Soleil, Montreal was legendary for its jazz, its Habs, (formerly) its Expos and its Just for Laughs comedy festival, but toss in an innovative circus festival (it’s the largest in North America), a comic con – and Montreal’s everyday brand of rowdy, animated street life – and you get an international city practically levitating!
Downtown Montreal, during Circus/Jazz/Comic Con season, is a swarm of humanity. From block to block, you might run into one of the free stages the Jazz Festival operates, where thousands of people gather to listen, dance, and drink beer under the Montreal stars.
Elsewhere downtown, entire city blocks have been transformed into mini-circus venues.
In 2015, that meant a two part performance called Les Minutes and Duels – Nouveau Spectacle en Plein Air, which featured acrobats leaping off high risers, floating through the humid summer night Montreal air with red umbrellas, turning the city into a scene straight out of a Magritte painting.
Cherepeka was created and performed by Andreane Leclerc, a graduate of the National Circus School. It was one part performance art, one part art installation and the rest a pretzel-logic of twisted contortions inspired, in part, by the anguished art of Francis Bacon, no less.
That was one of a half dozen vivid examples of nouveau cirque that were showcased as part of a residency for 10 cultural journalists, sponsored by En Piste, Canada’s circus arts national network, which immersed us in every conceivable aspect of the circus arts (except performing them) for four days in July, 2015.
The residency included presentations from the National Circus School, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Cirque Alfonse, TOHU, as well as a half dozen different circus artists and directors who spent time with us, translating what they do into words.
There was Thomas Monckton, a New Zealand clown who lives in Paris, and was funded by the Finnish government to create Le Pianiste, an hour-long virtuoso piece of clown comedy he performed to an enthralled full house at the Centaur Theatre, about a pianist enduring the performance of every pianist’s worst nightmares – the one where everything that can possibly go wrong prior to beginning the performance does.
Monckton studied at Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, channelling silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in Le Pianiste – along with more than a little Marceau Marceau, who we discovered he saw perform as a teenager growing up in New Zealand.
There were the performers from Circa, a popular Australian circus act who opened the festival with Beyond, an eccentric bit of circus that featured strong women, animal heads, music by legends such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole – alongside one unforgettable routine, featuring a guy balancing a single sheet of paper while Kim Carnes sang Total Eclipse of the Heart.
There was Barbu foire electro trad cabaret, performed by a posse of bearded men (and a few strong women) from Cirque Alfonse, a Quebec independent circus company who turned Olympia into a cabaret of circus strongman, including a tall, bald, menacing mentallist named Loukas who did one routine that consisted of a hamster crawling across his body.
They were accompanied by a live band featuring a trombone playing female drummer, who performed a selection of tunes that ranged from jazz to rock and roll.
That surreal imagery was juxtaposed against more traditional circus routines that included bearded guys rollerblading across the stage, a ping pong ball spitting contest, hula hooping, and beer keg tossing – all of it unfolding on a thrust stage, in front of a cabaret audience of around 300, who hooted and hollered wildly.
Both Beyond and Barbu played with notions of gender that circus has long embraced – strong men, beautiful, vulnerable women – that can make watching a lot of traditional circus feel like archival footage from some other century.
There was Warm, a French piece of theatre/circus performed in a blazing hot theatre – 65 degrees onstage, 45 in the audience – featuring the eroticization of a pair of acrobats warming up for an (unseen) performance, while a woman reads an erotic poem in conjunction with their warmup.
A sculpture spotted among the racks of costumes at Cirque du Soleil headquarters, Montreal, July 2015. Photo courtesy Stephen Hunt
Warm was performed at Espace Go, a venue located in Le Plateau, a neighborhood that is pretty seriously hipster – I think Plateau might be French for Park Slope du Nord.
I warmed up for Warm quaffing a few pints with my journalist friend Don at Bily Kun, a Mount Royal bar known as an absinthe hotspot, with a row of stuffed ostrich heads acting as a kind of surreal backdrop to your drinking.
It was a great way to prepare for night at the nouveau cirque.
As far as accomodations go, the highlight of our visit was the night we spent at the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain. It was kind of a throwback to the go-go 1970’s, architecturally speaking, but it’s been given a makeover in recent years that makes it feel new.
If I had to use a single word to describe the state of circus arts in the 21st century, it would be the same word that circus performers frequently use to articulate their ultimate goal: prouesse, or prowesse.
The same goes for the masterful musicians of Jazz Fest, not to mention the Montreal cosplayers – who hardly require a Comic Con to provide an excuse to dress up – to provide a lush, gorgeous summer soundtrack for everyone lucky enough to find themselves in Montreal, some July.