I happened upon Montreal Complétement Cirque quite incidentally three years ago while studying French in Chicoutimi, a small city in the north of Quebec. As a circus artist, I was surprised to find this incredibly vibrant circus festival that I had never heard of, then in its 4th year.
But during that weekend away, I witnessed some of the best circus I have ever seen. I saw an incredible clown show called Qui Sommes-je?, by French clown Ludor Citrik, and the intimate creation — half circus, half parkour — titled Face Nord, by Un loup pour l’homme. Since then, I have returned twice to see the special and unique blend of international circus offered by the festival.
Montreal Complétement Cirque combines an exceptional array of international shows performed in indoor venues, a major outdoor event, and several other activities and workshops that take place primarily on Rue St. Denis. It is the outdoor component of the festival, which many of the organizers believe unites the festival as a whole.
The creator and director of both Les Minutes Complétement Cirque and the full-length spectacle at Place Èmilie-Gamelin, Anthony Venisse, sat down with me during the festival to discuss his role in the development of outdoor theatre in the festival.
“During the first year of the festival, the outdoor component was relatively small. We created what we call, the minute cirque, where artists will interact with people on the street. We would get the attention of the audience through sudden and synchronized motion. For example, everyone would sing a song, or go up into a handstand. In those first years we included about fifty acrobats, and we would draw the audience to a place where a large circus event was being performed — always amidst the architecture of Montreal.”
As the festival began to grow, they settled into Place Èmilie-Gamelin, where they now create a different thirty-five minute show each year:
“This show is meant to include people who don’t know anything about circus, and who would not normally have the interest or funds to attend. Circus, like the kind we find with Cirque du Soleil, is definitely not affordable for everyone. So it’s important to show people that there are free shows with a very high artistic and technical quality. Most of the people who are performing with us this year and past years end up working for Cirque du Soleil, Les 7 doigt de la main (the 7 fingers of the hand), and Cirque Eloize, or are already with them and come back to perform with us. For example, we have a trapeze duo who leave shortly to work on a new production with Cirque du Soleil. If you want to see the quality and the skill they have here, it’s free.”
I was very impressed with the quality of the outdoor shows. Their show this year, Fracas, contained unbelievable stunts and tricks, and also functioned as a totalizing artistic creation realized against the backdrop of Montreal. With my press pass I could occupy the designated VIP seating, but I chose instead to sit on the grass, which is sloped enough to feel like a raked stage. From my grassy knoll I had an excellent view of the aerial and acrobatic activities occurring on the stage. On two mini-stages, the acrobats performed hand-to-hand less than ten feet from where I was sitting and only inches from those seated closer to the mini-stages.
“We always wanted the outdoor component of the festival to function as an immersive experience for the audience. When the artists play in the streets, it gives the audience an opportunity to see them quite closely. You can almost touch the muscle working, the sweat, the concentration, and the work. During these performances there is a lot of interactions between the artists and the audience. We shake their hands, and say hi. In the end, I think when the audience views the artists on stage they feel much more connected to the performers.”
Venisse believes that the immersive experience of the outdoor theatre provides a significant contrast to the indoor events at the festival. “This show is quite different from other performances in a big top or in a theatre. We wanted to break the 4thwall. Wherever you sit, wherever you are, it will always reach you.”
At the outdoor shows I experienced artists running through the crowd, performing hand-to-hand, and a series of hand balancers performing on different levels of a four-story stage. In their 2013 production of Babel, the massive cast of artists embodied the multiplicity and disparate dialects, which are scattered across the globe after the tower of Babel is destroyed. However, in the 2014 revised version Babel Remix, artists work to rebuild the tower, emphasizing their connectivity, rather than differences. As Venisse notes, “we have all these performers from around the world, most of them don’t speak either French or English, but the common language we have is circus.”
Fracas, which Venisse describes as “a rupture, a large storm, or an éclair (lightning bolt),” contains a large range of action across four stages. Fracas is comprised of 35 acrobats and 30 citizens, artists without circus backgrounds who are part of the show. . Venisse explains that his work in Fracas “is not really a story, but a journey through emotions and images, united by the idea of space before and after the rupture.”
To me, the most powerful part of the show this year was the music. Famous composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Dance Macabre was interwoven throughout the entire piece, giving Fracas a powerful sense of unity.
“The piece contains a wonderful and horrifying image: death as the violin which comes to wake the dead so they may dance the whole night. This idea seems very close to our world right now; it is as beautiful as it is dramatically sad.”
The commitment to artistic images through both music and movement function very well in Fracas. The show, crafted not merely to be accessible to a large audience, provides an equal focus on art with the expectation that art itself can communicate to a large audience of people gathered on the street. “It’s not just an easy, entertaining show,” notes Venisse. “This work is truly representative of the quality of the festival, where we can bring excellence just as we’re trying to bring subtlety.”
After having seen my fair share of circus shows that claim to appeal to a mass audience by using empty pop idioms or “easy to relate” concepts, street theatre as art is often incredibly rare and valuable in its desire to communicate something meaningful and universal to its audience.
Montreal Complétement Cirque is the only large international circus festival of its kind in North America, making it a very unique event for the North American circus scene. As Venisse explains, “I feel incredibly grateful to be part of this festival, this beautiful gift that we all offer to each other. I don’t know if the people of Montreal realize how much they are offering themselves through the festival — featuring so many amazing performers of international quality. It to me is something priceless and so human and we can share that with everyone.”
Emily Halliwell-MacDonald has a Masters degree from Queen’s University in English Literature and is soon to begin a Doctorate at The University of Toronto. She has a peer-reviewed publication in the Fortnightly Review and is the winner of numerous academic scholarships and awards, including an essay contest run through the University of Kansas. In addition to her academic work, she has worked in Toronto as an aerialist since 2009. She has taught acrobatics and pilates for Herciniarts collective, Twisted Circus, and Big Top Circus at the Canadian National Exhibition.
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