An unusual initiative for cultural journalists just wrapped its second edition in Montréal. Circus Stories, Le cirque vu par … is modelled on a European residency called Unpack the Arts and is designed to offer arts journalists an immersive crash course in circus culture. Although the European version no longer operates, Circus Stories Montréal is going strong … for the time being at least. At the time of our visit to the Canadian capital of circus culture, arts organizations in Québec — including our hosts the national circus network En Piste, the festival Montréal Complètement Cirque, and even the venerated National Circus School and TOHU performance space/community centre for circus arts — were trying to process recent provincial funding cuts to the tune of ten to twelve percent across the board. Executives such as Christine Bouchard, En Piste’s newly installed directrice générale (she’s been in the job four months), are worried they may have to cut programming, and spend many additional hours reflecting on priorities and trajectories in light of the new funding landscape. Circus arts came relatively late to the government funding party, so fears about losing what has been so hard fought to gain are understandable.
This year’s residency took place July 1-5, with participants travelling from as far away as Chicago and Victoria, to be introduced to contemporary circus and learn a bit about the rich traditions, history and innovations of this often misunderstood art form. Mediated by French cultural consultant Yohann Floch, ten of us came together as a group with diverse backgrounds: Calgary Herald critic Stephen Hunt, dance writer Robin Miller from Victoria writers Rebecca Galloway, Maxime D-Pomerleau and Crystal Chan from Montréal, arts reporter Josiane Desloges from Québec City, radio journalist Janie Mallet from Moncton, N.B., and scholar Roy Gomez-Cruz and writer/circus educator Kim Campbell, both from Chicago. And me, from the unlikely circus hub of Toronto (see The Dance Current’s “The Greatest Show on Earth: Redefining Circus for the Twenty-First Century” by Molly Johnson for some reasons why).
We were brought to Montréal to experience the sixth annual Montréal Complètement Cirque, a festival of contemporary circus, i.e., not the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey kind. Canada’s national circus arts network, En Piste, tasked with building on the (relatively) new status and popularity of circus arts in Canada, wanted us to learn the vocabulary and history of contemporary circus and spread the word. To that end, we listened to background lectures on evolution and trends in circus culture and toured institutions such as the Cirque du Soleil headquarters, TOHU and the National Circus School, and the studios of Cirque Éloize in Old Montréal. We also watched shows ranging from the bearded electro-trad mayhem of Cirque Alfonse to the thoughtful durational performance/contortionist work of Andréane Leclerc. And, of course, we indulged in argument and discourse — in bars late at night and, more formally, at group discussions guided by Floch the next morning. More often than not, there was a third discussion following interviews with the artists in question. It was tiring but instructive.
Besides taking away a new general appreciation for artistry in circus and contact info for a handful of new friend/colleagues, here are a few of my highlights of the four-day residency:
· Leaving Théâtre Espace Go after a performance of David Bobee’s Warm (in which an actress and two hand-to-hand acrobats perform in fifty-degree heat and blinding lights) to walk down St. Laurent in the cool evening air and join the throng of jazz fans listening to free outdoor concerts at Place des Arts.
· Watching Rowan Heydon-White of Australia’s Circa company successfully complete a Rubik’s cube while part of a balancing frenzy with her colleagues in Beyond.
· Lunching at Cirque du Soleil’s company canteen where coffee is free if you bring a mug, vegan options abound and tables are bussed collectively.
· All too briefly touring the fabulous library at the National Circus School under the watchful eye of archivist Anna-Karyna Barlati, a passionate advocate for the preservation of circus history. It’s open to the public and there’s an online portal.
The arts writers have all returned home, but the residency will officially culminate in the online publication of Circus Stories later this summer; each of us is contributing a 2000 word essay on some aspect of our experience in Montréal. The hardest part of this, we have agreed, is settling on which of the avalanche of ideas sparked by the residency to write about. Stay tuned.