Reflections from the Montreal Circus Arts Festival
Hosted in a city that prides itself as being the centre of the international circus world, the Montreal Circus Arts Festival carries the expectation to push circus into all kinds of shapes and sizes. Being lucky enough to be there for the 2015 season just this last month, I was looking forward to seeing work that didn’t fit the regular mould of circus clichés and predictable show direction.
However, as the festival events rolled out I couldn’t shake the feeling that Montreal was being upstaged on their home turf. While I know the festival is not a competition, but rather the celebration of many different kinds of circus with a broad variety of applications, it was interesting to note that the companies who were producing the most contemporary, innovative and memorable work were from far flung regions of the world. Regions that are barely on the circus map… and that certainly have a lot less funding, which was inspiring when thinking about the potential ongoing success of our own contemporary circus industry.
Australian contemporary circus is in high demand overseas. But back home, internationally successful companies, such as Circa are only slowly gaining more recognition. Circa is one of the four companies around the country accorded national touring status, whilst still maintaining independent status and receiving a fraction of the funding that heritage companies such as state-based theatres enjoy. I wonder how different it would be if our Australian circus industry received as much as our wealthier circus cousins in Montreal? I also wonder if the raw innovation and the determination particular to Australian circus comes form a place of privilege or does it all spring from the sweat of artists who strive against all odds to be seen and heard on the global stage?
At the Montreal circus arts festival, Australian circus companies are certainly well represented. This year Circa opened the festival to standing ovations at every one of their full house shows at La TOHU. I think what international audiences see in Australian work like Acrobat, Circa, Gravity, and Casus amongst others, is the clear element of risk taking. The acrobatics are stripped back, raw and at times brutal; the aerial acts are modified with unusual combinations of floor and ground skills; the artists are invited to push themselves beyond their limits. The shows are more concerned with taking you on a journey that is not necessarily a narrative or “whimsical” one – it doesn’t need to be magic. Audience come away having had a visceral experience, not a nice fuzzy warm feeling but more of a gut churning, mind buzzing experience to be remembered.
In Circa’s work, for example, Yaron (Circa’s Artistic Director) did not pull his punches. With the artists imitating the characteristics of particular animals it could have easily failed, but the artists found that balance where the audience willingly go along for the bizarre fun-filled and highly dynamic ride. His style can be cerebral at times but it’s also sublime. I can say the same for a whole collection of Australian companies, they all have a different angle, but they all focus on the “raw and edgy” side of circus athletism. They do not lean on old (sad) out-dated circus clichés or stick rigidly to a morally and ethically conservative outlook. Instead of the tired old ‘boy meets girl’ scenario, they have ‘girl balances one boy on shoulders then balances two boys on shoulders’ – because she can. They are not presenting situations on stage that we are overly comfortable with, often audiences are forced to engage with ideas rather than the skills that are used to present those ideas. We have no idea about what is going on in any of Circas shows, but we know there is a form of narrative at play here, and like a David Lynch movie we try our best to work it out as the show unfolds. This essentially keeps us hooked in and engaged.
As with all festivals there are highs and lows, Cirque Alfonse was clearly my highlight of all the local companies with ‘Barbu Foire Electro Trad’ as it delivered what it set out to deliver: traditional circus skills completely chewed up with and spat back on stage for the audience to digest to an electro percussive soundtrack. Innovation for the sake of it with, a stack of radical ideas – some worked some failed, but they were committed, and that was compelling enough to stay engaged. Cirque Alfonse is clearly shaking the ground that is getting stale in Montreal. Interestingly enough, this show is a complete departure from the much loved previous work, ‘Timber!’ and it’s exciting to see how adaptive the company can be in order to stay fresh. Given the rest of the local work though, I wonder about Montreal and it’s place in the contemporary circus landscape; perhaps it is the centre of circus excellence, but it might not be the stronghold of innovation anymore.
A company of rapidly growing renown, Machine de Cirque, had an exciting blaze of highly finessed circus skills in ‘Cirque Machine’ and a smashing live soundtrack. However, for all the testosterone involved, I was left wanting more – I wanted to be moved and I wanted to connect with the show. They presenting a collection of amazing skills but the audience wasn’t moved in any way apart from being “impressed” by the physical skill. These young guns recently graduated from the Montreal Circus School so we expect the skills to be stellar. As an educated, experienced audience at an international circus festival we also expect the direction and conception to be on par with the physicality of the show, and international audiences don’t want to only see amazing circus skills they also want to experience amazing ideas successfully incorporated on stage.
Outside the Montreal and Australian work, a real highlight of the festival was Warm. Hailing from Normandy with ‘Completement Torride!’ Completely Hot! (and Yes we were!) A Male adagio act moved inside a wall of very hot and bright stage lights either side of a small square stage. The temperature reached 45 degrees Celsius and for the entire hour they performed a marathon of skills. They were dripping with sweat, sliding around each other, drinking from pouring water bottles in their mouths, chalk everywhere, sliding and slipping off skin, tricks failing the more exhausted they became in the heat and the light all to an ongoing monologue of a women’s deepest sexual fantasies. This had such a strong effect on the audience, it was direct and to the point. Everyone was talking about this show, this was the push and pull that I had come to witness. The artists were invited by the director to actually miss their tricks, they were deliberately placed into an environment on stage where the accuracy of the skills were compromised. It was terrifying because of the added risk involved but fascinating to watch the danger’s being negotiated. You should catch the work if you can. A company with great circus skills driven by a director that wants to take risks that sees the value in compromising the “tricks” in some way.
It’s always good to get a sense of where the industry is through international community and engagement, and from what I experienced, Australian circus has a sharp upper cut that cannot be ignored. It would be so encouraging to see our Australian circus companies gain the recognition and acknowledgement they all deserve in their own country as much as the rest of the world is clearly willing to give them.
*Aaron Walker has recently returned from the NICA sponsored study tour for second year students sponsored by the Pratt Foundation.