• You can look, but with your eyes shut: the Quebecois circus

    Montreal's École nationale de cirque | Photo: Valerie Remise


    'This is the hat room.' The group shuffles round and strafes in that way to get a view through the window's narrow aperture: rows of long workbenches and sewing machines, fabric, mannequins. In a glass case by the door there's a small display of hats, or more broadly headgear, one item supporting long wavy bat ears and another stretched out in green-yellow, textured lizard skin. The guide is telling us that they employ fifty artisan hat-makers here, full-time.

    It's difficult to know where you are, at a given moment. Cirque du Soleil's Saint-Michel 'studio' has been extended several times over since the 1997 initial build and is now seven floors sprawling over 75,000m2 grounds. Near the entranceway we see the CDS trophy case (on rotation except for the Clown they won in Monte Carlo in 1989, which has pride of place) and a purgatorial induction hall where new hires spend a four-month period training into their new role, watched over from on high by a casting office with a window onto the space. Soon after that my weak sense of direction is lost, and the tour becomes a surreal journey through room after room – the cafeteria where non-English-speaking artists can order through a picture kiosk; the cluster of costume workshops where they employ 400 people, buying rolls of white lycra to screenprint or handpaint in-house; the packed fabric room with swatches of every material the company has access to. 2500 people work on-site.

    From the start we're told not to take photographs because of the problems with copyright clearance, and it feels a little like visiting a military facility where there's a new kind of reactor you're not allowed to know about or record – except here it's the upcoming show Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL, which is being choreographed or rehearsed in their main, largest studio. At the closed entrance there's a security guard sitting at a desk with people's camera-enabled phones arrayed and labelled. ACCÈS LIMITÉ on the doors.1

    The guide leads us on. There's art everywhere in the halls – they invite artists to exhibit with the agreement that at the end of the exhibition Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil's founder and CEO, will buy one of the works for his private collection. On one landing there are white, eyeless heads on pedestals. Our guide tells us these are casts of the heads of performers, and that though there are just a few here that somewhere (we don't go there) there's a storage area with the heads of every artist to have ever appeared in a Cirque du Soleil show.2 He tells us sanguinely that people used to faint because you can't see or hear anything during the casting process, so now they read the face with a laser.

    Finally, we take a lift. The twist at the end of the tour, in case by this point you're not truly and perhaps irredeemably boggled, is to be taken to the top floor of the tower, where the walls are glass and there's a lounge conference room empty except for some tasteful seating, a shining piano, and a conical rain funnel that spears down from roof to floor, where we're invited to look out over several hundred feet of grey flat roofs at uneven levels. Look, says the guide, the far right corner is where you started.

    Where to start

    Maybe it's just who I know and who I talk to, but what I've gathered is that the industry, most of it, hates Cirque du Soleil. Or thinks that their shows are as deep and coherent as a glass of water. Or would sooner consume a soundtrack CD than listen to it. At best: grudging respect for the might of their global empire. There's this cloudy mass of rumours surrounding the company's treatment of employment practice and contract termination, and its allegedly free and easy relationship with (other people's) creative copyright. But, then, as well, if you're a small company that's struggling financially it cuts deep to be shown another that's now annually grossing somewhere around 1 billion dollars – a billion dollars! – a company which in a relatively short length of time has become the giant, inescapable public face3 of the artform which they (the CDS contras) feel it (CDS) inadequately represents.

    In the UK there's nothing remotely comparable in scale or ethos. In Sweden there's Cirkus Cirkör. In Montreal there are two other large companies in the sector: Cirque Éloize and Les 7 Doigts de la Main. The first Éloize troupe (7 of them too) came out of Montreal's circus school, the École nationale de cirque, and banded together to form the company in the early 90s, still very young, the two artist founders (Jeannot Painchaud and Daniel Cyr) having done a brief stint working for Cirque du Soleil; for Les 7 Doigts, a similar story: they worked for Cirque du Soleil before setting up on their own in 2002. For European audiences these three companies are Quebecois circus: they're all we see.

    And to certain palates these three big companies create shows that are fundamentally the same. They're on different scales (though even the smallest, Les 7 Doigts, are big by European standards, employing fourteen full-time staff in their office and currently touring six productions simultaneously), and they're at different stages of development, but they share a working method in creating shows where the performers aren't really the authors or owners of the work: artists get swapped out and in, perhaps even the entire cast changes, and everything goes on more or less the same. This isn't necessarily bad, but it's a different way of making theatre to a devised/collective approach that puts the performer at the centre of the work as its motor and heart, an approach which, in live performance in the UK at least, has gained enormously in traction and strength in the last decade to infiltrate education, production and public consciousness at all levels – even though in market share, with a couple exceptions, it's still getting thrashed by plays and musicals and Cirque du Soleil at the Albert Hall.

    This way of working, hiring artists as contracted employees, suits size (of performance and company), suits long-running franchised work, suits bland replication (do the same thing but with different people, different costumes – new show!), suits headline directors (e.g. Robert Lepage directing for CDS) and shows wrapped around totemic pop culture icons (e.g. MJ THE IMMORTAL), suits employee disposability. In a way, it suits success – both in the sense that it mechanises the production of live performance on an immense scale (CDS has about 3000 employees around the world, and 22 shows touring all over), and in the sense that, if ownership is clear cut, then at least you know who gets the royalties.

    There's some excellent, canny business being done, and it's very impressive when you see the facilities or hear the numbers, but the question that the Montreal scene really poses – and perhaps in its current shape begins to answer – is whether or not it's possible for a company that's founded on the artistic input of all its members to retain that ideal – which realistically is time-consuming and difficult and high-risk – in the face of massive revenue and personnel growth, plus the frightening overheads of a business which, like any business, can be knocked out at the bottom like a house of cards.

    When you talk to the people – let's call them circus professionals – who've been in this game awhile and you start asking them about memorable/astounding/pivotal shows, it might be a surprise to hear Cirque du Soleil come up, and come up often – but there's no doubt that their early productions were a revelation for many that saw them, and that the company blazed a sort of trail in its attempts to integrate narrative into circus performance. Still – those same people who carry a charmed memory of the company two decades ago will gladly slate their current output, and particularly the continued shambling non-life of shows that have lost all their original, devising cast but have been iterated down the years with the same choreography and style – the character minus the person, like a creepy Hitchcock fantasy – and I've never heard anyone argue against the obvious fact that Cirque du Soleil has traded away its radical status in exchange for an unparalleled position as the world's best and biggest wet, lavish, dumb entertainment.

    I think that maybe in Europe most people working in contemporary circus see Cirque du Soleil now as outmoded and irrelevant – a phenomenon, but one with little bearing on the current course of the artform. But, in Montreal, it's important to realise that they're central and critical – a driving force behind the sector's development, a wealthy patron, and the historical antecedent of a clear, sparse lineage.

    City of...

    The Cité des arts du cirque takes up a whole block downtown of Montreal's Saint-Michel district, a borough which, back in the late 90s when work on the Cité started, was considered one of Montreal's 'sensitive' areas – meaning low income families, high unemployment, high crime rates, a large minority/immigrant population, and future prospects tending toward zero. It was also next to what back then was North America's largest landfill – an old limestone quarry that had been mined out in the 60s to provide the materials for the city's Metro and that subsequently became a major dumping ground (it was $100 per tonne to dump rubbish there, but with a special $10 rate for US cities, so all this garbage got imported from New York, where they've the worst garbage). In 1988 the City of Montreal bought the site and launched a long-term plan to reform it as a 192 hectare park. The landfill was covered over and a facility installed to siphon the gas rising off the underground rubbish and convert it into energy. Now, in 2011, part of the site has already opened as a park, and the rest will be finished in stages over the next ten years.4

    The Cité is directly next door: a sort of cultural centre for circus arts that houses the Cirque du Soleil HQ and their artist accommodation, the dedicated circus venue La TOHU (more on that later), and Montreal's famous circus school, the École nationale de cirque. The École is, well, incredible; we5 had a tour courtesy of the school's executive director, Marc Lalonde, and though the bulk of the adult students were away for the summer, we filed into the edges of training rooms, went down to the main studio (goodness!) and up the eight floors of the place to the school library (ever the fate of institutional libraries to be up a hundred stairs...). And while I guess the edge was taken off by the visit to the Cirque du Soleil space earlier in the day, taken on its own the building's certainly enough to leave you reeling: open 7 days a week, with around 100 staff, 150 students, 4 full-time riggers, and a 6 million dollar annual budget. There's a circus high-school in the building as well. Lalonde opened a door for us and gestured toward a science lab with Bunsen burner gas taps running down laminate desktops. They take students at 12-17 yrs full-time (there's also a 9-13 yrs programme, but extracurricular) because that way they can get young Quebecois/Canadians into circus training at a fairly young age and, in that way, give some North American applicants a chance of making it through the diploma course's fierce, meritocratic selection procedure.

    On the diploma, the École allows its students to specialise but at the same time has them trained across a full spectrum of skills – so they can e.g. focus on juggling but will at least become competent as an acrobat. The lion's share of a student's time is spent training for, developing and rehearsing their 'épreuve synthèse' – basically a single skills piece, around seven minutes in length, that they can sell on graduation. Aside from pure technical training, this takes up by far the main share of their time. A couple of hours a week go to working on an ensemble piece (which a student told me is 'generally considered a chore'), and towards the end of the spring work narrows in on producing the end of year show, which is a show in the sense that it loosely ties together the individual pieces the students have been working on in the manner of all end of year spectacles everywhere.

    The reputation of the school in Europe is tied up with the Quebecois image composed by CDS, Les 7 Doigts and Cirque Éloize – it's seen by some (who probably haven't visited, but these things don't have to be fair) as a sort of preparatory school for these companies. The 50 in-house milliners and the lycra printing workshop are if nothing else signs of CDS' desire to control manufacture, and a cynical and simplistic view is that in the École they've found a convenient way to produce employees – young, high-skill artists who are after all exposed to the company throughout their education (which for some can be twelve years, if they go from the primary school programme to the high school, then straight into the undergraduate course). That's not the whole story, but the massive weight that the École puts on the production of the épreuve synthèse – essentially a unit of performance that can be slotted easily into a cabaret, showcase or spectacle format – does have its roots in the dominance of large-scale companies and their production methods.

    The school will tell you it's independent from Cirque du Soleil; well, sort of. Between 2002 and 2006 Cirque du Soleil donated $1,250,000 to the school, but arguably that sort of connection isn't the most significant. The school could choose to reject further grants and survive well enough: it's funded approximately 10% through donations, and of course has other supporters. But money is just one influence; others are status, space, exposure and precedent. Being across the road from the world's biggest and most famous and wealthiest circus company, where many of your peers have gone to work (Lalonde tells us that 'only 30%' of students go on to work for CDS in the first five years after graduation), lays down a sort of heavily signposted, well-maintained track. That doesn't have to be a big deal. It wouldn't be better to have a circus school in the desert, away from everyone, and it's not right to read the involvement of CDS as in all cases some sort of taint. Cirque du Soleil and the École I'm sure have a complex relationship and complex feelings toward each other – in so far as you can even talk about them as two entities rather than structured groups of thousands/hundreds of employees – and the question becomes what sorts of alternative tracks the school and the larger sector see fit to provide.

    It's an especially pertinent question because from what I hear, and the small amounts I see, things are starting to change at the École: the aesthetic of the work produced by the students has developed markedly in the last five years or so. Go back before that and you'll find some plain, high-level spectacle, but take a look now and among those seven-minute solos you'll see work that covers a much more diverse range of styles – work that's more eloquent and secretive and meaningful, with much greater awareness of and responsiveness to the contemporary spectrum. Lalonde also spoke to us briefly but stirringly and authentically on the lack of circus directors in the Quebecois scene, and how, whatever the talents and offers of a theatre or dance director, they make fundamentally different work than someone who comes from the artform and who knows it intimately. It's not a matter of shutting the doors and isolating circus, he said, but of giving it all the tools necessary for independence, and putting it on a level where it can approach other artforms in equal partnership – for the sake of artistic development, and for the strength of identity that brings status and political respect.

    Of course, as well, when you start to train directors, and alongside artists, they're going to want to form companies. Where can those companies go? Outside of the formal schedule of the visit I got to talk to a couple of current students at the École. They told me that they felt isolated from the scene in Europe, and that when some of their friends participated in the FEDEC presentations at Festival Circa last year it became abundantly clear that the students from the other schools thought they were a bunch of Cirque clones and shallow, made-up wankers who'd sold their integrity downriver – this in spite of the fact that they too feel like work coming out of the school is developing aesthetically. Their attitude toward Cirque du Soleil seems to be to ridicule them as an artistic company, but accept their offers of employment. Cirque Éloize get more respect, and a good number of students audition for the company each year. Les 7 Doigts apparently don't hold auditions and instead just sort of swoop in and take a block of students when they want to make a new show, and all the other students, the unchosen, just sort of know which ones will be the next Fingers like it's a cult or a ritual thing. They, the students I spoke to, reckoned they weren't right for any of the big three companies, but that they'd take a place if they were offered it because after all a job's a job, and that if they didn't get offered one they'd probably do what a lot of students from Montreal end up doing and go to Germany to perform in cabaret. I asked them about making their own work, and was told that they had some friends who'd hired out a theatre and used their own money to put on a show, and that there were some new students at the École who were enthusiastic and organised about forming a collective, but they weren't sure what support there was or what they could apply for.6

    An interlude of numbers

    We're heading up in the museum-size lift to the 15th floor of a beetle-black government tower off the Place d’Armes – centrally located in a sort of warren of port-side streets narrowed by the accumulation on either side of vendors selling I Heart Montreal t-shirts and other fine wares – to meet with a couple representatives of CALQ (the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec) and the Ministry of Communications and Culture.

    The rep from the MCC (actually, natively, the MCCCF – Ministère de la Culture, Communications et Condition féminine) gives a by rote presentation – of the 32 Powerpoint slides, two address circus, and one of those is the cover. What we do get though is a picture of how the performing arts have a small market inside of Quebec and depend instead on international touring, and how in supporting this outside touring the government is keen to brand companies as Quebecois and to organise events around national identity – making them 'ambassadors' of the culture. Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Éloize, Les 7 Doigts and Montréal Complètement Cirque are the bullets on circus' Powerpoint slide. There's no mention of anyone else.

    On the way out though we pick up the CALQ Rapport Annuel de Gestion 2009-2010, and the archives for previous years are online, so there's no need to guess. In the 2001-2010 period CALQ funded circus for $7,256,334, all-in, and in these nine years supported only twelve artistic companies across the categories of Operations, Production, Distribution within Quebec, and Distribution Outside Quebec; in this timespan approximately 63% of all subvention went to just two companies, Cirque Éloize and Les 7 Doigts.7 Some of that money for Éloize will have gone towards renovating their current HQ, and perhaps the argument is that their space benefits the wider community and it's therefore money that filters down to the grassroots, but in that case Éloize are the filter – controlling resources that should be administered and distributed (ideally, if you're with me, for a moment) by an impartial, informed and visionary public body whose responsibility is to ensure the health of the artform as an art, not as a business or export product.

    With an incredible network of existing knowledge and experience, training spaces ranging from free to dirt cheap (there are quite a few), CALQ funding that's risen (nearly) year-on-year from $430,596 in 2001-2002 to $1,119,410 in 2009-2010, and one of the best-known schools in the world, where are the new artists and companies? Are they now on the brink of coming forward and claiming funding for their own, independent projects, or do they find themselves inevitably subsumed into the activities of the big existing players?

    Another trip took us to the Conseil des arts de Montréal and their ornate, embassy-like home, the Édifice Gaston-Miron, to meet executive and deputy directors Danielle Sauvage and Nathalie Maillé, plus Claude Des Landes, the Conseil's cultural advisor for theatre and circus arts. In 2008 the Conseil opened a programme, i.e. a budget line, for the circus arts, awarding $25,000 that inaugural year (to En Piste (a national circus development agency), Cirque Éloize and Les 7 Doigts), increasing this to $34,000 for 2009. In 2010 the Conseil allocated $62,952 to circus,8 nearly double the figure from 2009 yet still just 0.6% of its total budget (by comparison dance rocked 15.6%); nonetheless Danielle told us Montreal likes to consider itself the 'circus capital of the world'. And in that meeting she said it in a wry and self-aware sort of way, but it became clear over the next few days that for many people it's just a fact, a given. I'm not interested to argue the point, or to suggest an alternative capital of circus and thereby legitimise the idea of one – but it's an example of the attitude and language that seems to be prevalent in the Montreal scene, where things are the world's best, the world's first, the world's biggest. It's casual and ingrained for some to talk about Montreal circus this way, and I think that if there were a way to trace back the origin of the sorts of phrases that routinely crop up then you'd find yourself, eventually, in the marketing department.

    Money can't buy you love

    One of my old teachers performed with Cirque du Soleil around the time they were first emerging on the world stage, and whenever she talked about the company's rise to fame she always credited as an important catalyst the work of an absolutely white-hot marketing/press department. That was a long time ago, but working for various arts publications/sites at various times and in various roles I can testify, still, to their almost eerie ability to get in contact with you.

    Aside, though, from the traditional forms of marketing that are the most visible face of CDS' publicity (cf the city-wide poster storm that heralds the arrival of any Cirque show), they're taking lateral actions to maintain their image and status as the world's biggest/best circus (which, among the general public, is more or less undisputed). The Cité des arts du cirque is key to this, a kind of moat around their core business, and alongside that there's the venue they helped to found, La TOHU.

    La TOHU opened in the Cité des arts du cirque in 2004. It's run by an organisation which was founded (this gets a little confusing) in 1999 as the Cité des arts du cirque by a threeway partnership of the École nationale de cirque, En Piste and Cirque du Soleil, but which rebranded in 2004 as TOHU. So: TOHU is the organisation (and sometimes is used as the name of the cluster of organisations based at Saint-Michel – also called the Cité des arts du cirque), and La TOHU is the venue (a big roundhouse).

    It's also part of the wider Saint-Michel redevelopment, and with this in mind La TOHU has three interconnected programmes shaping its activities: a Circus Arts Programme, an Environmental Programme (they essentially act as an ambassador for the Saint-Michel Environmental Complex, the organisation in charge of the park project but also the name of the area – told you all this was confusing), and a Community Development Programme (TOHU work with local citizens on various projects – while we were there it was on a big wooden sculpture for a Spanish-style festival of incineration).

    La TOHU itself is a beautiful venue. The main roundhouse is 42 metres in diameter and 20 metres high, with adaptable seating that can take up to 850 audience members. An exterior staircase has been fashioned from materials salvaged from an old funfair, wood sidings painted with wavy multicolour stripes and studded by lights, and inside there's a permanent exhibition of circus artefacts running around part of the diameter of the base. What slowly dawns on you though is that La TOHU's building doesn't have any smaller spaces: it's got this immense hall, but then it has to rent a rehearsal/training studio from the École.9 You have to be big to fill the space, and up until 2009 the economics of the set-up dictated a model that saw them present four or five major shows a year (alongside free/community/outdoor events) in two- or three-week runs.

    If you look at the lists of companies that have used the residency space at the École you'll find some local artists and companies, but mostly they're not on the scale where they can transfer over into that main hall. They can perform in a regular theatre perhaps, and En Piste has produced a fairly extensive list of spaces in the city that are suitable for circus performance, but what are you saying if experimental, new, small-scale work is pushed out of the artform's central stronghold? Is it a Cité des arts du cirque or is it a palace?

    It feels to me like La TOHU is a venue formulated on a very large scale, with a lot of money – a key piece in Saint Michel's arranged diorama, sending a message of power, size and influence – a venue that befits the Montreal circus, and a mirror pointing back inward to its central image. Now, in 2011, the organisation TOHU is shifting its position to address the sector-wide weaknesses that this lack of finesse embodies, but, as a building, it remains a venue designed to support the limited status quo rather than fully address the lack of resources for young, new creators – which is a funny thing to think when you realise that the output of the larger companies in Montreal is directed by a creative obsession with youth.

    Young and eligible

    On trips to the 7 Fingers offices and Éloize's home10 we met, among others, Gypsy Snider and Patrick Léonard (founding Fingers) and Jeannot Painchaud (CEO and artistic director of Éloize). They were gracious and generous hosts, and honest speakers (Jeannot especially about the responsibilities that come with running a large company), but one of the things I was struck by was how both companies talked about youth, Gypsy telling us that Les 7 Doigts were 'interested in working with young, new circus performers' and Jeannot saying that Éloize's current show, iD, was in part an attempt to capture an idea of youth and energy.

    If you've seen the 7 Doigts show Traces it's fairly obvious what they're trading off: an idea of beauty that's clean and young and twenty-something and academically exceptional (where the academic measure is circus); I'd call it all-American, but maybe it's all-Canadian. It's more or less the concept that the company harnessed with their first show, made and performed by the founding members, Loft – which much like the early CDS productions was considered quite progressive in its day but now looks dated and tired. Psy had more of a frame (which I didn't care for), but uses its young cast in the same way. Now it's as though for each new show they just pull a fresh bunch of performers from the École – photogenic, cute, saleable.

    Is the show that a set of newly-inducted Fingers make with the company the same as the one they'd make on their own? No. Is it better? Maybe; it depends what you mean by better. But if you watch the École now you'll sometimes see that depressing thing of a great graduation piece – one or two artists who just have a manner, a character, a style, something inborn and attractive and good – which a year later reappears in a CDS show, and everything that made the piece theirs has been scrubbed away, and they're behind three hours of make-up, and actually now they're monkeys, representing perhaps a dream of evolution in the incoherent non-world some ridiculous princess has fallen inside.

    I think Les 7 Doigts wouldn't want to be compared to Cirque du Soleil, and I think also they'd object to the idea that their current way of working isn't artist-centred. Gypsy in fact said to us that if the company bring a new cast member into a production then they'll 'completely change the show', saying that they might, for example, swap out a juggling act for some diabolo. Make of that what you will; I'd say it's a telling comment concerning the company's attitude toward incorporation and theatrical structure, and an insight into their conception of exactly what elements 'make' a show.

    For the artists I guess Les 7 Doigts are good for a contract, but as the company mechanically iterate on a successful template the question, again, is whether or not there's a true variety of choice and opportunity in Montreal, and whether or not the public money that's gone into circus has strengthened the artform or the business interests that surround it. For all that they have different characters, maybe different styles, the big three companies are running similar large-scale, global operations – a model that originates with Cirque du Soleil. Five years ago CDS actually bought out Cirque Éloize founders Daniel Cyr and Julie Hamelin and are shareholders in the company; Jeannot told us they had no artistic involvement, but, then, that's not what they want or need.

    And of course there's actually nothing sinister about that. Cirque du Soleil is a very large business engaged in competitive action – which in this case involves diversification through acquisition, and elsewhere means protecting assets (e.g. copyright, or the shows themselves, as running things) through litigation, aggressive expansion, the cultivation of high-level personal relationships, the relentless defence of a judiciously cropped self-image, and the sort of rigorous contingency planning that, in the end, translates everything into numbers in boxes. It might be sort of galling, but business is business.

    Breaking ground, breaking apart

    So enter Montréal Complètement Cirque. The festival opened in 2010 with over $3 million of local and government funding and the aim of developing the sector and further positioning Montreal as a circus arts capital.11 It's organised and run by TOHU and as such it's centred on their venue but shaped by its limited facilities: the big shows are at the main hall and the other work is scattered across the city's multidisciplinary theatre venues. There's also some stuff sited outdoors (I saw some flying trapeze workshops on the quayside and a sort of circus flash mob intervention with École students doing some performance atop a building at a busy main-street intersection), plus Compagnie Rasposo were in a chapiteau on the grounds outside La TOHU for basically the whole of July.

    Part of the idea of the festival is that it will advance the artform, and with regards to that task it seems to me that it's in the odd position that it both exemplies the current state of play and has the potential to throw the game. One objective of the overall mission is to represent Montreal's circus companies internationally, and the 2011 programme had two of the familiar ones – Les 7 Doigts and Cirque du Soleil12 – but also L'impro Cirque (improv circus battles – really disappointed I wasn't able to see it), Cirque Carpe Diem (doing the quayside flying), Throw 2 Catch (circus street arts), Les Parfaits Inconnus (a clown duo who've been around a while), and Cirque Alfonse. Among those Cirque Alfonse are an interesting one, and perhaps represent a direction the festival would like to head in. They're a group of performers whose core members previously worked with Éloize but broke off to produce a show of their own, TIMBER!, made during a residency in a wood cabin and using logs, saws and planks of wood in place of traditional circus equipment. I saw it as a preview, so I won't say much more than I think there's a good show somewhere inside of what I saw, which might by now have emerged, and that I think it excited a lot of people as a circus-theatre piece that was really aiming for a different aesthetic and mood, something purposefully small-scale and lo-fi and homely – an ambitious form of anti-ambition.

    For all though that it might present showcase opportunities for companies who've somehow found a route to making work, I don't think MCC is really a festival for artists. Its not their priority to engage local artists/students (many of whom are actually away working contracts in the summer) and there's no CPD programme running alongside to give them the chance to mix with presenting companies in workshop scenarios. MCC's formation was jointly the work of, and stop me if this sounds familiar, Cirque Éloize, Les 7 doigts de la main, Cirque du Soleil, the École nationale de cirque and En Piste, with TOHU taking the lead, and if you looked at it cynically you might think that in creating the festival they were trying to buy prestige and respect. I guess that's a part of it, and a part, as well, of what cities do in their efforts to attract tourists. Similar to La TOHU, it's a massive operation, constituted with an enormous amount of money, and further evidence that building big brings its own limitations.

    What's interesting, though, is that at the same time as its strengthening the image of Montreal as a capital of circus it's inevitably going to complicate that idea by exposing audiences – and, if they're there, artists – to aesthetics and modes, coming out of other countries and continents, that are so different in scope and execution that they can be read as a radical challenge to the (you might suddenly feel) artistically anaemic and genetically incestuous work that's common at home. (And if all that's going on, necessarily, outside Saint-Michel, then the decentralising, destabilising effect will be all the stronger.) It perhaps sounds sort of patronising to suggest that sections of the industry in Montreal are oblivious to the outside world, but as part of our official rounds we met a couple of people in Montreal who thought MCC was the first/only international circus festival, even though our group, the members of which they had previously been introduced to, itself contained the directors of about half a dozen more.

    Other than the festival, the player with the most potential to disrupt the system seems to me to be the École. On the last day in Montreal we paid a visit to the University of Concordia, and specifically The Montreal Working Group on Cirque/Circus, a loose collection of academics coordinated by Dr Louis Patrick Leroux that's spent the last year, its first year, focused on studying Cirque du Soleil, producing among other things a set of papers collected in a special edition of the academic journal L'Annuaire. I'll admit to balking/twitching upon hearing that they'd spent all that time on only CDS (and it doesn't help that there's some disambiguation needed for the phrase 'the cirque', which seems to be used interchangeably within the group to mean 'Cirque du Soleil' and 'the circus', which is all kinds of problematic), but some of their sociological/business angles I thought sounded very interesting – particularly the one from Dr Tracy Zhang, which is looking at Cirque du Soleil's global recruitment strategies and which has the potential to be useful and inciting research.

    Their first year the Working Group was housed within Concordia's Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Society and Culture; now they're looking to transfer over to Concordia's Hexagram Institute for Research/Creation in Media Arts and Technologies. We got shown around the Hexagram building by site manager Joel Taylor, who had that vibe which you get quite often in academic science of an impressively functional mind, and who took us to look at the Institute's 3D printer (which got an exciting introduction, and was exciting, fundamentally, though the table displaying its current output of small items basically looked like baked Fimo), a recording studio, a robotic loom that translates code into woven patterns, and a black box studio that's set up for some serious mixed media experimentation.

    Concordia and the École are now planning to ask the federal government for around $200,000 to develop a partnership between the two institutions to explore 'specialised knowledge retention in circus arts training and practice for performers and pedagogues; the dissemination of circus-related knowledge through academic and industry channels; and widening the scope and encouraging dynamic academic approaches to studying the circus arts (through research-creation, experimental practices, economic geography, sociology, and other complimentary disciplines)'. To my eyes that last one is the really interesting one, focusing as it does on circus dramaturgy, and I imagine entailing some level of access to the expertise of the department and perhaps the use of their black box. I don't think the idea would be for the circus artists to use the 3D printer or programme the robo-weaver, but I'd guess part of the reason behind the Hex's constitution is to put two very different milieus – art and science – together to see what might arise through friction and accident,13 and it's exactly that kind of asymmetry and challenge that's missing from the nuclear family at Saint-Michel. It seems, potentially, like a very good partnership: the Working Group get closer contact with the subject of their study; the École get access to the facility, and I'm curious whether their interest in the Institute's knowledge and resources is partly looking ahead to their circus directors project. What other plans might they have in that direction? New languages, outside perspectives, opportunities for informal performance – they might be in the process of assembling a very different kind of programme.

    And I'd say that something different is needed. Montreal right now is an island, a powerbase, a strange sort of a family where internal frictions are hidden or smoothed over by business arrangements. All the above is in danger perhaps of painting a contrasting picture of Europe as, in circus terms, a mysterious, high-tech far-flung future, or some sort of walled garden of unending delights. Well, here in the UK we've our own problems of homogeneity, though the key influencers and stakeholders come in different forms, and across Europe there are at least some promoters who are frustrated by the international festival circuit's uniform convergence on 'successful' shows (they programme the same things, and the same sorts of things), and perhaps there's a chance for the Quebecois circus to forge another kind of international touring circuit by the creation of their own aesthetic – an aesthetic which may come from cabins in the woods, or from out the labs of Concordia University, but at this point can only emerge with the collaboration of independently minded and ambitious artists supported by the right people, in the right places, in the most generous ways. A little iconoclasm and risk-attraction wouldn't go amiss, and as a new identity takes shape the best outcome might require some dissatisfied Saint-Michel students to make a few imperious demands or commit radical/satiric provocations rather than resign themselves to the fact of being outside the system. And alongside this, from all parties, it needs an enlightened recognition of the fact that if you're taken under the wing of an organisation you risk becoming a wing of the organisation, effectively or categorically; that small actions can outdo large ones; and that if you want to break new ground you might have to break apart.

    John Ellingsworth visited Montreal 10-15 July 2011 with the support of Montréal Complètement Cirque, and as part of Circostrada Network's Explore Third Countries programme.


    1 I had a look at a training schedule on a cork board and can EXCLUSIVELY reveal that most of their training is taken up by something that we have to hope is only nicknamed 'Dance Machine'.

    2 I chose to imagine a basement and that film-effect of strip lights flicking on in turn, shelved lines of these heads going back and back.

    3 The face is probably a lycra-ed amphibian wearing a feathered headdress; deep cobalt eyeshadow.

    4 We had a tour guide who explained all this to us using a big touchscreen slab in the La TOHU reception (more on that in the main text later), plus took us out to a viewing platform overlooking the park project where one dour member of the group expressed doubt that with a towering, thrumming poison factory looming on the crest of the nearest hill people would be persuaded to picnic in the park or eat the organic produce grown out of its formerly tainted soil. I don't know; I thought it was sort of cool, but perhaps only because it feels like miniature terraforming.

    5 Maybe this is the time to say that the 'we' here is a group of Circostrada Network members who were visiting Montreal under the frame of the festival Montréal Complètement Cirque (more on that in the main text, eventually) and as part of a programme called Explore Third Countries (ETC) where the aim is to expand the Network outside of Europe and foster new connections and collaborations. It's worth mentioning also, while you're down here, that shit gets really serious when you're on the Circostrada train: there's a colour-coded schedule detailing back-to-back meetings with networks, agencies, governmental bodies, etcetera, and it's largely down to this that I got to visit the Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Éloize spaces, the 7 Fingers offices, La TOHU, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, the Conseil des arts de Montréal, &c &c. The different members of the group (mostly programmers or festival directors, of one stripe or another) were funded in different ways w/r/t the expense of the visit; myself I was supported by Montréal Complètement Cirque itself, which was very generous and an honour, but which has made writing this article a fraught and nerve-wracking experience, despite the distance now of some 3000 miles.

    6 Before moving on let's be clear about this down here: if you want to work for Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Éloize or Les 7 Doigts – and there are plenty of reasons why you would – then the École is the best school in the world. If you want high-level technical training, well I don't know, but it's got to be up there. All the students I spoke to had zero complaints about the quality of the technical training (which is miraculous – try asking a circus student at another school the same question).

    7 So $4,549,376 out of $7,256,334. There are two extra categories, 'Professional Artists Associations / National Service Organisations' and 'Individual Grants', with the former going each year in its entirety to En Piste, and the latter split between usually a dozen or so individuals, some of them affiliated with companies, some not, across a number of subcategories marked for research and creation, travel, etcetera. The 63% is including these two streams, so if you took them out the figure would rise quite a bit higher. All these numbers btw come from the CALQ annual reports, where you can see funding broken down by artform and category.

    8 Recipients were Bande Artistique, Cirque Éloize, En Piste, Les 7 Doigts and La TOHU. Also notable for 2011: each year the Conseil has a Grand Prix where a small jury selects a winner from a shortlist of finalists representing different artforms. Each finalist receives a $5000 bursary, with one company getting the Grand Prix of $25,000, and in 2011 it was Éloize who came out on top with their latest show, iD. The Conseil also has a partnership with Cirque du Soleil to give two groups of artists a research and development scholarship/bursary ($5000 per group, from Soleil), an artistic mentor (arranged by TOHU), and career management training (from the Conseil).

    For the record they actually came off as pretty cool, the Conseil. Danielle was surprisingly candid and straight-talking – a character which, delightfully, is echoed in the Conseil's official literature – plus the building incorporates rehearsal rooms that are offered at a heavily subsidised rate: always a good sign, artists and policy-makers under the same roof.

    9 Which Lalonde showed us, and which looks out onto the CDS complex and artist housing. Again: status, space, exposure, precedent.

    10 The Éloize space is remarkably central, an old railway building (the Gare Dalhousie) that actually used to house the École. Nothing's going to seem that big after the Cirque du Soleil space, but it is, still, very large for a single company. It's also quite a lot more charming than the CDS facility, and signals a different, more relaxed character: ramshackle rooms, piles of stuff behind curtains, irregular sofas, wood floors, impromptu decoration (which you're allowed to photograph), old windows, poor heat retention, etcetera, etcetera. Éloize rent it from the city for $1 a year in exchange for handling all the upkeep.

    11 Take a look at the festival site for the language in which they approach this.

    12 Les 7 Doigts had a cabaret which was essentially a showcase for the Next Generation Fingers (I missed this one, but heard they were very clean and very beautiful and very wholesome and a touch bland à la the Traces and Psy crews), but then also, uncharacteristically, Patinoire, a solo by Patrick Léonard which I saw and liked a lot. We were told it was made partly from a desire to have a smaller-scale show that could tour around Quebec/Canada, yet seemed as well to speak of a different line of creative enquiry and a maturing company.

    Cirque du Soleil were a part of the festival, as last year, with their show Totem. It was a little unusual really since they were obviously handling all the administration themselves and the Totem marketing wasn't branded with the MCC style at all. Probably there's a whole story there that will never be (publicly) told.

    13 Take a look at the current research projects – an immersive video installation about Montreal's Grey Nuns, a symphony for 54 shoes, a whole lab for 'developing intelligent cloth structures for the creation of artistic, performative and functional textiles'. Patrick Leroux, who's a playwright/producer/director as well as a scholar, wrote after our visit to say that he's been offered a research lab at the Institute, and that this will double as a sort of base for the Working Group.

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