Montreal embraces the circus arts
DAVID LYON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
An end-of-the-year performance by students at TOHU Pavilion.
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon | GLOBE CORRESPONDENTS
APRIL 19, 2014
If you want to run off to join the circus, you don’t have to go very far. Montreal has become the circus capital of North America, and right now, circus season is getting into high gear.
We’re not talking about the jugglers, fire-eaters, and clowns on unicycles you are likely to encounter on Place Jacques-Cartier or Place des Arts on a balmy summer evening. The founders of Cirque du Soleil may have started out 30 years ago as stilt walkers and street performers, but they became famous as proponents of the “new circus.” This arty brew infuses the great clowning and acrobatics traditions with theater, music, dance, and sheer New Age spectacle. It struck a chord with a generation of Quebecois. The artistic and financial success of Cirque du Soleil spawned an industry. Suddenly the young acrobat had a future that didn’t involve teaching gym.
The epicenter of Montreal circus culture is the TOHU campus on the outskirts of the city, where Cirque du Soleil established its international headquarters in 2000. Nearby is the National Circus School (École national de cirque), which was founded in 1981, moved into a new building next to Cirque du Soleil in 2003, and had to expand in 2009. The TOHU Pavilion, with Canada’s only high-tech circular performance space, has been the virtual big top for the campus since 2004. The complex is one of the largest in the world to integrate all aspects of circus arts from training to performance — not bad for an organization whose name, “tohu,” comes from the French term “tohu-bohu,” which translates “hurly-burly” or “hustle-bustle.”
There are shows all year long at the TOHU Pavilion, but none are more anticipated than the productions (May 27-June 8 this year) that feature the advanced and graduating students of the National Circus School. The highly competitive professional school teaches five disciplines of circus arts: acrobatics, aerials, balancing, juggling, and clowning. You might get a glimpse of the concentration and dedication the students bring to their studies if you peek into a gym on your way to the school’s library, one of the world’s great repositories of circus artifacts.
RÉNALD LAURIN/MONTREAL CIRQUE FESTIVAL
The Montreal Cirque Festival offers many outdoor performances.
But the show’s the thing. It’s where students demonstrate their skills, debut their personal acts, and prove they can collaborate to create a full production with a coherent narrative. Going to a performance is nearly full immersion in the exuberance of contemporary circus.