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Montreal embraces the circus arts

An end-of-the-year performance by students at TOHU Pavilion.

David Lyon for the boston globe

An end-of-the-year performance by students at TOHU Pavilion.

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.

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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.

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.

Tohu-bohu indeed

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Last year we were waiting to enter the theater when suddenly the first-year students began to run amok in the lobby, climbing ropes suspended from the rafters, rolling around inside giant hoops, and creating a barely controlled chaos of merriment. It was impossible to take it all in without tagging along. Soon we had all effectively joined the circus, and were ready for the main event.

We filed down a darkened corridor and into the theater space, which really does feel like an indoor big top, with sophisticated lighting and raked seats for excellent sight lines. Each show is different, of course, but the students managed to channel all their raw energy into a focused, disciplined spectacle. As with Cirque du Soleil, the narrative arc was more implicit than explicit, but the loose story line provided both time and space to spotlight individual acts.

The performances flowed one into another. Each segment was so elegant and simple that it was impossible to imagine how many hundreds of hours went into perfecting each move. A juggler alternated several fast-moving rings and a single red umbrella that seemed to float lazily in space. High above the crowd, a young woman flipped and twisted inside a giant ring to the tune of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Two trapeze artists flung themselves through space in a metaphor of relationship dynamics. They pulled together, then pushed apart — all the while having to depend on and trust each other. It was bravura stuff. There were more than a few proud parents in the audience who had long forgotten their initial skepticism. It doesn’t hurt that 95 percent of graduates go straight into circus jobs around the world.

RÉnald laurin/montreal cirque festival

The Montreal Cirque Festival offers many outdoor performances.

When a circus throws a party

The world of circus has been descending on Montreal every July since 2010 for a festival of circus arts that would have thrilled Federico Fellini. The event dubbed Montréal Complètement Cirque is the first international art circus festival in North America. It gets an additional English name this year (Montreal Cirque Festival) as its fifth birthday present.

There are performances at the TOHU Pavilion and in other venues downtown, but the true spirit of circus comes alive in more than 50 free outdoor events, including a daily show with more than 40 acrobats. Many events take place near Place des Arts and rue St-Denis. The festival gets off to a rousing start with a giant street parade of all the participating companies as well as other circuses based in the city.

This year marks the first appearance of a US-based company, as Midnight Circus sets up its own big top on the TOHU grounds. Other highlights of the July 2-19 schedule include a French practitioner of “new magic” who combines juggling with illusionist tricks, and an adults-only show. The schedule kicks off with a family-friendly show at the TOHU Pavilion that was created to celebrate the festival’s fifth anniversary. It is the brainchild of Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand), one of many companies to emerge from Montreal’s circus arts foment.

Samuel Tétreault, a co-founder of Les 7 Doigts and president of En Piste, the national Canadian circus arts network, estimates that there are about 30 smaller circus companies in Montreal and Quebec. Tétreault and four of the company’s co-founders are graduates of the National Circus School and had extensive performing credits before creating Les 7 Doigts.

Last May, as company members literally jumped through hoops and swung through the air at a rehearsal, Tétreault expounded on the rise of what might become the next twist on the new circus, the cirque d’auteur. “We cater to the intellect. We want to be real people onstage — real people who can do extraordinary things,” said Tétreault. “We are normal people with normal problems that we can transcend. Audiences can relate to us.”

In fact, circus is the new normal in Montreal. Tétreault is a member of the second generation of contemporary circus artists. “We have 10 to 20 years of experience. I want to be traveling and performing,” he said. “This is a great life.”

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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