Imagine the people you might encounter on a train. While some might simply be passively traveling from here to there, others might be anticipating a joyful reunion, or mourning a sad goodbye, or perhaps dreaming of a new life as they leave an old one behind.
With its new show “Passengers,” Montreal-based contemporary circus troupe The 7 Fingers creates a community of strangers in transit who express their varying emotional states not by sitting in isolated silence, but through all manner of physical daring — vaulting somersaults, precarious balances, eye-popping shapes suspended midair. The production explores themes of traveling as a metaphor for the ever-changing landscape of life.
The US premiere of “Passengers” opens ArtsEmerson’s 10th anniversary season Sept. 25-Oct. 13 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. It marks the seventh visit to Boston for The 7 Fingers, renowned for its intimate, eclectic fusion of traditional circus arts with leading-edge acrobatics, dance, theater, illusion, and music. Since its founding in 2002, the company has cut a distinctive path by infusing each show with an engaging sense of immediacy and a very human context. The company has taken viewers around the world from the heat of the kitchen (“Cuisine & Confessions”) to the depths of the human psyche (“PSY”).
“Passengers,” directed by troupe founder and award-winning Cirque du Soleil choreographer Shana Carroll, plays off our fascination with trains, both nostalgic and symbolic, and it brings together a colorful, diverse group of travelers. However, the eight artists of the production’s international cast are anything but nomadic strangers.
“The company is very family-oriented,” says cast member Sabine Van Rensburg, a young South African artist specializing in aerial silks, duo trapeze, and Chinese pole. She and American tightwire artist Brin Schoellkopf sat down with the Globe recently to talk about the intimacy and connectedness that they say make the company and its productions so special. Poised and articulate, they radiate youthful enthusiasm.
“We’re a collective of equals, all working together to come up with ideas,” Van Rensburg says. “We were all chosen very carefully. Shana hires good human beings over merely talented individuals. We had to create trust with each other before diving into creating the piece.”
In fact, trust and unity are at the very heart of the company’s ethos. The name (Les 7 doigts de la main in French) plays off the expression referring to elements that work together as closely and smoothly as the “five fingers of the hand.” But since there were seven founding members, the group upped the count in the company name — what’s an extra digit or two among friends?
The founders’ tight-knit sense of community and collective purpose has been fostered with each new production’s cast. A director (always one of the original members) carefully selects performers to collaborate on thematic ideas for a show, which generally will tour for two-plus years.Armed with a basic concept, the troupe then spends a half a year or so in creation and rehearsal. The creative seeds for “Passengers” germinated as performers shared with one another everyday stories and memories from childhood trips. “We all have a relationship with traveling,” Schoellkopf says.
From personal recollections and reflections came some universal themes that started to suggest a narrative arc, though the performers say “Passengers” plays more as a collection of evocative vignettes than a specific, linear story line. The performers portray what Van Rensburg calls “elevated versions of ourselves. Shana is good about not being too literal. She wants people to feel more than understand.”
The production unfolds to an original soundtrack by Colin Gagné, complemented in two scenes by the acrobats themselves singing and playing ukulele.
Since its premiere in Montreal in November 2016, “Passengers” has been performed in Russia, Chile, France, and Germany.The Boston engagement has place of honor in kicking off the show’s US tour; ArtsEmerson was one of the company’s earliest supporters and programmers. ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower says the company brings “elements of performance that we’ve never seen in a contemporary circus show.”
In turn, Carroll calls Boston “a home away from home,” lauding ArtsEmerson for helping to cultivate discerning audiences who embrace the company’s hybrid acrobatic theater. And the company continues to expand its artistic scope. In addition to the signature touring shows, The 7 Fingers has created a variety of theatrical experiences, from one-man shows to large-scale arena performances and special events. Last year, the organization opened its new Centre of Creation and Production in Montreal’s downtown theater district, providing a central home for The 7 Fingers’ burgeoning activities. The center has opened up an array of opportunities for the company to grow in different artistic directions, the performers say. However, Schoellkopf adds, “The goal is to keep expanding but also keep the intimacy — that defines the company.”
Created and performed by The 7 Fingers. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Sept. 25-Oct. 13. Tickets $25-$105, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.