“C’est par la!” “Devons-nous aller?”
Dressed in matching mustard-yellow jeans and cotton t-shirts, the trio at first appear to be spectators, debating which of three performance stages on Montréal’s bustling Rue St-Denis to visit next. Suddenly, Xavier Laliberté bends down, hands on knees, becoming a launchpad for Elwin Roland, who performs a gravity-defying flip to appreciative gasps. The crowd parts as Laliberté, Roland and Laurie Berubé tear off up the street, leapfrogging and cartwheeling in a breathtaking display of raw physicality that is all the more impressive considering the oppressive summer heat.
The show continues on a rubber mat spread out on the street in front of the Saint-Sulpice Library. Afterward, the trio — students at the National Circus School performing as a group for the first time — pass around beat-up sneakers to collect tips. A few metres away, a dancer in a blue flamenco skirt is whirling to the music of a trumpet and snare drum, already leading onlookers back down St-Denis towards Boulevard de Maisonneuve.
This is Montréal Complètement Cirque, the festival that for 10 days each July transforms the urban landscape into a canvas for circus artists’ wildest dreams. Closed to automobile traffic between Rue Sherbrooke and de Maisonneuve, St-Denis is circus central, with free performances taking place every few minutes from 5:30 to 11 p.m., often within view of shaded terrasses where spectators can sip a pint while taking in the show. There’s Angela McIlroy-Wagar, a.k.a. Miss Chatelaine, a contortionist whose clown-like antics and coiling limbs have the audience laughing and cringing in equal measure; “Speed Tartine,” a comedic juggling routine with slices of toasted bread by Léo Rousselet; and a mesmerizing aerial hoop dance by Florence Amar.
As the sun begins to set, graceful figures emerge from the elongating shadows, ringing handbells; it’s time for Les Minutes Complètement Cirque, an overture to the festival’s signature performance for 2019, Candide, which takes place in an outdoor theatre-in-the-round framed by a 18-metre-high arch in nearby Place Emilie-Gamelin. Incorporating 32 artists skilled in everything from slacklining to the Cyr wheel to aerial silks, it’s the ultimate expression of the festival’s purpose: to celebrate Montréal as a global hub for contemporary circus arts.
It was Montréal’s own internationally-renowned circus companies, including Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize and Les 7 Doigts, as well as the National Circus School, that came up with the idea for Complètement Cirque 10 years ago, says festival director Nadine Marchand.
“They said, ‘Wherever we go around the world, we hear Montreal is a circus city, but there’s something missing here.’ So we created the festival to be a rendez-vous for the international circus community, as well as a showcase for all the Quebec companies.”
The festival’s programming team travels throughout the year, on the lookout for emerging talent to invite to Complètement Cirque. This year’s lineup includes performers and troupes from the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Colombia.
“We try to have a diversity of programming — not just acrobatics, but also dance, music, comedy, to show what circus is today,” says Marchand.
And what sets circus apart from other forms of performance art? I put this question to Anthony Venisse, a 20-year veteran of the craft who created and directed Les Minutes and Candide.
“For me, circus is all about acrobatic bodies taking risks — not stupid risks, but calculated risks,” he says. “It’s kind of against nature; nobody should be swinging 20 feet in the air, hanging by their hands, or standing on your hands for hours.”
Right before an artist performs a trick, Venisse says, they must completely withdraw from reality, blocking out the noise of the crowd, the traffic on the street, the weather conditions. “This moment of concentration — this moment of the artist just going inside himself or herself — is something that, to me, you can’t find in any other form of art. I really like that.”
Montréal Complètement Cirque 2019 runs now through July 14, with daily performances on Rue St-Denis and at indoor and outdoor venues across the city. Visit the festival website for the full schedule.