Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand’s Overly Complicated & Needlessly Detailed Review of Smashed and Face Nord
My name is Zeke, sometimes I am funky. I’m here now speaking gently into your ears about two shows I saw as part of the Montréal Complètement Cirque festival last week. Smashed and Face Nord. Of the many festivals that happen here in Montreal, the circus festival is one of the most endearing. It doesn’t have the swagger of the Jazz festival, nor does it have the gravitas of the Fireworks festival. But at the same time it is also not as inconsequential as the one man band festival. It is comfortably in between.
As a consequence of the festival and seeing so many different types of performances I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly Circus means. The word itself comes via Latin from the Greek word Kirkos which the Romans used to call circular arenas for performances and contests especially the Circus Maximus – the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome which could seat 150,000 people. Apparently it was first used in print to refer to a traveling show similar to what we now know as a circus in 1791, only 222 years ago.
I grew up with and will always consider three ring circuses like the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus with a ridiculous amount of different kinds of acts all united by a Ring Master as the paradigm of a circus. There are other times when I think that a paradigm is twenty cents.
The Ringling Brothers circus bought the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1907 and merged them together in 1919. When they performed in New York in the 1960s there was a little bit of everything. Lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats, clowns, motorcycle riders, human cannonballs, tightrope walkers and just about anything else you could think of. Despite the lack of a sideshow, at the age of six I truly believed that it was the greatest show on earth.
The 21st century circus is a beast of an entirely different color. Or at least the 21st century circus that performs in Montreal – I can’t think of the last time that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus performed here. Since 1984 circuses here have been ruled by the Cirque du Soleil. In short there are no animals, there is only one ring instead of three, instead of arenas they perform under tents or other smaller venues and in general tend to be more intimate in nature.
Frequently (and in terms of Montreal Completement Cirque almost exclusively) composed of a small number performers who are focused on on very specific type of performance. Whether that be acrobatics, clowning, aerial acts, juggling or any number of different types acts.
It appears to me that circus has morphed from a very large and heterogeneous collection of performers appearing together at once to a very large and heterogeneous collection of performers appearing separately. With the result being that while there are many more circuses to see, the differences between them are becoming smaller. After all when you’ve seen one juggler, your desire to see other jugglers is going to be diminished. Or something like that.
Another point about the 21st century circus (actually another point about the 21st century) is how the brand has become way more important than the actual performers. I know of the Cirque du Soleil, the Cirque Eloize and Sept Doigts de la Main, but I do not know (or remember) the names of any of the performers. On the other hand while I also (fondly) remember the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus, I can also name Emmett Kelly, Francis Brunn, Mario Zacchini and the Flying Wallendas. I don’t have any concrete proof, but my gut tells me that this isn’t a good thing.
Montreal Completement Cirque has been around now for four years, although I only got around to paying attention to it last year. While ostensibly based at Tohu it happens all over town in a bunch of different theatres as well as having free events on Saint Denis and at Place Emelie Gamelin. The first two weeks of July, overlapping both the jazz festival and the Just for Laughs festival it is not as centralized as either one.
14 ticketed shows that range in price from $30 to $55 including all fees and taxes. There is one company from England, Spain and Switzerland each, two from Australia, three from France and six from Canada. From what I can tell there is no real blockbuster show, and beyond one friend who goes gaga over it, I haven’t really noticed any buzz about the festival. Pity because the festival definitely deserves more attention than it gets.
One possible reason for this could be the lack of press kits. As I have mentioned elsewhere I dislike having any preconceptions about a show before I see it. In short because it is way easier to beat low or no expectations than it is to beat high expectations. Reviewing a great show that I thought was going to be amazing is going to end up sounding like a negative review even though it was a great show. And that’s not good.
However, after the fact they are of a great help in telling what the performer’s goals, ideas and influences were along with helping to lay a foundation for analysis. Unfortunately I have yet to attend a circus show where they had a press kit. As a consequence I end up having to do the research myself which while pleasurable can be time consuming when there is an awful lot of information, as is the case with Gandini Juggling’s Smashed or extremely frustrating when there isn’t all that much as is the case with Un Loup Pour L’Homme’s Face Nord.
Anyhows this is just a preamble to what I thought about the shows Smashed and Face Nord.
Smashed is a quaint British show that combines 9 jugglers, 80 apples, 4 porcelain tea sets to the tunes of the Hoosier Hot Shots, Little Jack Little, The Charioteers and seven other bands. First commissioned for the National Theatre Watch This Space in 2010 it has toured Europe and possibly Africa, Australia and Asia as well. They only mention that the performance here at Theatre Outremont was the North American premiere. After Montreal they are heading up to Quebec City and then a bunch of performances in England around a tour of Brittany (if you’re listening Carmen, go see them) and a show in Riga.
In the program (and on the website) they mention that it was inspired by Pina Bausch. That all might be fine and dandy, but as I have only seen one piece of hers (and it was a while ago) I came at it from a decidedly different angle. I saw bits of the Three Stooges, Olsen and Johnson, Buster Keaton and from what little I’ve seen the juggler Bobby May.
In short it’s a tightly choreographed absurdist performance where the nine performers (apologies for any butchering I do, Sean Gandini – the bald one, Kati Ylä-Hokkala – the tall blonde woman, Owen Reynolds, Sakari Mannisto, Iñaki Sastre, Doreen Grossman, Tedros Girmaye, Arron Sparks and Michael Anthony Bell) throw a lot of apples around. It was created by Sean and Kati.
But it isn’t that simple. It never is – if I wanted to get all artsy fartsy on you and start throwing around two bit words like apples I could mention and discuss the dynamics of group behavior vs individuality. Adult vs childish behavior. Peer pressure and its effects on group juggling, Primal therapy and quite possibly Somatic Psychology, but I don’t so I won’t.
Overall it is quite humorous and as time puts more distance between myself and the performance I find it growing on me. I can very distinctly remember having a discussion about how the juggling was simplistic and the chaos at the end would be more appealing to nine year-olds than anyone who has attended high school. But as time passes I find that the appealing parts are what are remaining and the other parts are fading.
Although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was one part where the two women crawled on their knees in front of the seven men as the men used the women as props for juggling which seemed a bit sexist for me. But then again it might still be acceptable to beat your wife in England. I don’t know.
And then there was another bit where the only black juggler was singled out for some over the top abuse that the other jugglers weren’t subjected to that could be construed as racist.
Neither one was definitively offensive, but…
While most of the juggling is very simple (there are only a couple of times when anybody tries four apples) getting nine people to coordinate their juggling is a nifty feat. They also push limits at a couple of times when each juggler is actively hindered from throwing.
Needless to say the audience adored it.
On Friday I went to go see Face Nord by Un Loup Pour L’Homme. Which I think means dog eat dog despite literally being translated as a wolf for the man. Apparently it comes from the Latin Homo homini lupus est. Face Nord is easier to translate, the North Face as in of a mountain. If Un Loup Pour L’Homme ever decided to do a tour of North America I’d suggest changing the name to the English equivalent, North Face and then inquiring about sponsorship from the clothing company.
Performed by Frédéric Arsenault, Alexandre Fray, Mika Lafforgue and Sergi Parés, it is what appears to be the end result of acrobatic games playing. Similar to theater games where there are some rules put in place and each acrobat must (for the most part) abide by the rules. It involves a lot of wrestling, and climbing on each other. Some quite nicely done other bits not so nicely done.
I was impressed that it was taking place in the Dalhousie train station, a building that was built in 1884 and was the place where the first transcontinental train left from in 1886 and then upon entering was even more impressed as I noticed that we were sitting in the same section as Phyliss Lambert.
With no real narrative it was a bunch of vignettes linked together only by the fact that the same four acrobats were involved. Technically it was intense and by about a third of the way in all of them were covered in sweat. There was one vignette that could be considered homophobic, but probably wasn’t and the kinetic human sculpture they formed at the end was quite pretty.
I don’t know if it is a trend, or if it is just that whomever is programming the festival has a predilection of underman shows but I’ve seen a bunch of them at the festival in the past two years and I now can no longer really believe that undermen are under appreciated.
As time passes this show fades from my memory in the same manner that the song you heard on the radio yesterday afternoon fades from your memory. You have an idea that it was nice but you don’t exactly remember what it was. It’s real hard to remember specific shoulder stands, back jumping and human bridge making.
I think I’ve foamed at the mouth sufficiently. Both Smashed and Face Nord are pretty and intimate shows with a focus on one discipline that enables you to gain a greater and deeper understanding of juggling and hand-to-hand acrobatics respectively. Despite being called circus shows, they aren’t going to ever gain the mass popularity of something like the Cirque du Soleil or Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey circuses, But I think that is the point.