The wonderful, magical, multifaceted St. John’s International Circus Fest, presented by Wonderbolt Productions, has officially come to an end. With shows running from September 21-25, this year’s festival brought together a wide range of local, national, and international performers with many different skill sets. The festival ended it’s run during a weekend at the Arts and Culture Centre, where it saved its two biggest shows for last: “The Edge of the World Cabaret” and “MUSE” by Flip Fabrique.
From aerial silk and hoop performers to trapeze artists, clowns, acrobatic dancers, mentalists, and musicians, the festival offered up a fully realized world of the imagination with incredible finesse.
Saturday evening’s show, “The Edge of The World Cabaret,” directed by Patrick Léonard and featuring music by the Kubasonics, took a creative leap–quite literally–by plunging off the edge of the stage. The idea of using the orchestra pit to represent the abyss at the outer limits of the world was ingenious. Having artists jump in and out of the deep dark hole worked delightfully within the storyline of the show. The plot involved Mooky the clown, the Emcee, searching for the many artists who had gone missing due to their attraction to this void.
On her hunt, Mooky came across many different acts and connected them seamlessly through her short skits with impeccable comedic timing. Bringing out chickens, a bathtub, and a sound of music puppet show reference, she maintained a joyful air throughout the entire show. Even when Cuckoo d’État, the chicken, pooped on stage Mooky stayed in character and was so quick to react that it almost felt intentional (who knows, maybe it was!).
In the midst of each transition, from one artist to the next, the audience’s attention never wavered. Together, the continuous motion on stage, and the energy of each performer successfully maintain the engagement of the audience.
The mentalists, Duo Sonambul, proved to be one such captivating example. They appeared on stage twice and both times held our attention at a single word. Each audience member listened and watched intently, either in utter belief or disbelief, as a blindfolded woman named items found in the bags of audience members (including the serial number on a $20 bill!). Whether a skeptic or a believer, in the end, we were all left with the same question…
How in the world did they do it?
The aerial hoop duo, Sidonie Adamson and Tanya Burka, performed their routine with ease. When performing in a partnership, remaining in-sync with one another can be extremely difficult. But they timed each movement perfectly and remained completely synchronised. Likewise, Stephane Gentillini and Evelyne Laforest turned hula hooping–what is known by non-circus folk as a fun activity for children–into a sophisticated art form that kept the audience in a trance.
You can always tell how much time and effort has gone into a performance when the performer makes it appear completely effortless.
The use of the orchestra pit also came in handy as a way to briefly introduce artists before they had their moment on stage. People would jump, climb, or pop up out of the pit as a subtle foreshadowing of who and what was to come.
As the performers played on the threshold of the performance space at the edge of the stage, the audience was consistently left on the edge of their seats, wondering who would be next and what they would do. One act in particular, featuring Maxime Laurin and Ugo Dario from “Les 7 doigts de la main,” had a brief introduction at the beginning of the show when they hopped out of the pit to say hello to Mooky. Their act didn’t appear until the very end and it quickly became clear why. It was the perfect balance between acrobatics, comedy, and innovation. With a massive see-saw placed on a mat in the middle of the stage, they launched each other into the air. A stumble here or there on the landings meant nothing because their reflexes were so impressive. It was an incredible choice for the closing act.
In celebration of Wonderbolt’s 40th anniversary, the final show on Sunday evening began with an overwhelming display of gratitude towards Beni Malone, Executive and Artistic Director of the Festival, and founder of Wonderbolt Productions. A video montage was projected onto the stage, featuring anecdotes from numerous members of the circus community as they detailed their experiences and their relationships with Malone. Everyone in the theatre could feel the immense impact that he has had on building and sustaining the circus community within our province.
Then came the main act, “Muse” by Quebec-based Flip Fabrique. The show uses contemporary circus techniques to play with gender roles. It began with the performers all standing on stage in nude costumes tossing around an apple, with each one wanting to get a better look at the bright red fruit. One of the performers proceeded to grab hold of the apple and take a bite.
With a clear reference to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the performers gasp when they look down and realize what they are wearing (or not wearing). Simultaneously, two outfits get dropped down toward the floor on rigs. There is a clear distinction between the gendered clothes that are being offered up to the performers–with one being heels and a dress, and the other being a football uniform. Instantly, there is an emphasis on gender roles and how they are represented.
The varying skills of the performers allow the audience to not only see a full spectrum of physical abilities, but a diversity of forms of self-expression. It sends the message that we should not be boxed into the gender norms that society has laid out for us, and in fact is it rewarding and exciting to explore beyond them. We must be free to express ourselves and convey the version of ourselves that feels most authentic–for everyone’s sake.
The performers demonstrate that there is genuine beauty in complexity, that people can be both strong and feminine, and there is much to be gained from blurring the lines between femininity and masculinity.
The amount of work put into the show is conveyed through the intricacies and interactions of the performers, singers, musicians, voice overs, props, lighting, and sets, combined. Where all these layered dimensions come together provides the sweet spot that we all came to see.
One of the evening’s most notable moments happens during the diabolo act. One of the performers was able to use this tricky circus prop–consisting of an axle and two cups–to create a captivating spectacle that went much deeper than the impressive tricks he displayed. The french voice-over played at the beginning of the act expressed many different thoughts all at once. It represents how minds can make a never ending string of thoughts that will circle in a continuous motion. The performer used these multiple hourglass-shaped props at once, tossing some up in a circular movement in the air, while also focusing on the ones still on the string. The creative use of the diabolo mirrored the exhilarating energy of a racing mind.
Everything about “Muse” embraced inclusivity, fluidity, and acceptance in the best way possible, demonstrating that there is both strength in femininity and a gentleness in masculinity. But also that we as individuals get to decide where we lie between the two; expressing ourselves in whatever way feels the most true to who we are.
This year’s Circus Fest showcased so many incredible artists from all over the world. It was a huge success, a fact that was confirmed by the many audience members chatting and exclaiming their oohs and ahhs as they exited the theatre.
The circus brings together so many different individuals and manages to connect them through a spirit of play. It creates a place for them to be at home with one another. It makes for a very powerful community, one composed of artisans with the ability to showcase both their individuality and a shared collective artistry. While the audience may erupt with laughter over the many jokes and gags being played out on stage, the message is clear. Beyond entertainment, the experience of the circus is transformative. It is social, collaborative, and best when it is shared.
So with all that, the 5th Annual St. John’s International Circus Fest has wrapped. If you missed out on this year’s fun, and are now experiencing a lil bit of FOMO, don’t fret! It was announced at the end of last Sunday’s show, that the festival will be coming back for 2023! I would encourage anyone who didn’t get the chance to attend any of this year’s events to keep a look out for next year! In the meantime, those curious about Newfoundland and Labrador’s circus community and their activities should know that Wonderbolt hosts circus-related events and workshops all year long.
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