Les 7 Doigts de la Main humanizes the circus

After stints at big companies, the artists behind Séquence 8 wanted to create more intimate, emotional shows—and the idea worked

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      When Shana Carroll was a trapeze artist she always took a keen interest in the larger framework of a circus performance—how shows were created, and why. But it took a major personal mishap to shift her focus from perfecting an act to cofounding one of the world’s leading new-circus companies, Montreal’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main.

      “I’d had a miscarriage on tour,” she says, interviewed at a café near her home in Montreal. “It was such a traumatic experience that I realized I needed to change my life—and saw it as a window of opportunity to realize a dream, which was to create shows. I had an incredible momentum from that experience—and moved here. I’m from San Francisco, but my whole community was in Montreal, where I’d done the National Circus School and worked with Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Eloize. It was natural to be here if I wanted to do something creative.”

      Carroll got together with six other young artists she knew, all eager to take circus in a new direction. They included her partner and husband-to-be, Sébastien Soldevila, and an old friend from her San Francisco days, Gypsy Snider of the small but influential Pickle Family Circus. In her early years as a trapeze artist, Carroll was also a member. “Gypsy was my first coach at Pickles. Eventually, we were at Cirque [du Soleil] together, and she then worked with Séb, so the three of us knew we wanted to work together.”

      With the addition of Isabelle Chassé, Patrick Léonard, Faon Shane, and Samuel Tétreault, the team was in place. The strange name they chose for the company, which translates as “the seven fingers of the hand”, is a play on a French expression for things that work together with the ease and unity of purpose of the five fingers of a hand. Since the founders were seven in number, extra digits were added, creating a freakishly memorable moniker.

      “We all had similar desires in terms of humanizing the circus, whatever that felt to us,” says Carroll. “We’d been in big companies, and wanted to do something more intimate, yet we realized we had really different styles and aesthetics and visions of a show. It made for a difficult first process, but in the end gave the flavour of the company. It was really this crossroads, which was more interesting than a single vision, and completely contrary to popular wisdom about artistic cohesion, vision, and direction.”

      Three years after its foundation in 2002, Les 7 Doigts achieved international success with its production Loft, which played for an astonishing eight months in Berlin. Carroll and Snider jointly directed and choreographed the show, as well as its equally acclaimed and groundbreaking follow-up, Traces. Séquence 8—the company’s eighth creation blending dance, theatre, and circus arts—was put together in 2012 by Carroll and Soldevila, working with an ensemble of eight young performers.

      “I’d just come out of doing Iris with Cirque du Soleil and felt a strong desire to get back to 7 Doigts’ essence, doing something that was very much about human intimacy and contact, and urgency—an emotional show. Simultaneously, Séb was reflecting on a news event where a child in China was run over and ignored, which inspired thinking about how could it be that others could mean so little to us. We decided to bridge this gap, and to make that the theme—the other.”

      Séquence 8 was, and remains, also very much the creation of the performers themselves. While circus artists working together as an ensemble don’t have the same latitude to improvise as musicians or actors, there’s a remarkable sense of freshness and spontaneity to the production, which contrasts strikingly with the precision of the acts.

      “When we work with our performers, Séb and I try our best to capture their energy and beauty, and also take from them certain themes we feel are appropriate. You have to find their particular character and how they shine and what’s credible in terms of their energy on-stage, and take those elements and develop them into a concept. With Séquence 8 they were all in their early 20s—Traces already had this young theme—when you feel you can change the world, and there’s something rebellious and explosive.

      “The group had been working together for three years, and they knew each other inside out,” Carroll continues. “They had this synergy, and were very affectionate with each other. Every tableau was in one way or another a profile of relationships, or the individual trying to define themselves against the group, or mirroring each other. Then we added another layer—with the audience members being the other. The idea being that you don’t exist as a performer without them, and that the way they choose to react dictates the dynamic of the evening. We’re also trying to play with that.”

      Les 7 Doigts de la Main brings Séquence 8 to the Vancouver Playhouse from Thursday to Saturday (January 22 to 24), with a new matinee added Saturday, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.