Contemporary Circus In Full Swing: On the Ground at Tohu's MICC 2023 - StageLync
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Contemporary Circus In Full Swing: On the Ground at Tohu’s MICC 2023

For one week every July, downtown Montreal becomes a circus celebration and a gathering place for industry professionals through Tohu’s International Market for Contemporary Circus (MICC). In this review, performer and teacher Jackie Houghton takes us through two and a half jam-packed days at MICC 2023… including the amazing shows in its roster.

Montréal in the summer has a special sort of feeling about it. The streets thrum with the energy of people enjoying the multitude of events that the city hosts throughout the warmest months of the year. Avenues are closed to traffic, and cafes and restaurants spill out onto the roadways. Festivals of all kinds fill the theatres and the streets with activity. Many will come for the comedy or the jazz, but we are here for the circus! 

The Marché international de cirque contemporain (MICC)—for us Anglophones, the International Market for Contemporary Circus—is presented by Tohu and embedded as a four-day professional event within the Montréal Complement du Cirque festival. It is an international gathering of circus artists, presenters, producers, and other circus professionals, all descending upon Tohu and the surrounding area for various panels, workshops, networking events, and to catch some shows, of course. The best way to do the festival is to stay for the whole week, but unfortunately, I could only stay for two days and three nights. It was a whirlwind of activity, every moment packed. 

My first stop before even hitting my hotel was to see Brave Space by Aloft Circus at Tohu’s L’Escapade venue. I purposely arrived the night before the MICC started to see this show because it was sold out during the remainder of my time in Montreal.  I was not disappointed with my choice. 

I walk in just as the show begins due to my train being delayed. Initially, there isn’t much to look at. The set is very minimal, what looks like a white tent in the centre of the space. The audience stands around the staging area. I think to myself that I wish I had arrived earlier to get a better place to stand and view the show (there is no formal seating). No need to worry though. I wouldn’t be in one place for long. Artistic Director Shayna Swanson has created something special here along with artists Zoe Sheppard, Hayley Larson, Linnea Ridolfi, Rachel Nesnevich, Heather Dart, and Sarah Tapper. Brave Space is described as a show about creating community in difficult times and requiring everyone to trust those around them. That trust is built between performer and audience as the show unfolds.

The first act is a demonstration of strength, balance, and grace. The all-female cast holds one of their fellow performers aloft as she balances and walks across a bar that will eventually become part of the set. This is only the first occasion that the cast, and oftentimes the audience, come together to hold one of the performers up, literally. The audience is ingrained in the show’s design and members will be asked to help lift rigging, hold free-standing poles as an artist inverts, catch hula hoops, and even erect the tent (blanket fort?) that we are all underneath. We are brought into circus spaces that are usually only for the performer as we lie under two aerialists performing on cloud swing, a perspective that I hadn’t enjoyed before and I am glad to have had the opportunity to experience. 

The show remains intimate from the beginning to its end. And, yes, the acrobatics and aerial skills are top-notch, and each artist is highly skilled. But it is their relationship with the audience that makes this show. I felt safe and warm and welcomed here. I left the show feeling a sense of calm and contentment that I had just been a part of something unique and special. Maybe because in a world that is still emerging from isolation and struggling to find its way, this show seems like a gift that gently guides us together to co-create something beautiful that we have all missed for so long. 

Monday morning comes, and the MICC is in full swing. I skip the initial breakfast to meet a friend that just finished her first year at the Ecole Nationale du Cirque (ENC). We chat about life in Montreal and plans for the future, both hers and mine. We both have big circus dreams that we are working on, even if we are at very different stages of life and career!After our petit déjeuner, I walk the short distance back to Tohu instead of catching an Uber or the local bus. There’s a gentle rain. The streets are actually quiet and I have some time to organize my thoughts and plan my days.

I need to check in and grab my welcome package first thing. Uh-oh, I had bought a MICC membership, but not access to the market. I was able to quickly purchase the correct pass, but my welcome package wouldn’t be ready until the following day. Not to worry though; I met friends and they could help steer me around. The MICC is a wonderful place to connect with like-minded circus people that you may see regularly or yearly at the event! This year, a rather large contingent of Canadian circus performers from Ontario, presenters, and producers are in attendance, so finding a familiar face is not difficult. 

I slip into a panel discussion, New Research in Circus. Led by Franziska Trapp, with panelists Mélanie Stuckley, Louis Patrick Leroux, Charles Batson, and Marco Antonio Coelho Bortoleto, the discussion centres around how circus research is disseminated, who is conducting this research, and who is represented by this research. As Charles so aptly stated at one point during the discussion, “We are creating the field, but what kind of field are we creating” if access to information, tertiary education, and ability to submit research is limited by location, race, financial means, sexual orientation, gender, or ability? 

As a non-academic, I was intrigued to hear of some of the more accessible formats being utilized to allow greater freedom of access to information. These include panelist Charles Batson’s own Circus Roundup YouTube series (featured on CircusTalk) that delves into the 2SLGBTQIA+ experience in the circus sphere. Another new contributor is the online journal Circus: Arts, Life and Sciences (CALS), edited by panelist Melanie Stuckley and Joe Culpepper. Unlike most other forums, CALS is completely open access, meaning the works are free. Maybe more importantly, anyone is welcome to submit an article for publication based on their scientific or artistic research or their real-life experience within the circus discipline. The inaugural issue is available now.

It is lunch as I leave the panel. I have plenty of time to digest the information presented as I stand in the long and winding line for food at the Bahut Bistro cafe. I have often complained about the time it takes to get lunch here, but at the same time, it is a perfect networking opportunity. You have a captive audience of those in front of and behind you in line! Even those sitting at the tables you pass often join in the conversation. Introductions are made, connections identified and ideas discussed. The whole place is buzzing. Some of the conversations even carry on to the Town Square portion of the day. This is a space that allows you to sign up to share your new initiatives with those gathered. 

And then it’s off to the workshop I am most looking forward to this week: The big top, the cabaret, the act, the rigging point: the possibilities of contemporary circus, facilitated by Anahareo Dölle and Carole Demers of the St. John’s International Circus Festival and Erin Kennedy of the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre in British Columbia. After a brief introduction and some technical difficulties, the audience was split into two groups.

This is the beauty of an event like the MICC. Everyone gathered has a common desire to promote the circus arts, but each of us is at a different place or has a different specialty. As someone at the beginning development phase, I was able to learn about how to engage different levels of government, create relationships with sponsors, activate locations in the community, add value to both community and artists by hosting workshops, and more. I learned that even large festivals have to continue to climb the proverbial mountain every year to solidify funding and that failure is not uncommon, but is something to learn from. Those with more experience were supportive and open to sharing their knowledge and those with less were full of questions and a willingness to learn. I left this workshop feeling more sure of myself and my ideas than I have in a long time! 

The opening cocktail was a lovely opportunity to share a drink with people and chat about the day. We were introduced to the lovely staff of the MICC, whose hard work makes the whole event possible. A group of us left the event together and travelled to see Un Domingo at the Theatre Outremont.

I cannot tell you much about what was said during Un Domingo. My understanding of Spanish is non-existent, and the French subtitles moved too quickly for me to translate properly. However, I can tell you that it was an over-the-top show full of grandiose emotions and dark humour. Presented by Proyecto Migra and GALPÓN DE GUEVARA, Un Domingo has the flare of a telenovela with the acrobatics of the circus. I didn’t need to understand the words to know that this family was in disarray due to some stormy love affair. I could certainly understand the language of the movement. An ephemeral hair suspension act and plenty of physical comedy and acrobatics added more flare to this fiery show.

Tuesday is Pitch Day, but it begins with an informal Creation Coffee Hour about how presenters, producers, and agents can best support contemporary circus artists as they seek to move the art form forward with new works. Residencies seem to be on the minds of many creators as they converse with the different attendees about their options. 

At the end of the hour, the delegation makes their way to ENC for the first of two pitch sessions. This year features 41 shows from 22 countries. Artists have been asked to condense years of work and development into a short five-minute pitch session. The pitches encapsulate what is happening in the contemporary circus sphere right now. From the joyful and playful acts presented by Quebec’s Cirk’Alors or Ireland’s Fidget Feet, to the examination and reimagining of the acrobat’s lifespan presented by companies like Australia’s A Good Catch Circus and Catherine Archambault’s Jacynthe, creators from around the world lay bare their shows for us in hopes of securing a booking. 

Other themes also begin to arise throughout the two pitch sessions. Many of the companies present, such as Minty Fresh and The Rainbow is Enuf from the USA, are looking to provide mirrors that reflect the experiences of people of colour and windows to help others look into another culture and learn. Others, such as Mexico’s Cabaret Caprichio, presented shows that unpacked the destruction and rebuilding that has taken place since the pandemic shut down the entertainment world in 2020. Yet others, such as Australia’s Highwire Entertainment, presented entire casts of women, redefining what the role of female circus performers can be. 

Overall there is a sense of the importance of community throughout these pitches, and that community is growing internationally. This year there was a larger contingent of companies pitching from the African continent and Mexico. The MICC welcomed its first pitches from both Taiwan and Japan as well. I have to wonder, with such a large group pitching, why only two Canadian companies/artists from outside of Quebec, Diana Lopez Soto from Ontario and Corporeal Imago from British Columbia, are present? 

A few companies were selected to pitch in a different format this year, and presented a snippet of their touring acts through a brief showcase.Quebec’s Flip Fabrique and Poliquin-Simms 2 presented a portion of their shows Vacances and Cirque Kikasse respectively. Post-pitch session, Cirque Kikasse presented a unique and innovative experience serving both food and drink to presenters and producers from their food truck, which then turned into the stage for an upbeat acrobatic performance. While not everyone is bringing a food truck, other pitching companies are offering workshops to engage community members, as well as talkbacks to discuss the show and themes presented therein. Some, like NoGravity4Monks which works with a local youth choir in their show, employ local groups as well. All of this is showcasing how circus performance companies are becoming more competitive and bringing added value and local connections to their shows in a packed entertainment market.

After the Kikasse cocktail event, we head down to St. Denis for an audacious double feature, beginning with the always entertaining Cirque Alfonse and their show Barbu. And, what can I say? The cast is obviously highly skilled acrobats with years of experience, having performed with large-scale organizations such as Cirque du Soleil, Les 7 Doigts, and Cirkus Cirkör. The artists seemingly like a party and, unlike many of their contemporaries, are not too concerned about strong storytelling, in this particular show anyways. So, let your hair, or possibly your beard, down and get ready because Barbu can only be described as a balls-to-the-walls, unapologetically shameless good time.

Barbu has an old-world circus sideshow feel baked in. Performer Laura Lippert lays bare on a bed of nails and a cinder block is smashed over her naked stomach. Two bearded gents, Antoine Carabinier Lépine and Guillaume Saladin, pass ping pong balls, not with a paddle, but mouth-to-mouth, the distance between them getting ever larger.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s entertaining.

But it is not all sideshow antics. David Simard and the musicians in the live band’s original compositions amp up audience members and performers into a frenzy throughout the show. Their presence adds a very Quebecois flavour that is woven into all of Cirque Alfonse’s shows. There is a high level of skill in the troupe’s hand-to-hand and flying acrobatics. And, amongst the shows of male strength and bravado, there is a beautifully executed and wildly dynamic hair suspension act, also by Laura Lippert, that amazed and astounded the audience.

Be forewarned that you may question aspects of the show. Is this politically correct? Absolutely not. Will you see a penis or two (or even three)? Yes. Might you get swept up in the revelry of it all? I bet you will!   

Not to be outdone, Dirty Laundry, presented by Australia’s Briefs Factory, will also entertain with plenty of revelry and nudity! Unfortunately for us, artistic director and host Fez Faanana, AKA Shivanana, is absent from the show, having had to fly back to Australia earlier in the week. Barbada—Montreal’s own drag queen extraordinaire who has been co-hosting the cabaret with Shivanana while Briefs Factory is in Montreal—is flying solo tonight.

Looking fabulous in sky-high heels and a shimmering pink tuxedo bodysuit, she lays out some ground rules, identifies the “virgins” (giving them fair warning, of course!), and acknowledges the land and its caretakers.Dirty Laundry is comedic and raunchy, but Briefs Factory is not known for washing away the ugly truths of this world. Through their shows they bring awareness to issues faced by queer, trans, indigenous, and racialized communities globally. This show is no different

The Briefs boys make their entrance—and what an entrance! Radiant in flowing pink satin robes and playing peek-a-boo with oversized powder puffs, the ensemble of Mark Winmill, Thomas Worrell, Louis Biggs, Brett Rosengreen, Dale Woodbridge Brown, Luke Hubbard & Dylan Rodrigiuz immediately had the crowd worked up! Throughout the evening, the group serves up delicious acts that include juggling, hula hoop, aerial straps, voguing and, of course, strip tease! A gorgeous and moody lyra act by cast member Thomas Worrell momentarily has the audience quietly watching in awe, but overall, the drinks are flowing thanks to quick and friendly table service and the crowd is cheering wildly act after act. 

It was a perfect end to my time in Montreal. Making my way back to my hotel on the Metro, I was able to relax and appreciate all that I saw and experienced in such a short time. I may have missed the tornado that touched down on Thursday after I was safely home, but my time at Montreal’s Marché international de cirque contemporain (MICC) was certainly a whirlwind!

Want to see what else was at the MICC this year? The full 2023 program can be found on their website here.

All MICC event images credited to photographer Andrew Miller.
Jackie Houghton
Writer, Performer -Canada
Jackie Houghton is a recreational circus performer, elementary school teacher, and freelance writer. When she is not teaching visual arts to school children, Jackie dreams about running away with the circus, but until then she is happy to write about it. She has been the exclusive writer for Femmes du Feu's Circus Sessions residency program for the past two years, and has also written for Circus Talk and American Circus Educators magazine.

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Jackie Houghton

Jackie Houghton is a recreational circus performer, elementary school teacher, and freelance writer. When she is not teaching visual arts to school children, Jackie dreams about running away with the circus, but until then she is happy to write about it. She has been the exclusive writer for Femmes du Feu's Circus Sessions residency program for the past two years, and has also written for Circus Talk and American Circus Educators magazine.