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‘One-stop-shop’ Montreal circus market unites performers and talent bookers

Flip Fabrique performs their circus act at the International market of contemporary circus (MICC) festival in Montreal, Tuesday, July 11, 2023. Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

As Cesar Omar Barrio made his pitch at a Montreal trade show on Tuesday, a woman on the stage twisted her body into seemingly impossible positions, sometimes juggling balls or tossing them with her feet.

At the International Market for Contemporary Circus, the salespeople are artists and the audience is composed of presenters, creative directors and other talent bookers who are interested in bringing circus to their venues. The market, the only event of its kind in North America, runs alongside Montreal’s Complètement Cirque festival, which attracts hundreds of jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and other performers. But behind the big tops and air flips, serious circus business is taking place.

Barrio, of Mexico’s Cabaret Capricho, said the five-minute pitch won’t sell the show on its own. Instead it’s to attract the eye of presenters, “to tell them we are really open, we really want to meet you and talk, and then you will be in love with the work, so you can hire us.”

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When Australian circus presenters Debra Batton and Spenser Inwood came to Montreal a year ago, they landed a deal to take their show across Canada. On Tuesday, they were back at the circus festival that got them their first Canadian tour pitching a new show — Zoë.

Batton and Inwood run a circus called A Good Catch, and say they appreciate Montreal’s circus-specific market, where they can promote their shows and build connections with presenters who might be interested in their future projects. “When we come here, we know everyone’s interested in circus,” Batton said in an interview.

Click to play video: 'Student graduates from National Circus School gear up for Parades performance'
Student graduates from National Circus School gear up for Parades performance

At this year’s edition of the market, 41 circus companies composed of performers from 22 countries, pitched their work to theatres and festivals from around the world in the hope of getting bookings.

Ruth Juliet Wikler, the director of the market, said the event has become more international since the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, the market featured performers from four countries, but organizers focused on attracting companies from more countries when it moved online in 2020, a shift that’s been maintained since the return to an in-person format last year.

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Wikler said the event is particularly important for North American venues and festivals, in which circus is typically just one of several art forms on offer. “Before the (circus market), there wasn’t really a place that multidisciplinary presenters could really discover this art form,” Wikler said.

Erin Kennedy, artistic director of the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre, in Vernon, B.C., said she’s looking for two large-scale circuses to bring to her 750-seat theatre, as well as performers for a children’s festival.

“It’s like a one-stop-shop for what’s happening in circus around the entire world,” Kennedy said in an interview. “You can come check it out …. see what is currently on tour, see what works are still in creation, and you can find great shows to bring back to your community.”

As she talks, crew members are packing up after a show that features acrobats flying next to a modified school bus and jumping on trampolines. Music can be heard from a nearby big top tent as performers rehearse.

Circus performances always sell out at her venue, she said, adding that they appeal to multiple generations. And because the art form is primarily visual, it also attracts people whose first language isn’t English.

“For us, circus is so great because it really brings the whole community together,” she said.

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Other bookers have come from farther away. Chantal Djédjé, deputy managing directory of the Marché des Arts du Spectacle Africain, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said she travelled to Montreal to discover circus shows to bring back to her art market next year, as well as to find out what’s happening in the North American circus world.

For Quebec City circus group FLIP Fabrique, this year’s edition was a chance to “break the ice” with a new show scheduled to premiere next week in the provincial capital. FLIP Fabrique, whose show features the modified school bus, was one of four Quebec circuses with a showcase at the market.

“People have seen it, they’re going to talk about it,” Bruno Gagnon, FLIP’s artistic director and co-managing director, said in an interview. “Hopefully, we can get a tour out of this.”

Many of the artists are also using circus shows to draw attention to social issues.

Batton, 62, says A Good Catch explores feminist themes through its shows and questions why older acrobats aren’t often seen on circus stages. Her company’s newest show explores environmental subjects.

“Circus is very accessible, and, in some ways, we have the privilege of disarming the audience, seducing them with skills and the bodies being extraordinary, while actually making comment and drawing attention to important things in the world,” she said.

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Wikler said that’s a sign of the way modern circus is maturing.

“I think this is the hallmark of contemporary circus versus traditional; in the old days, it used to be that circus was associated just with virtuosity and skill display, and now, since the art form has been maturing and developing, it’s really an expressive tool,” Wikler said.

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