ArtsEmerson has invited its perennial favorite, the circus company from Quebec Le Sept Doigt de la Main (or The 7 Fingers), to open its tenth season. Having featured the company’s work in seven of its the past ten years—while also including other fantastic international examples including Machine de Cirque and Cie L’Oublié(e)—ArtsEmerson has played a major role in educating its Boston audience on the wonders, technique, and vast poetry found in contemporary circus.
A far cry from its much larger cousins at the Big Apple Circus or Barnum and Bailey, or even the phantasmagoric Cirque du Soleil, companies like Le Sept Doigt de la Main put the emphasis on intimacy and experimentation. They re-contextualize and re-invent many familiar acts, infusing them with story, emotion, and humanity. As a result, the performances feel far riskier and dangerous because the performers, while putting their bodies on the line, also portray a sense of personal vulnerability.
Their latest show Passengers achieves this effect by playing around the theme of trains and transportation. The characters all find common ground by riding the same train. Some glare out the windows at the rapidly passing countryside. Others try to busy themselves (by juggling a ball). Some try to sleep. The train connects all of these characters. They form an ad hoc community. Yet, they also share anonymity and banal disinterest in each other.
The circus acts occasion opportunities to establish a contrast with the bland and cold emotions of a long train ride. Each act is meant to capture the wonder, whimsy, and emotions of being on that train. For example, in one of the most compelling moments of the show, a contortionist dances amidst the passengers, balancing on their luggage, bending through the windows, and crawling along the aisle. Another moment we find a juggler passing the boredom and capturing the attention of the others, who begin to challenge him by throwing more balls his direction.
Director and choreographer Shana Carroll, as has been her knack in other productions such as Cuisine and Confessions, Séquence 8, and Traces, finds ways to use the theme of locomotion to inspire invention. A tight write act, performed by Brin Schoellkopf, captures the speed and straight lines of the train track as he stretches and balances his long, sinewy limbs. Frejya Wild’s jaw-dropping hula hoop act recalls the roundness of the wheels (at one moment the performers literally roll their bodies from head to toe across the stage), and the lively pulse of perpetual motion.
In his opening statement, the artistic director of ArtsEmerson David Dower reminded the audience of the immense risk, trust, and connection the performers display throughout the performance. This codependence is marvelously displayed through several awe-inspiring moments. At one moment, Sabine van Rensburg is tossed ten feet into the air and grasped by Sereno Aguilar Izzo, balancing upside down on a trapeze. At another point, Louis Joyal finds himself thrown into the air and caught by Samuel Renaud as they perform a Russian Cradle. Both these acts are familiar, but they are paired down, smaller, closer to the ground, and, therefore, all the more amazing.
The danger and collaboration inspire pause as we might consider how much we depend on strangers on tedious and long voyages to protect, to help, to keep watch, or to provide solitary moments of friendship. Passengers, in fact, reminds us through impressive human feats how amazing and precarious our everyday train rides can be.
Passengers is performed by Le Sept Doigts de la Main and presented by ArtsEmerson at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through October 13, www.artsemerson.org.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.