This autumn, the UK is the first stop for Canadian contemporary circus company The 7 Fingers, with their international tour of Passagers. Travel is an integral theme to the show but, after nearly two years of a global pandemic, the idea of travelling seems a world away from what it was when director Shana Carroll started creating the production. Suddenly the imagery and metaphors in the show have a new resonance, evoking both nostalgia and future promise. “It feels like we’ve forgotten how to travel,” explains Shana. “There’s two opposite ends: on the one hand there’s this crazy excitement of ‘Oh my god I’m going to do this thing finally!’ and on the other there is fear and even shock of getting onto a moving vehicle with strangers again.”
The show has always been a personal one for Shana, created originally after the death of a close friend and colleague. “It’s definitely more of a celebration of life’s journey than anything sad or heavy,” Shana hastens to add. “A lot of times people don’t know the backstory but just feel their own intensity. In some ways it’s autobiographical because I spent most of my life touring and travelling and on trains, and it became metaphorical, for that journey. It’s infused with all this beauty, all the meetings, all the intimacy, all the connections, all the excitement, all the sadness, all the melancholy.”
The 7 Fingers’ are based in Montreal—one of the world’s hotbeds for contemporary circus—and Shana is one of the eponymous seven co-founders. However, whilst The 7 Fingers are a big name in the contemporary circus world, to many of the public this field is still unknown territory. “For someone who hasn’t seen one of our shows, it’s always good to point out that we don’t have crazy make up and crazy costumes,” suggests Shana, who has also worked as a performer and director with the more familiar Cirque du Soleil. “With our shows we’re trying to show pockets of life.”
Shana herself first encountered circus in 1980s San Francisco, where the Pickle Family Circus were working at the vanguard of the New Circus movement. Seeing their work was a revelation to the then-18 year old. “I was in theatre growing up and wasn’t at all drawn to athletics or physical prowess, but my father was involved in the show so I ended up working in the office, and I saw the artists training up close. One day I was watching the trapeze artist and I was only ten feet from her, and she’s in kind of funky sweatpants, and her hair is just all messy and she’s hanging from one foot… and it was so emotional for me. I found it so beautiful.
“You can see all these inherent metaphors within it and at the same time this person is actually flying, is actually demonstrating risk and courage and all that stuff. I thought it was so moving because she looked like a normal human being that I could identify with, and there was a way I even saw myself in her. I was really aware that’s what made it emotional: because suddenly I identified with this person.
“I felt like they were human and so then I was invested in the fact they were hanging by one foot and doing all this stuff. That really stayed as a seed in my brain so that’s been a through-line and foundation in my own work as a creator. The reason I do circus is because I had that emotional reaction. I want other people to be able to have that too. To look at the performers and think ‘this could be my friend, or my sister, or my son or daughter’.”
The cast of nine includes five of the original artists, who created the show with Shana before the pandemic, and is a slightly increased company from the original eight. They’re an international troupe, but the recent restrictions on travel around the world have had an impact on who The 7 Fingers could hire for this tour. Following a month of rehearsals, the new version will premiere in the UK, visiting six cities up and down England before heading on to France and Switzerland. “The other thing that was hard is that we needed everyone vaccinated, so we could only hire people for this tour who’d had access to that, to be able to perform together—and everything else—safely.”
Passagers is presented in the UK by the Dance Consortium, but circus performers have a different approach to movement than traditional dancers. “Because they’re expressing themselves through their bodies in their acts and disciplines, they usually have found their own physical vocabulary and choreographic style,” Shana explains. “When they’re in their element they move beautifully, and as a director and choreographer it’s a matter of tapping into that. It’s more about releasing a personal physical essence than counting and placing moves in time to a beat.”
“When we started the company we wanted to make work that was a hybrid experience. It’s circus, it’s dance, it’s theatre. This show is pretty dance heavy, but I’ve been in circus for over 30 years. That’s our language. We know the essence of the acts we’re creating, so the show’s meaning is always being expressed through the acts. Specialist numbers are like monologues in traditional theatre–they’re continuing the story, not like a parenthesis to the story or a decoration layered on top. And we do have spoken word as well. The show is a mash-up of imagery, themes and emotions.”
The 7 Fingers’ artistic mission, to channel the extraordinary acts of circus performers into emotional and relatable theatre, has not been affected by the pandemic, but the global crisis has impacted the company members. “It’s scary for everyone, the performers and the company alike”, admits Shana. “It’s hard to embark on something and worry that it could get cancelled at any minute, or that something will change. So it is scary to dedicate a few months of your life to something with this feeling that we’re on fragile ground. But on the other hand everyone’s so excited to have an audience again and go back to doing what we do. And to travelling.”
In organising the tour, the company have faced numerous delays, with countries changing their regulations in different ways at different times, and all logistical demands moving slowly as the world gets used to its new reality. The timelessness and transcontinental feel of train travel that are captured in Passagers have a new poignancy now our old lives have changed. “We yearn for travel in a similar way. We have all these memories of places that we’ve been that we want to revisit, and so it’s a symbol of a dynamic future, of not being stuck in this one-note existence. Of course there have been pros and cons to the year we’ve just had, but I think there’s this notion that if we can finally leave our country or our city or our continent, maybe life can continue to move forward”. A hope, I think, that few could argue with.
I was commissioned to write a PR interview with 7 Fingers co-founder Shana Carroll ahead of their forthcoming UK tour of Passagers. This is my original draft, posted with permission from the PR firm.