MK is the second stop on a long-awaited UK tour for Canadian contemporary circus legends The 7 Fingers when they arrive at Milton Keynes Theatre to present their hit show Passagers on 24 and 25 September.
The internationally-acclaimed company was set up in 2002 by its 7 eponymous founders whose mission was to redefine circus - stripping down the spectacle to its thrilling essence. In the action-packed years since, they have gained a global reputation for shows like Passagers with its exhilarating mix of dance, acrobatics, circus skills and original music, shot through with humour and feeling.
Passagers is directed by Shana Carroll, one of the company’s original founders and now its co-artistic director. Shana has enjoyed a 30-year career in circus (including 20 glorious years in the air) performing and directing for a host of international companies and projects, with Cirque du Soleil and the Sochi Winter Olympics among her many credits.
She says of The 7 Fingers, “When we started the company we wanted to make work that was a hybrid experience. It’s circus, it’s dance, it’s theatre. Passagers is pretty dancey but circus is our language. Our specialist numbers - trapeze, highwire, aerial silks and hula hooping - are like the monologues of traditional theatre, they’re continuing the story. And of course we have spoken word and song as well. The show is a mash-up of imagery, themes and emotions.
Set on a train, Passagers is all about travel and our endless fascination with it. But after nearly two years of a global pandemic, the idea of traveling is a world away from when Shana first created the work in 2018. Suddenly the stories in the show have a new resonance, evoking both nostalgia and future promise. “There are two extremes of reactions” explains Shana, “On the one hand there’s this crazy excitement, on the other there’s the fear of getting into a moving vehicle with strangers again. But we yearn for travel. 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.”
Passagers has always been a personal show for Shana, she first created it after the death of a close friend and colleague. “It’s a celebration of life’s journey rather than anything sad”, Shana hastens to clarify. “In some ways it’s autobiographical. I spend most of my life touring, travelling and on trains. This show became a metaphor for all those journeys. It’s infused with all the beauty, all the intimacy, all the connections, all the excitement, all the sadness, all the melancholy.”
The 7 Fingers are based in purpose-built studios in Montreal, a hotbed for contemporary circus which is a very different beast from the traditional artform. “For someone who hasn’t seen one of our shows, it’s always good to point out that we don’t have outrageous make up and costumes”, suggests Shana. “With our shows we’re trying to tell stories and show pockets of life.”
Born and raised in California, Shana fell in love with circus as an 18-year-old, watching a rehearsal by the innovative Pickle Family Circus where her father was working. She remembers, “One day I was watching the trapeze artist up close. She was in sweatpants with messy hair, hanging from one foot and flying through the air. She looked like a normal human being but was so brave and taking such risks. It was really powerful, she was someone I could identify with and I could see myself in her.” Shana went on to join the company as a trapeze artist, kickstarting her life in the circus, but she always remembers that moment: “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, my sister, my son, my daughter’.”
Passagers is presented in the UK by Dance Consortium, an 18-strong group of large-scale theatres who are committed to touring the very best of international dance throughout the UK. Passagers’ nine perfomers are all skilled dancers but each has a different approach to movement depending on their specialist circus skill.
Shana expands, “Because they’re expressing themselves through their bodies in their acts and disciplines, the performers have found their own physical vocabulary and style. When they’re in their element they move beautifully and, as a director and choreographer, it’s a matter of tapping into that.”
Passagers’ cast of nine includes five of the artists who originally created the show with Shana before the pandemic. 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. As for everyone, the global crisis has affected the company, not only logistically but also emotionally.
Shana says, “It is scary to dedicate months of your life to something, feeling we’re on such 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! 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.
The 7 Fingers’ Passagers is at Milton Keynes Theatre on Friday 24 & Saturday 25 September. ATGTICKETS.COM/MiltonKeynes
Syndicated interview by Katharine Kavanagh with Shana Carroll of The 7 Fingers for Milton Keynes.