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Dancing with the Circus Stars: Les 7 Doigts de la Main's Réversible

by Judith Fein
October 13, 2016
Santa Fe-based Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer, author, and speaker. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
The world is divided into two parts: those who eagerly grab up tickets to every Cirque de Soleil performance, and those who, although they may be agog at Cirque de Soleil’s brilliant performers, find the shows themselves lacking in meaningful content, and a bit too much of a packaged product.

If you’re in the latter camp, and even if you are positioned in the former camp, there’s another Montreal-based company, Les 7 Doigts de la Main (the seven fingers of the hand) that will make you sit up and take notice. Their new show, Réversible, like other shows in their repertory since their founding in 2002, combines circus with dance, and the result in dazzling.

Réversible is created and directed by Gypsy Snider, one of the original 7 Fingers founders and a self-described “extreme expat” who was raised in a circus family in San Francisco; they belonged to the Pickle Family Circus. Snider lived in Ticino, Switzerland, studied with Clown Dimitri, and developed a specialty: hand-to-hand, or partner acrobatics. “I was the bottom,” she recalls with a grin.

Now 46, she says that surviving cancer changed her physical outlook on life. “I felt I had to be gentle with my body,” she states with conviction. “Now I am raising two teenage daughters, running a company, directing, doing shows around the world—it’s too much and too stressful.”

Snider speaks about 7 Doigt de la Main with great pride. “We are a safety first organization. When a trapeze is more than l5 feet in the air, it’s a great risk for the performers. I have broken multiple body parts in the past. You see, what makes circus wildly theatrical is that it’s death defying. The core objective of any experience, including theatre, is to live your existence in the time allotted to you. If you know you will die, it’s a motivator. We in circus are in such a physical career; there’s inherent theatricality.”

The philosophical Snider reflects on the adjectives that describe or define the theatricality of girl on a trapeze: fragility, courage, strength, gravity, ascension, descension, soaring, falling. For flying trapeze, a net is needed. For static trapeze, the performer isn’t reliant on anyone else. It doesn’t require high risk management.

“We use safety belts and we don’t do extremely high risk things,” she says.

Snider reflects that Cirque de Soleil works in a fantastical, dream-like world that includes non-human fantasy creatures and creates beautiful images. On the other hand, 7 Doigts de la Main tells stories about human beings who have dreams and aspirations and are seeking fulfillment. The company members do 95 per cent of the writing. They begin collectively, and then branch out. “Réversible was birthed by the seven of us, but I am doing the conceiving—with all the pains and joys.”

About five percent of the time, the troupe takes a pre-existing story as the basis of a show. But, mostly, they start vaguely––with an idea or vision or how someone sees the world. Snider considers it a privilege to be able to create from nothing. “I start with casting,” she says, “and then come up with the story. Or I may start with the story and then cast. In this case, there is a juggler I wanted to work with. She’s feminine and strong and one of the only women in the world to work with big red balls. Few girls go this far with juggling. She was a pixie contortionist before. This is a very different type of juggling and a different approach to juggling.”

Snider also talks about her own different approach to circus, and her connection to dance. She went to a physical theatre school, and was always a dance fanatic. Her father was a clown in Waiting for Godot, and she was a fan of Brecht’s. “I take physical theatre to a far level in my work. In Réversible, each time the female juggler throws a ball it’s another idea, another thought. Each room she is in has another property, like serenity, melancholy, etc. It reflects what she has found out about her own family, which has Jewish and Freemason roots.”

Snider takes a deep breath, and addresses her passion for Réversible and what the theme of the show is–ancestors. All the performers play themselves but embody and interpret their ancestors. They had to do interviews with their parents, grandparents, and, in some cases, great grandparents.

To enhance the dance and movement in the show, Snider collaborated with Los Angeles-based movement designer Phillip Chbeeb, a hip-hop artist who works in many styles. They worked together for 11 days, and Snider plans to bring him back again before the show opens. “His work is very geometric,” Snider explains, “and the movement of this show is based on confined/defined spaces. So it brings the movement in Réversible to another level. Our last show was a collaboration with three choreographers from around the world.”

Snider gives a signal to the cast and the lighting director. The house lights dim, and I have the good fortune of seeing a scene from the upcoming show. They refer to this scene as “Carousel,” because the walls of the set are turning. The rooms spin faster and faster, from one mood to another, as the female juggler interacts with shadows, leaps through windows, advances, retreats, and conveys feels of fascination, sadness, and being overwhelmed.

The scene is emotionally engaging, and I share with the juggler her curiosity, provocation, melancholy, descent into a rabbit hole and emergence in serenity.

The performers in the show are mostly in their 20’s. “They feel invincible,” Snider says. “They knew nothing about their families, and, as they found out, each one broke down crying at least once. One found out her grandma was in the circus, and the grandma had been dissed as a circus performer. The balls in the show are pillows of security and also large tears.”

If the world of Circus piques your curiosity, be sure to visit the École National de Cirque, where performers are trained to be versatile, and they learn ballet, modern dance, hip hop, jazz, and eventually choose one circus discipline they must master. The emphasis in the school is on the beauty of movement, skill development, and also injury prevention. The three-year, government-subsidized school, which also includes academic studies, aims to develop circus artists who control their own destiny.

Howard Richard, the director of creation at the school, explains the school’s orientation: “At our school, dance has always been a strong emphasis, and has always been important. I was a dancer and choreographer, and we work with a team of artistic advisers for theatre, dance, and circus. A lot of the teachers and coaches are also dancers and active in the professional world outside. It’s all about body awareness and intelligence and dance that is more lyrical and poetic, to free the body as much as possible in all the joints. How do you pull up a body part and release, bringing meaning to movement? We are breaking sexual barriers. Men work on silks, women are juggling. There is no physical reason for sex roles in circus; it’s just tradition. Why should a juggler be male? Why can’t men do silks?

“The students take movement classes,” Richard continues, “like contact dance, improv. Juggling is very movement oriented. There are different levels—suspend, release. How does the juggler move through space and connect with the audience? It’s not enough to see six, seven, eight, or ten balls; it’s about what you do with what you have.”

If you are visiting Montreal, grab tickets to the new Réversible, or any other show performed by 7 Doigts de la Main. If you are not in Montreal, the company goes on tour, and you may catch a performance wherever you are.

Performance Schedule: www.7doigts.com/en/calendar?show=23

For more information about 7 Doigts de la Main: www.7doigts.com

To visit the circus school: info@enc.qc.ca or www.nationalcircusschool.ca
Young performers of Montreal’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main circus troop receive notes and warm up at a rehearsal.

Young performers of Montreal’s Les 7 Doigts de la Main circus troop receive notes and warm up at a rehearsal.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


A juggler/dancer/actress rehearses the next show.

A juggler/dancer/actress rehearses the next show.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Countless hours of strength and balance exercises precede every performance.

Countless hours of strength and balance exercises precede every performance.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross

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