There were three walls visible on the stage at Krannert Center for Performing Arts when Réversible began–connected in a straight line, full of windows and doors. Behind those walls were the lives of our ancestors, revealed by the stories, movements, bodies, relationships and shadow play that unfolds throughout this 90 minute show. The fourth wall is left to our imagination, to be put up or broken down by the connection we form with the stories. Soon the walls come apart and spin through space to reveal the characters, the loves and feuds behind them–showing us the facade and the interior–turning reality inside out. Each wall becomes a tool– to convey a prison, an opportunity, a scene for a love affair, a ladder to escape, a precipice to teeter on, a firm edifice to lean upon and even a surface to juggle on, jump on and bounce off of.
The 7 Fingers have a skill for taking the deeply personal and translating it to the universal to create authentic feeling circus, especially so for the shows directed by the power duo (and co-founders), Gypsy Snider and Isabelle Chassé. And Réversible is a prime example of how that can be done.
Snider explained the creation process for Réversible in a 2016 interview, “I sent the cast out last November (2015) to start looking into their genealogy. They had to go at least to their grandparents, but some of them went as far as their great-grandparents and their great-great-grandparents. I wanted them to create characters based on where they came from, a past that they were not even aware of. The idea was that in studying that past, they might see a deeper, stronger path to how they became the people that they are.” This is a heady assignment and one that no doubt helped the artists feel rooted to who they were and connected to each other in the creation process. And yet, how detailed and personal can it get?
Humble beginnings and trials of ancestors are explored in spoken word. But through acrobatics, dance, silks, rope, juggling, and hoops the cast soldiers forward in time, unable to reverse their positions or the story of how they came to be who they were.
But can the stories of one’s grandparents be conveyed through the astounding actions of circus artists? Can we draw a parallel between an immigrant love story and a duet on pole? A stint in the war and a teeterboard duel? To varying degrees, yes, but there were times when the tightly choreographed dance and stunt synthesis of the cast felt more focused on spectacle and technique than on the dramaturgy of a good yarn–leading the audience to lose themselves instead in the visual feast and to feel the mirrored synesthetic joys of flight and flips rather than absorb the metaphors of family, life and death. A sense of place and time is never really captured in Réversible, leaving us to apply our own timeline, but the wood paneling and olive drab wall telephone, the baseball hats and the skateboards mixed with the music, lingering on lively Quebec folk music and the French jazz era, do leave incongruous hints–with the takeaway being that the stories are mostly of beginnings, ventures and humble roots, regardless of the anachronistic setting.
That said, the circus itself often felt profound, moments of comedy emerged (a clown-Emi Vauthey— who can’t manage in her wedding dress and conveys it with contortion), and connection (love for an immigrant grandmother conveyed by Hugo Ragetly in a moving juggling act around a laundry line). While not every moment of movement was apparent in its connection with the DNA of its creators, every movement certainly connected the creators with the present and with the audience. There is a poignant duo on pole with married couple Emilie and Julien Silliau. Lively illusions are revealed with korean plan between Vincent Jutras and Jeremi Levesque. Poised hand balancing juxtaposed with acrodance created tension and beauty by Maria Del Mar Reyes. Liquid movement through space, time and doors by juggler Natasha Patterson awakened curiosity.
These links between art and audience are a unique and intentional side effect of The 7 Fingers productions, giving each circus artist an irreplaceable existence in their act. Not every juggler (or audience member) remembers his grandmother hanging up clothes on a clothes line. Yet each of us have a similar memory or story about our predecessors. Nevertheless, if another juggler were to come on cast, their grandparent story would necessitate a whole different act with a unique recollection or research of their own history. The specific narrative then is crucial to the plot –which sets them apart from traditional circus and Cirque du Soleil style shows where the motions and feats themselves are where the creativity comes in, and not what the motions signal about us. And this is what makes Réversible so powerful. The poignancy evoked by the dual expression of both the uniqueness and universality of our own personal stories is as uplifting a reason as any to go see good circus.
It ends on a billowy cloud of silk, with the cast performing effortless looking acrodance in what seems a lot like our foggy notion of heaven–a place far from the gritty world of barrios and rented rooms in port towns. The utopian blank space without walls– a place humans like to imagine reunion, and the reversibility of time and actions taken and not taken, with our loved ones.
Réversible was at Krannert Center for Performing Arts in Champaign-Urbana Illinois for two shows only(March 29-30th 2019), but Krannert associate Bridget Lee Calfas assured us there will be some equally thrilling circus scheduled for next season also as part of their mission to advance audience engagement through the pursuit of excellence and innovation in performing arts.
All photos courtesy of The 7 Fingers