Here in Chicago, we think we get winter. Our unique understanding of the nuances of lake-effect snow and our ability to gripe endlessly about dibs surely preps us for the longest season of hibernation. But one thing becomes apparent when a circus company from Quebec like FLIP Fabrique comes around—and that is, we don’t know winter like they know winter—and thankfully, we never will.
In their show— Blizzard at Harris Theater, FLIP Fabrique was able to school the audience with good humor and hard truths on the intensity of the cruelest season, starting with their often-repeated motto, ‘Winter—it’s not a season—it’s a way of life!’ What is most impressive about nailing an overdone theme such as winter, is how easily it might have slipped into quaint, magical ruminations that fell flat. But FLIP Fabrique didn’t disappoint, because their relationship with winter goes way deeper than the 12-inch nor’easters they repeatedly experience between November and March.
It all begins with the darkness, the stillness, and the presence of snow drifting down upon spectral figures mysteriously bundled in parkas (costumes by Erica Schmitz) and moving through space in their solitary trajectories. The action of the show vacillates between the playfulness snow can inspire (with exciting group scenes like snowball fights that lead to juggling), and the despair that long, dark days can create illustrated with quieter or more dramatic moments (like the powerful duo act on straps for example).
Directed by Olivier Normand, with artistic direction from Bruno Gagnon, the show is a true ensemble work, with almost all distinct acts being duos or trios and with the whole cast transitioning seamlessly from dance numbers, to tramp wall to hand-to-hand and to banquine acrobatics, all while exploring communal winter vibes, helped along by radio announcements from a decidedly Canadian weatherman who seems to be stationed at some distant outpost. What follows is act after act of well-choreographed circus magic, mixing aerials (cradle, straps) with ensemble ground acrobatics and dancing, juggling and lively interplay between characters. The show flows from scene to scene expertly, enticing the audience into the action with humor and grace to match the excitement, a combination that can only be described as pure entertainment.
All of the trappings of winter are explored as well; hockey, scarves, too many layers of clothes. But done in a circus way, these trappings lead to jump rope, hoop diving and sometimes novel explorations of acrobatics (such as hoop diving with an infinity scarf.) Adding another insulating layer of charm and connection is the musician Ben Nesrallah who weaves music throughout the show, being pushed here and there on his rolling piano and sometimes getting drawn into the action. He is even briefly persuaded to play a summer song by William Jutras who transports us all into a tropical fantasy of hula hooping in a warm island setting. Jutras’ clowning antics spring up often in the show, and combined with his acrobatics, it positions him as a stand-out character whose personality brings intimacy to the show concept.
All of the set pieces roll, which adds to the feeling of being in a storm or a snowdrift, as pieces are turned and spun around to make new settings—all done by the cast itself, who are always in motion. Of particular interest is a large rectangular cube that is used in multiple ways throughout the show, acting as a bounce juggle cave, a tramp wall and an aerial rig, for example. Its presence rolling around throughout the scene shifts is hypnotic and mystifying, as it’s often full of dry ice and well lit, with people climbing in and out or on top of it for their acts.
The lighting by Caroline Ross goes a long way to setting the wintry tone of the show. Using intense backlighting, stark black and white contrasts and overhead blue lights, the scene often feels intimate in the same way the world feels when you step out in the evening to see a world muffled by white snow.
FLIP Fabrique is making a name for itself by filling an important niche (the mid-sized circus show) while creating entertaining ensemble work with high production value, Cirque du Soleil level skills, and a smaller cast capable of touring with a lighter footprint. This is the circus of the future.
This article was also published at Third Coast Review
All photos courtesy of FLIP Fabrique