Seven floors for seven fingers. Was that what sold The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts De La Main) co-founders on their new Creation and Production Center? Touring the building in March and again in July (as part of the MICC) when the finishing touches were still being explored, it was easy to see the progress that had been made. In March, during our visit, Communications Manager Marion Bellin described the original offices that the staff still occupied as a smaller space nowhere near the multiple studios they had to rent for rehearsals. Here on St. Laurent boulevard at the new center, near the Quartier des Spectacles, it wasn’t just that walls were now painted, or that the office fish tank had been relocated. It was that the company had brought along the spirit of The 7 Fingers and unfurled it right there in the midst of the meandering offices and three huge and well-equipped studios, giving it the space it needed to breath and expand.
Speaking of studios: One studio is for dance, one for creation and one for training, explained our lively guide Fanny Perret. She had been schlepping curious circus industry people up and down stairs all day, pointing out the new features. The full kitchen so artists and staff could dine together. The board rooms with windows overlooking the studios so the decision makers could be inspired by the connections being developed below, the rigging points tucked discreetly in to every crevice of the hallways and waiting areas, making the building a sort of circus constructor set for events planners. It’s easy to imagine a swanky corporate fundraising event here, with aerialists popping up in every room of this refurbished building that began as a brewery, became a museum then turned circus headquarters. Hosting corporate and community events is exactly what The 7 Fingers has in mind, as well as filling up those studios with ongoing research and creation projects. The new space means new components to their business plan, so they created a Foundation to offset some of the costs of infrastructure and to help them assimilate into the new landscape they planned to inhabit–a sort of utopia of circus. This was a big move for the company, but it has been years in the making and they were confident that the time was right.
Creation & Production Time
I met the genial CEO of The 7 Fingers, Nassib el-Husseini,when his bright new office was unfurnished except for a desk–and as he took me through a series of breathing and relaxing exercises on the long walk across the empty space to his desk, his spirit of excitement about their new venture matched the squeaky clean space perfectly. “The secret to 7 Fingers is simple– its synergy and passion. If not, we would never be under the same roof. We always have a team creating somewhere far and the other team managing from over there. But just email exchanges will make people think that they are not on the same boat. Now we are on the same boat. It will help reduce irritation, and misunderstandings–when you think that your colleague is not working in the same way that you want, but it’s just because you are far. Also, it’s about passion to see the artists around you. You feel like you are doing something palpable. And not to belittle the importance of projecting professionalism when we have partners from around the world–where are we going to meet? In my basement? Or in the office? We want to be considered for projects that are in correlation with the ambitions of our founding Fingers. It’s a no-brainer! We have to switch houses!”
The story of The Seven Fingers gets passed around the circus world as a creation myth for the small circus company. It goes a little something like this: In 2002, seven chums got together to put on a show and form a company and look at them now! They are one of the most successful contemporary circus companies in the world– the proto-typical small circus company that went big, with over 200 employees, with 18 shows under their belts (that’s more than one a year) and they can boast 1000 plus performances a year. Maybe you can’t dream that big yet, little circus company of five to eight graduates, but now you can see how it’s possible–how there is a path from performers creating collectively to world tours, from directing careers to multi-million dollar corporations–if you only build your brand, stick to your mission and work hard! But of course, even the founders of The 7 Fingers admit there is more to the creation myth. There were also the magical ingredients of the right time and the right place that contributed to their success, and the success of the company did not happen just out of circus school. They had to forge their way as individual artists first.
The seven founders already had 15 years of experience as seasoned performers before they hit on the plan to work together as a company, and it didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were evolving right alongside of the circus communities of Montréal, encouraged by big brother company Cirque du Soleil and the Canadian government. But another aspect of their success is the evolution of their vision and work ethic as they tried to do it all, from creating, performing, and directing to tour managing–a work model many circus companies today still embrace for lack of another model. Co-founder and FingerSamuel Tétreault explains, “The company started 16 years ago with seven circus artists that wanted to affirm themselves and express themselves, not only as great performers on stage but also as writers and directors and choreographers and thinkers for contemporary circus. The first show was really a collective creation, the seven of us writing the show together, thinking the show, creating the show, choreographing, and performing it together.” Just as they eventually grew beyond being a team of seven hands-on circus artists, they are now growing in to a new identity–one that widens their circle and their reach.
Group Work and Growth challenges
Tétreault thinksthe secret to producing 18 shows in 16 years lies in this company strategy of co-directing. He explains how they began, “The first show was really a collective creation, with the seven of us writing the show together, thinking the show, creating the show, choreographing, and performing it together.” But as time goes by, fewer of the Fingers perform (onlyIsabelle Chassé, Patrick Léonard and Samuel Tétreaultcontinue to appear in their productions upon occasion) yet they have all transitioned into directing roles together. Tétreault describes the work sharing, in what appears to be an ever-evolving process “Every idea needs to be negotiated and everyone needs their own chance. So now we are realizing that it works best when there is kind of a project leader that really has the vision of the whole thing and takes the lead. We try to work most of the time in tandem or in trios of directors. For Vice and Vertu, I was the official artistic director and Patrick was co-directing with me. We tag team like that so we keep that collective feeling and keep the idea of enriching processes with more than one creative head. It makes it more versatile and organic and we let it evolve. We wanted this company to never be an artistic prison for any of the Fingers.”
Finger and co-founderPatrick Léonard sees things similarly, even as he notes that having a new building might change their dynamic and force it to adapt yet again, “For us it is a marriage with seven people and as long as this stays strong I really believe we can create amazing things because having all of this gives us even more freedom of creation. The burden that comes with it (the building) is that it will cost more money and therefore we will probably have a tendency to take projects because they bring in a bit more money than other projects that we would go more for with our hearts. But I think as long as we stay together strong and we help each other, the founders, I think that we can accomplish amazing things.”
Growing in to their new home will have its challenges–more demands on their resources, a growing staff, and more bills to pay to name a few.Danielle Sauvage is in charge of the fundraising department that got the Foundation aspect of the new enterprise underway. Sheexplains that although the government support and donations made their dream move possible, it will not sustain them, “We get a very small amount of our operation budget from grants. At the time being, I think it is less than 10 percent that we get from the arts councils. In Canada there are plenty of arts councils. Even here in Montreal at the municipal level. These grants are very precious, very important, but they are still minimal considering the money we need.”
ButLéonard thinks the challenges are worth it, “In a way, we are all individually responsible for this whole project, but at the same time if things go wrong for whatever reason, we are all protected. I would say we asked ourselves a lot of questions before we got to this and I would say we have the right tools to help it live for many, many years. For us of course, and for the circus community.”
“This foundation has just been launched on February 6th of 2018 with a major objective to raise funds to do things that are not business as usual,” explains El-Husseini. “The foundation takes a big role in the consolidation of the utopia of 7 Fingers. That is a utopia in this current age. I think the foundation will help us support the less commissioned works.” El-Husseini continues. In other words, moving forward, they intend to to do more than create hit shows.
Fortunately, they have powerful supporters.Guy Laliberté, founder of Lune Rouge and Cirque du Soleil, has been dubbed the honorary patron of the fundraising campaign for the foundation. He gave one million dollars at the launch. Other donors, included Investissements Québec, Daniel Gauthier, Gilles Ste-Croix, and the Caisse d’économie solidaire. Although the foundation is new, the idea of The 7 Fingers working with the local and national community is not new to them. They have been working with First Nations teenagers for 14 years on various projects overseen by Léonard. But since they are a private company, they have never had a need to broadcast their more altruistic actions to garner support, until now.El-Husseinidescribes the point of the foundation and the need to formalize it, “The idea is to work with artists in the community and open up the space for them for residencies, for training and workshops. Not only with the artistic community but also with the non-artistic community. We hope that we can be useful to people just down the street from us. We have some projects that are for us–not just fashion.”
It’s interesting to note that The 7 Fingers has its own legends. The corporate ideology that guided them through their growth as an artistic company will now inform their work as a foundation too. They themselves seem to cling to the idea of the simplicity of seven friends, a human number, big enough to make a crowd, a family, but not so big as to become monolithic. This is both their niche and their sweet spot, and it’s clear that though part of them wishes to remain in that comfort zone, the company has sailed out of it in to the uncharted waters of a mid-size artistic company with an expanding mission. And now this company finally has the physical space it needs to reach out to their artistic and physical community, hoping everyone will grow stronger as a process. El-Husseini is confident that it will work, because it’s circus, “Circus has a strength that is for our age–because it was the pioneer of multi-disciplinality and solidarity among artists, because they depend on each other or else they’ll die. Solidarity is also important in business–not just on the stage. Outside the stage we are like that and we feel it. And it’s not 100% but it’s definitely the reason we are still together and the reason GuyLaliberté just supported our foundation instead of seeing us as competition. That’s really something exceptional about circus.”
CircusTalk’s Video Tour of The 7 Fingers Creation and Production Center
Feature photo courtesy of Les 7 doigts