The Montréal Cirque Festival Is Modern, Inventive, & Wonderfully Weird


I love festivals. Ten-day concerts? Food fairs? Holidays where people throw oranges at each other? Sign me up for the whole slate. If you’ve got humans of wide-ranging backgrounds coming together under one banner in the name of fun or food, I’m for it. It’s a radical take, I know.

As broad as my festival love is, my tastes have been refined a little over the years. I’ll still 100% give my Saturday to any fest under the sun, but I find that the ones I love most have a few things in common. They’re a little weird, there’s an element of depth, and they blend interested locals with eager travelers. That’s my recipe for a festival worth crossing time zones for — and it’s exactly what I found at the Montréal Cirque Festival (Montréal Complétement Cirque, in French).

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I arrived in Montréal with only two things on my mind: Poutine and circus. Poutine because French fries piled with cheese curds and doused in gravy sounds like a dish I would either A) invent, or B) bathe in. Circus because… I like circuses. Not the giant-lumbering-elephant-getting-jabbed-by-a-trainer-with-a-hook type of circuses, but the modern type. The type where acrobats throw one another around like toys, clowns are post-modern, and neon lights abound. Though I knew very little about Montréal Cirque Festival before going, I knew that it would be all of these — influenced by the new wave of circuses that popped up after Cirque du Soleil.

The first show I saw was held in a theater the evening I arrived. The festival is split between more formal presentations, like this, and outdoor performances. Backbone — which had been my first pick of shows to see after reading the program — was created by an Aussie troop and billed as “breathtaking acrobatics, unparalleled energy, and irresistible charm.” As a person who is heavily biased in favor of Australians, that sounded like most of the country to me and I was eager to see what the mad troupe from Down Under had in store.

The show didn’t dissapoint. It was a mix of brute strength, incredible flexibility, circus-kid weirdness, and Australian gusto. The troupe — who grew up together and are famously close — had built out a show that was meant to feel loose, like a rehearsal. There were feats of strength and balance, but also games that seemed to have been ripped straight from their warmup routines. They started the show by covering the stage in shredded rubber (like the little bits that are sealed together to make a running track), and the rest of the time every skid or landing was punctuated by a rooster tail of rubber catching in the neon lights.

For me, the highlight of watching Backbone actually came after the show was over, in a Q & A. I’ve lived my life thinking that I was one of very few genuine circus nerds on earth, but I was quickly proven wrong. The cast of Backbone — themselves young, fit, and beautiful — were peppered with questions from aspiring circus performers from around the world. A whole group of 20-year-olds from Mexico City were in the house. In fact, all the questions in the session came from aspiring acrobats, all young, all eager to learn, and all a bit starstruck.

In case you were worried, the future of circuses seems strong.

Gravity and Other Myths

By the time Backbone‘s Q & A was over, and I’d gotten on the subway and made it back to the city, all of Montréal’s famous poutine spots were closed. In fact, most of the city seemed shuttered. I knew there were clubs open somewhere, but I was too tired to find them. What I was really interested in was food. Lots of it.

With this aim, I wandered into the city’s Chinatown — which was bustling at midnight and had plenty of open restaurants to choose from. It’s always nice to find Chinatown in any big city and Montréal’s was legit. I could tell simply by the proliferation of signs in Chinese. I walked up a narrow flight of stairs to a Cantonese restaurant called “Amigo” — a flourish of incongruity that might have been alarming if it weren’t for the fact that the place was completely packed.

Having not eaten all day, I ordered an amount of food that would be perfectly typical for a group of four, then proceeded to look around the dining room. If ever there was going to be a PSA made, advertising a truly post-racial world, it should be filmed inside a Chinese restaurant in Montréal. Every table was its own little United Colors of Benetton ad, and I heard five languages in my first ten minutes inside. It was a lovely scene and left me feeling deeply melancholic about the state of immigration and race back in the US.

Just before I spiraled off into my thoughts on the matter and started composing a thinkpiece, a plate of shrimp lo mein arrived — pulling me back into the moment. It was delicious. As were the pork wontons and the dumpling soup. I discovered late in my meal that the salt and pepper pork chops at Amigo are famous throughout the city, but at some point, the human stomach has done enough stretching for one night. I settled up and headed back to the Hotel Monville.

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The next morning, while sipping a very hipstery iced mocha, I strolled along St. Denis street — which is both the heart of the city and the circus scene. Later that day, I’d be heading back for outdoor performances, but for the moment I just wanted to take in the vibe of Montréal. It’s a fact, that northern cities are better than southern ones at “doing summer.” Residents of Los Angeles and Miami can never hope to appreciate the sun the way that Monréalers do. Literally, everyone was out. They wore t-shirts, they ate ice cream, they laughed and took photos and bought gauzy pants from street vendors, as if summer would last for an eternity.

Within three blocks I posted on Instagram about moving to the city, before being warned off of this brashness by a freind in LA who knew all about the cold Canadian winters.

Along the street, there were booths set up for people to try their hands at the circus arts and I discovered that — though humans can do anything and my potential is as boundless as a stunning Montréal summer day — I probably won’t be getting hired to perform aerial acrobatics with silks anytime soon. There seems to be a core conflict between the abdominal strength required for this practice and the fact that it was 11 am and I’d already eaten my first poutine and a bagel (Montréal’s bagels are boiled in honey water and taste distinctly sweet).

Jamie Adkins / Montreal Cirque Festival

Between Poutine’s one and two (a wonderful method for telling time), I headed back to the suburbs to see Jamie Adkins — a clown originally born in San Diego — perform the opening of his show A Fool’s Errand (Espieglerie in French). The piece was a medley of mishaps by Adkins, accompanied by a marm-y tubist. It was mostly mimed, loaded with acrobatics and other circus skills, and deftly blended broad humor (seriously, the kids in the audience roared) with a melancholy clown’s reflection on aging. I loved it. In fact, this is where the festival really came alive for me. I was just so thrilled to see that an artist like Adkins could find his perfect audience through the Montréal circus scene.

“Québec’s spirit matches perfectly with this festival,” Adkins told me after the show. “People are open, they’re welcoming, they’re experimental. They’re willing to take chances. Those are the same words I’d use to describe circus.”

With those phrases ringing in my ears, I headed back into town to St. Denis. Did I sit for another poutine? Reader, you’d better believe it. This time I went to Frite Alors, where I ordered my cheese curds and fries covered with Korean barbecue beef and kimchi. It came heavily recommended and sounded like it would be terrible. I was very dubious and spent my wait time in a fearful state of food FOMO.

I was wrong to be worried. Apparently, cheese and gravy work with everything; they certainly worked stunningly here. Im pretty sure that cheese and gravy poured atop rusted iron would be a four-star meal.

Full and feeling wonderfully excited about Montréal, I began to follow a troupe of circus students down St. Denis. Every few feet they’d stop and perform acrobatics. In one of these interludes, a young woman stood on one hand and rotated in circles for minutes at a time; in another, a young man danced and juggled inside a plexiglass box. The entire troupe wore the same outfit and had Ziggy Stardust-style makeup on. Later, there was a flying trapeeze act performed to “Sweet Transvestite” from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Montreal Complètement Cirque

I followed the students to a square where the show Pheonix (Phénix) was set to begin on an outdoor stage. If Jamie Adkins’ performance was where the festival came alive for me, this is where I fell in love. The act started with a setpiece, starring two men, that was essentially the plot of Call me by Your Name, but with juggling. It was delicate and tender and achingly beautiful.

Then the acrobatics began in full. The entire troupe was designed to appear gender fluid and the audience absolutely loved it. There was a scene where men wore dresses and women wore smocks — not as a joke but as a fashion statement — and through all of this, they performed some of the most stunning acrobatics I’ve ever witnessed in my life (including a section with aerialists dropping from the sky on silks, which I can now say with authority, is very difficult). The second the show ended, I wheeled to my friends and made them promise we’d come back for the evening performance two hours later.

Between shows, I had a drink and (this is getting obsessive and over-the-top, I know) another massive helping of poutine. (Someone in Canada — not Montréal, they’re far too accepting — will read this article and roll their eyes. And to that person, I’m sorry. But poutine in the states is trash and I like what I like.) Afterward, hustling to get back to the square in time to score a seat on a pallet for Phénix’s second performance, I jogged past a random The War On Drugs show — because apparently there are so many festivals in Montréal during July that they all overlap.

Phénix was just as stunning — as bold and electric and fearless — the second time around. As I walked back to my hotel at around 4am that morning, after copious drinks with a whole crew of jugglers, clowns, and tightrope walkers, I realized that I didn’t know Montréal. I was leaving in the morning and I’d really only been on one street and inside a few restaurants. I’d have to come back to truly savvy out the city.

But I did know the poutine scene. And even more than that, I knew the Montréal Cirque Festival. It was strange and artful and accepting. It was filled with moments of beauty and pathos and humor. It was weird and deep and endlessly pleasing to both locals and tourists… just like I’d hoped. And I’m so glad I got to experience it first hand.
Montréal Cirque Festival runs until July 15. For the Uproxx Press trip policy, see here.