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.