Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
I am a late arrival to the experience of contemporary circus, and if Passengers performed by The 7 Fingers now playing at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre is any indication of what I have been missing, I have been making a huge mistake in not attending a performance years ago. I am now hooked and can’t wait to go again.
Presented by ArtsEmerson, this United States premiere is not your father’s big top. Contemporary circus brings the essence of circus combined with dance, music, and a theme that runs throughout the performance. In this case the theme is passengers on a train that can be interpreted different ways, but at bottom it is what the production notes say; “The journey is the destination” and that captures it perfectly.
What I witnessed was astounding. Performances of death defying feats (and I am not exaggerating when I use that term) moving seamlessly from one to another while tapping into a wonderment that at times was mesmerizing. This was mixed with a raw beauty and a celebration of the human body that was breathtaking.
The performance opens with eight performers boarding a train and using their breath to create the sound of the locomotive picking up speed. Rear projections, shadows and silhouettes are used subtly and with great effect. The action moves to each performers’ particular talent while never straying from the theme. Freyja Wild with hula hoops demonstrates an art form I didn’t know existed. Hoops were rolling in from off stage and Ms Wild would catch them with her feet, hands, and arms. She was fascinating to watch.
Freyja also plays ukulele and sings a tune entitled Roam about her colleague Sabine Van Rensburg who performs using aerial silks. The song describes the beauty that Sabine creates while climbing high on the gorgeous silks that make her appear to be floating on clouds that she has made. While this is extremely dangerous and physically incredibly challenging, she looks as if she is doing it all effortlessly. I couldn’t help but think of the lines from the poem “High Flight”; “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth.” as I watched.
Sereno Aguilar Izzo displays a number of talents highlighted by his juggling that is both deeply intricate and humorous. At one point he was tossing about more balls than I could count, catching them in not only his hands, but with the crux of his elbows, chin, and in his shirt. His expressions contained a warmth that was charming and kind.
To a tango/blues version of St. Louis Blues, Sereno and Sabine worked the trapeze. At times the two appeared as one with their bodies connected and arms and legs seeming to be extensions of each other. The musical arraignment was superb as was the performance.
Contortionist Maude Parent put on a display that had my tight and aching back envious. What makes this special is she is not performing a feat as much as giving expression with her amazing talent that touches on the beauty and adaptability of the human body. It isn’t so much being an observer of what she was doing as being moved deeply by it.
As with Ms Parent, Brin Schoellkopf’s performance on the tight wire was about grace and balance, something that speaks to us as we strive to lead better lives. This is not to take away from his amazing physical talent but to appreciate how he uses it to convey much more than just the physical.
Conor Wild is a master of the Chinese pole. The smooth metal pole rises high from the center of the stage and Mr. Wild climbs it without any aids. Once at the top he performs moves that make him appear weightless. At times when he is reaching out from the pole with only his leg barely wrapped around it to hold him, he looks free and peaceful.
Towards the conclusion, Louis Joyal and Samuel Renaud give a performance of Russian cradle. Playing on a theme that runs throughout the production, this epitomizes the trust one human will place in another to survive a dangerous challenge. From a platform erected high above the stage, Joyal makes acrobatic flips and leaps into the air trusting Samuel to catch him as he begins to fall. Renaud covers his hands and forearms in rosin for a better grip. The powder drifts into the air. This combined with rear wall projection gives an amazing feeling that was like something out of scene from an old movie showing the steam from trains at a station.
I have given a rundown of the various parts of Passengers, but it is not a series of acts. Rather, it is an interwoven work that creates an emotional stirring within. It is contemplative, thought provoking, and inspiring. The mixture of theatre, dance, and music with circus performance skills results in an expressive art form unto itself.
The music is mostly original and the arrangements are excellent. In fact, I have just purchased the score which is a joy to listen to by itself. Lyrics, music, and arrangements are by Colin Gagne in collaboration with Jean-Sebastian LeBlanc, Boogat, Freyj Wild, and Jerome Guilleume. Direction and choreography are by Shana Carroll.
I think what I found most impressive, and there was plenty to be impressed by, was that while these talented people were in constant danger of serious injury and even death, I never felt they would get hurt. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was the fact that they were not emphasizing the death defying aspect of what they were doing, but rather the beauty contained in their movements, which were indeed beautiful. The other, and more important part was how they conveyed the trust they had in one another. They had no hesitation at all when leaping, hanging, swinging, or balancing that they would be there for one another. There was a beauty in that display of the human spirit that was deeply moving. I might also add that each had to trust in his and her self; to have the confidence their training, practice, and physical conditioning would carry them through. It is all quite remarkable.
Seeing Passengers is an incredible experience. It is something you most likely will want to see more than once. ArtsEmerson continues to enhance its reputation for bringing the unusual and unique to Boston stages. I look forward to seeing much more in the future.
Through October 13
Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street, Boston