COVID confinement was a difficult challenge for Annie Dugan, artistic director of Firefly Theatre and Circus. As an aerialist who quickly shimmies up six-metre silks before spinning round and round like a helicopter propeller, it’s a bit tricky to practice when the gym is closed and the only space is a room with a low ceiling at home.
Like Firefly, the pandemic nearly brought all circuses that depend on live audiences to a standstill. However, as cirques across North America are cautiously re-emerging, Dugan excitedly spent a part of her confinement organizing the inaugural Alberta Circus Arts Festival.
Since the pandemic is still active and there is a degree of uncertainty, she navigated different health and safety rules by offering the festival online from today to June 27.
First Dugan wants to build a regional voice, followed by a national voice from all the circus clusters spread across the country.
“We’ve never had a national voice. Montreal has the best coaches, the best schools, the best everything. That’s because of the resources the Quebec government puts into the art form. As a result, we have to do more with less. Every area has their own flavour and identity, but all these regional voices have never had a national voice,” Dugan said.
The three-day event reunites classic and contemporary arts with international professionals and novice performers. It features a film celebrating circus, a virtual tour of Alberta’s circus studios, a juggling workshop, a storyboard workshop, an industry panel discussion, and an information session with En Piste, the National Circus Arts Alliance.
One of the most anticipated events is wunderkind Krista Monson’s 90-minute, free masterclass on creating a work from concept to stage. It launches the festival today at 4 p.m.
Now based in Las Vegas, the St. Albert-raised artist is one of the most relevant creatives of large-scale spectacles in the world today. She has reinvented contemporary circus using stilt-walkers, fire-breathers, jaw-dropping acrobatics, live music, flamboyant costumes and stunning high-tech sets. As a visual storyteller, her top priority is keeping the show’s poetry and soul alive.
Monson wrote and directed the stunning 2018 production, VIVID, for the Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin. In an unprecedented honour, she was the first woman in the theatre’s history to serve as both writer and director.
Prior to 2018, Monson spent 13 years with Cirque du Soleil, first as artistic director of O at the Bellagio, then as casting director, writer, stage, and creative director for the resident shows worldwide.
Interestingly, Monson received her big-spectacle start in Edmonton when she was tapped to choreograph the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Athletics. As the third-largest sporting event in the world, it was televised to an audience of 1.4 billion people.
“She’s such a creative force. As a woman director, she’s had amazing opportunities and she’s the perfect person to inspire emerging artists or someone like me,” said Dugan.
In a Gazette telephone interview, Monson said she spends about 80 per cent of the time working from her office. But whether plotting in the office or directing on set, she consistently finds a down-to-earth approach works best with circus artists.
“My experience working with circus artists is they have grit and discipline. They show up for work every day. With circus, it’s all about trust. They take big risks. If an artist doesn’t trust you, then it’s a no-go. That trust is by conversation, looking you in the eye, and your skills. It's down to being human-to-human. It’s not about a nice smile. It’s about getting into the heart,” Monson said.
Whether interpreting a story from a ready-made script or writing her own material, there is no how-to manual. A vital element to consider when developing story design is making sure it is connected to the emotion and aesthetics of each specific scene.
“It’s fantastic, but you have to try to figure out things on your own and sometimes you’re scratching your head. For young creators it feels like an overwhelming creative mess. We say it’s like juggling Jell-O,” she said.
“But it’s absolutely normal. It’s essential to have it and sift through that. Creating something out of nothing requires a great deal of listening and making it work. Creation is a paradox of structure and flexibility. We have structure for the creation path, but we also have flexibility to play within that structure.”
Monson did her share of hair pulling in 2013 when Guy Laliberté, cirque founder, asked her to create an original show for One Drop, a global philanthropic organization that raises funds and awareness to ensure access to water around the world.
“I wrote and directed One Night for One Drop. I loved it but I had a pit in my stomach. It was a high-stakes show. I had to create a massive spectacle in seven months, which is unheard of. Even though it put a lot of pressure on me, I had a fantastic time and we raised a great deal of money.”
Creating this humanitarian show gave Monson insights as to why she creates flamboyant extravaganzas.
“That show made me realize that when there’s a purpose, I can help people in a way that makes a lasting impact. I realized we all contribute in different ways and I could use my skills in different ways. That show was very special to me.”
Kristi Wade, another former St. Albert resident, performs in a video titled Circus Scenes from a Pandemic on June 26 at 8:30 p.m. Wade was a regional aerialist who performed airborne routines before she was hired by Cirque de Soleil to perform in Toruk.
She toured with Toruk for four years before the pandemic sidelined all artists. She returned to her home turf in Australia and has partnered with Kirby Myers for a virtual show.
For tickets visit www.albertacircusarts.com.