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Montreal's Circus Culture Hides In Plain Sight (PHOTOS)

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CIRCUS
Rolande Lorent

At the edge of Montreal's Saint-Michel neighborhood, a zone known for the diversity of its immigrant populations and street gangs, a relatively unremarkable office park perches on the edge of a landfill. The glassy facades of the three buildings are pleasantly unremarkable in the way that most office park buildings occupied by accountants, insurance agents and software developers are pleasantly unremarkable. The parking lots are filled with average cars.

This is all to say that a passerby hustling along Boulevard Saint-Michel hoping not to get mugged would probably never guess that this place is devoted to pushing the physical limits of the human body, making the impossible achievable through practice.

The buildings are the Ecole National De Cirque, the TOHU Cite Des Arts Du Cirque and the International Headquarters of Cirque du Soleil. They house, on any given day, what may well be the highest concentration of traditional circus skill in the world. Inside, men and women bend themselves into unlikely shapes, hoist each other high into the air and ride very, very, very small bicycles.

Wandering the halls of the Ecole National De Cirque -- unfortunately off limits to the general public -- is like walking the halls of that mutant prep school from the X-Men comic books. In one room, a group of 13-year-olds diligently read and answer questions. In the next room, two women roll around in metal wheels, spinning like quarters about to go heads up only to return to their rims again. Through one door, a clown does a silent, mesmerizing dance while laughing to himself.

It should be said that not all the rooms here are the same size. Some are classrooms, others are basically airplane hangers carpeted with pads and foam shape filled pools so aerialists can practice their most dangerous tricks on wires, corde lisse and aerial hoops.

The graduates of this academy of the unbelievable frequently go to work for their neighbors, Cirque Du Soleil. The Cirque building is a no more than 100 yards away and the demand for their particular skills is amplified by their obvious scarcity.

The place where travelers are most like to meet this community of performers is the TOHU center, which hosts regular performances and serves as a sort of liaison to the Saint-Michel Neighborhood, employing locals in entry-level jobs and handing out free tickets to its elaborate shows to local organizations.

During the day, TOHU is a quiet place. Performers chat in the dark, circular theater where they will perform come evening. This is not Barnum and Bailey's so their are no animals or goofs. Levity is injected during the gasps after performers attempt something truly terrifying. In the service of these attempts, everybody seems to be stretching pretty much all the time.

At night, the center fills as locals and plenty of paying customers arrive to view a presentation of ID, a West Side Story-inspired performance with a hip hop flavor. The first performers on stage dance, quite simply and quite well until one hoists the other above his head on one head and she decides to do a one-handed handstand on his extended palm. The trick is far from complicated because it isn't really a trick, it's just something humans can do. The audience claps enthusiastically because they didn't know that.

In many ways the whole performance is about educating the audience about what they could do if they put there mind to it. Here are a few things they could do: Stack chairs on top of one until they are twenty five feet up and standing on their hands, jump rope inside of an already swinging jump rope, bounce on a bike up a staircase then between somebody's legs, do sideways pull ups on a vertical pole, juggle seven bouncing balls against a glass wall to a rhythm, tap a shoulder with a foot curled over the back.

Of course the audience will never do any of these things because the audience doesn't work in this unremarkable office park on the edge of Montreal's worst neighborhood. To do something this extraordinary, you have to be willing to devote your life to practice. You have to go to work every day like everyone else.

Impossible isn't an amazing thing, its the same thing, again and again.

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