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Julien Siliau performs on the German Wheel - photo courtesy of Joelle Guédon

PSY is a Wild Ride

By Jared Davidson on June 21, 2012

Last night PSY, the new circus project from Les 7 Doigts de la Main, opened to an enraptured audience at the NAC theatre. The show features a dynamic and engaging mix of theatre, circus, and dance (not that kind of dance; the cool kind), and while the founding members of Les 7 Doigts are alumni of the fabled Cirque du Soleil, this show is most certainly not a Cirque du Soleil show.

While Cirque has always been about the grand spectacle, Les 7 Doigts focuses more on the talents and personality of an individual performer. The first clue to this approach can be found in the show’s program, ninety percent of which describes the eleven performers in the show, with one measly line of text dedicated to the production and artistic directors (the 7 Doigts that the company is named for). This show is about power, dynamism and skill. But most of all, this show is about the performers.

One of these performers is Guillaume Biron. He was raised in France and, as a young boy, ran away from home to join the circus. Just kidding. As Biron describes it, his beginnings as a circus performer seems to have had more to do with a loving mother than any trope a writer like myself could conjure up. “It happened because my mom wanted me to do something on Wednesday afternoon,” he smiles. Biron is a pretty down-to-earth fellow for someone touring with one of the biggest shows around.

As the program guide is eager to point out, he is an expert in the fixed trapeze. Humble as anything, it’s clear that Biron thinks of PSY as a team effort, one in which the talents of one performer never overshadow the talents of others.

And that’s really what PSY is all about. The show moves seamlessly from group efforts, no doubt involving endless hours of choreography, to highly personal individual performances, like Biron’s on the fixed trapeze. It features juggling, tumbling, high-flying, and everything you’d expect from a circus show of this calibre. All of the individual performances feed into the narrative of the performance, one which addresses psychological pathologies and quirks of the human mind. Each of the performers represents a different psychological disorder or oddity. For example, Biron’s character hears voices in his head.

And yet the talents of the artists are never sacrificed at the altar of the message, but rather contribute to it. It seems that this is largely due to the atmosphere behind the scenes.

For Biron, gymnastics has always been about free expression. As a young boy, his love of the gym was in part due to its relaxed atmosphere: “It was just one teacher. We all warmed up together, and then afterwards it was wide open for an hour.” He could do, try, be what he wanted for that hour, with minimal guiding instruction from the teacher.

Perhaps this love of freedom and artistry is what brought him to 7 Doigts. “They are really open,” he says of the directors. “I’ve never felt like it has to be this way. That’s what I like. It’s a bit loose. I have to respect and understand the show, but I don’t have to be that precise.” He explains that the directors of the show are often the catalyst for the ideas. For example, the director may ask to see a duet about a specific element and then leave the artists to determine how that might work on a mechanical level. Then the director returns and helps to hone the product. The talents of the artists are what take precedent.

It sounds like an excellent work environment, and if the performance I witnessed last night is any guide, the directorial style seems to have paid off. PSY is dazzling and engaging. There is a level of polish here that is rarely seen in this kind of production. The show makes great use of projected graphics to set a scene and create an atmosphere. The music is fantastic, featuring such acts as Caravan Palace, and adds flavour and hipness to what is already a great experience.

But the best part, the core of the show is the single performer, and the show is at its best when all the trimmings are stripped away in service of the drama of a single person doing something incredible. In one scene, an agoraphobic woman (played by Danica Gagnon-Plamondon) “learns to use” a swinging trapeze under the guidance of the other performers who watch from below. She begins to swing higher and higher until she *pretends* to slip. If your heart doesn’t skip three or four beats in that instant… well, it may be because I told you it was coming. But the show is full of sequences like that: stuff that has the potential to connect with the audience in the way that the adrenaline of high-spectacle cannot.

The show is not without its small flaws (some of the dance sequences seem a little dragged out, and there is one slightly uncomfortable scene in which a “little girl” plays with knives in a slightly-too-sexualized way), but on the whole it is an incredible rush of a show. I expected incredible performances, but I was surprised at how well the theme ties together what could be fairly disparate acts. Each of the feats performed has some kind of significance toward the difficulties of the character portrayed, and the mental illnesses are always dealt with in a respectful and thoughtful manner. As Biron says, “there is a lot of humour in the show,” but it is tasteful, intelligent humour. “We don’t want to laugh about people with these problems, but we try to find the lightness in it. It can be beautiful as well.” How French.

PSY plays at the NAC theatre at 7pm tonight, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets are available through the NAC box office and Ticketmaster.