Intimate circus show employs music, movement and memories to share the joy of cooking
By Bliss Bowen
The stereotype of circus and theatrical troupes creating their own families proves doubly true with Les 7 Doigts and their current show “Cuisine & Confessions,” which tumbles into The Broad Stage this weekend. According to Shana Carroll, who choreographed and co-directs the show with husband Sébastien Soldevila, it is a sensory exploration of cast members’ personal memories.
The trigger for those memories seems an unlikely inspiration for a circus piece: food.
“My husband and I were brainstorming on the next show we were going to create; we had already cast the group of acrobats we wanted to work with, and we were in our kitchen,” Carroll recalls in a rapid-fire stream. “My husband is incredibly passionate about cooking and food, and I joked that if we quit circus we could open a food truck.”
As the notion of creating a circus cooking show dawned, they wondered if it was even possible. When Carroll remembered her step-grandmother’s memoir-cum-recipe book “Young and Hungry,” they recognized that an autobiographical approach fit well with the ethos of Les 7 Doigts (the 7 Fingers), the intimate contemporary circus they co-founded 15 years ago after leaving Cirque du Soleil.
“We want to have the performers share often intimate details about their real life so we feel like we get to know them onstage,” Carroll explains, “and then we care about them when [laughs] they do death-defying tricks. It worked. As soon as they began to tell these stories of their lives through their sense memories of the kitchen, we realized we weren’t forcing these things together. In fact, food is at the center of critical turning points of their life. Once we really delved into all their personal stories — which were great stories, some very tragic, politically charged, socially charged — it became a lot of meaty material. No pun intended.”
One Argentinean performer climbs and manipulates his pole apparatus to physicalize the story of how, when he was eight months old, his father was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the military government. In rehearsal, Carroll says, they talked about giving food as an act of love: “How do you serve food to a man that’s being put to his death?” In depicting horror, he finds beauty, using his craft to gratefully, prayerfully express the necessity of “making a beautiful life.”
A social circus program helped two other performers break free of their violent St. Louis neighborhood; onstage, they dive through hoops representing pictures of their past. “It’s this feeling of escaping through windows and doors,” Carroll says. “There’s also a celebratory feeling, and it imbues hope.”
Onstage, the kitchen becomes a kind of spice-dusted confessional, where lithely muscled performers twirl in clouds of flour and congregate around a shared chopping block to prepare a dish whose ingredients — pasta, chopped vegetables, herbs and grated cheese — emit what Carroll calls “a strong hallucinatory smell.” Those aromas and striking visuals match the intensity of the stories. In one number, the joy of cooking comes alive as everybody dances in the kitchen — while cooking an omelet. Banana bread baked during the show is later shared with the audience.
“There were all these layers,” Carroll says of discoveries the troupe made during rehearsals. “The show is performed very playfully, but it has deeper layers.”
The boldness of circus acrobatics would seem to run counter to the intimacies of preparing and sharing food. But Carroll, a self-described “theater kid” who joined San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus before training on trapeze in Montreal and France, takes exception to that suggestion.
“I think circus is very intimate,” she says. “One defining characteristic of circus you can’t get away from is it’s very celebratory, because it’s in the nature of circus that you’re attempting to do something that seems impossible and hopefully succeeding at it. So there’s something inherently joyful. Pairing it with a deeper, darker side actually complements it really well, because it kind of shows the whole picture and then it becomes about hope, and about being life-affirming.
“I think of it sometimes like a monologue: circus performers becoming very vulnerable in front of you, and doing things that are very difficult for your enjoyment —there’s a fragility to it.”
Circus performers are not typically trained dancers, Carroll points out, so the physical vocabulary they developed in rehearsals is “really organic.”
“Theater people can be great movers, great dancers when they tap into something very individual and organic to them; less so when they have to learn steps that are prerecorded,” she observes. “So we did a lot of improvisation … physicalizing emotion” and setting intention-based moves.
Carroll, a Berkeley native, has strong memories of childhood summers with her father in Santa Monica. She now lives with her daughter and husband in a renovated convent in Montreal, where they’ve been settled since helping to launch Les 7 Doigts.
Soldevila directed the “Circus Princess” opera last year in Moscow; Carroll, who also directed and choreographed a circus number at the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony, worked on Cirque du Soleil’s “Paramour” on Broadway.
Carroll is reluctant to share the “very seedling forms of ideas” they are mulling over for their next production. But amidst escalating sociopolitical turmoil, it seems likely “Cuisine & Confessions” will not be their only unorthodox subject.
“We used to hesitate [to make] political statements,” she acknowledges. “Live entertainment can be an escape from those things. But with the recent climate, it feels more like something we want to address.”
Performances of “Cuisine & Confessions” happen at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 16 to 18) at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $50 to $95. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit 7fingers.com.