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October 25, 2001 Michael Montanaro joins the circus to reinvent it



Michael Montanaro

Michael Montanaro

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Anna Bratulic

In 1984, a small group of Quebec street performers started a show based on daring acrobatics and a stunningly modern theatrical look. That little band grew to be the Emmy-Award-winning Cirque du Soleil, employing some 2,000 people, with half a dozen fabulously successful shows running concurrently around the world.

This year, the Cirque includes Michael Montanaro, chair of Concordia’s Contemporary Dance Department. He was invited to choreograph the Cirque’s next production, slated to open in April. The show does not yet have a name, and Montanaro is sworn to secrecy through his contract.

“The interesting thing about this particular show is that since the beginning, they’ve had the same creative team, same choreographers, same director, and almost always the same composer. Even though the shows changed, there was a certain signature about the way things looked, a formula.

“One of their first shows was called We Reinvent The Circus. They want this [new show] to be again a re-invention of the circus. They want us to go the next step in changing the way people perceive a circus to be,” he said.

As one of the people hired to inject new blood into the Cirque’s creative team, Montanaro has had to learn to choreograph acrobatics without any acrobatics experience.

“There is some [dance] choreography, but I’m more like a movement director. Because I’m not a trained gymnast — because I can’t grab two straps and fly 20 feet in the air and pull my whole weight up and twist like this — I can’t say, ‘Today we’re going to try this.’ What happens is, I work with two coaches and the people who are going to be performing the act, and we develop a whole vocabulary.”

In order to mentally process the fledgling acts, he videotapes the day’s rehearsals and creates a library of movement. He then goes into an editing program, such as Final Cut Pro, and chooses movements to put together in a sequence and overlap, or fade, one into another. The resulting video collage gives him a feeling for the dynamic, he says.

His largest production

Montanaro has often used video and other multimedia to create and execute his own contemporary dance shows. Often, he says, his 90-minute shows consist of sets mounted with mobile projection screens. He also uses 16mm film, animation and slide projections to create a live-looking environment for the performers.

“You’d have people walk towards a movie screen, disappear and come out on the film. Or else they’d fall off the top of one screen and end up falling through [successive screens depicting scenes in] history. They were very large productions that used technology to create environments for the work.”

However, this Cirque du Soleil production is even larger, the largest Montanaro has ever worked on, with a cast of 52 performers and musicians from all over the world and an overall budget of $22 million. He scoffs at the notion that because it’s a circus, it’s silly and banal.

“Entertainment often has a bad connotation in terms of the fine arts, but I think that the Cirque du Soleil has raised the level of the work so high that there’s something there that goes beyond entertainment,” he said. “I think they’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with making people feel good — something that artists are afraid to do.

“There’s a thought pattern that occurs in contemporary art that says if something is not dark, it has no content. I’ve never believed that as an artist.”

Despite all the fun he seems to be having, Montanaro will be back at his post at Concordia next year.