The circus skills are top notch in ‘Together Apart, Summer, Cirque’ — a welcome return to live performance in the GTA

Together Apart, Summer Cirque

Created by Isabelle Chassé of the 7 Fingers. Until Aug. 1 at the Markham Fairgrounds, 10801 McCowan Rd., Markham.

Pageantry, family fun and world-class circus skills, all under the warm night sky? Yes, please! The hour-long show “Together Apart, Summer Cirque” marks a welcome return to live performance in the GTA.

The event takes place at the Markham Fairgrounds, with audience platforms spread out on two sides of a raised stage. Each platform seats up to six people and audience members can take off their masks once they’re seated. There are two big screens on which the live action is projected, sometimes filmed by the circus performers themselves. You can order snacks and drinks using an app, and servers wearing masks run orders to the platforms. It’s a great festival atmosphere, all the more welcome given that this will be the first live event most audience members have attended in over a year.

The show is created by Isabelle Chassé of the 7 Fingers, a leading contemporary circus company based in Montreal. What makes contemporary circus different from the traditional Barnum and Bailey variety is that there is no ringmaster, but rather a theme or narrative that holds a series of circus acts together.

Here, there is a wisp of a story about a group of 10 revellers dressed as fairy-tale figures who converge on the stage for a summertime party. One of them (Sabine Van Rensburg) is searching for her true identity and eventually becomes part of the gang, which is symbolized by her discovering a red costume underneath her yellow one. This didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me, but that doesn’t really matter: the point here is the circus acts and the spectacle, and in this the show delivers.

Chassé makes the most of a runway leading up to the stage (set design is by Marianne Benny-Perron): the show starts with a procession reminiscent of the Parade of Nations at the Olympics, with the performers waving flags that match their colourful costumes (designed by Elen Ewing). The procession is repeated toward the end of the show, with torches letting out beautiful pastel-coloured steam in the place of the flags — a striking effect that presumably works in daylight as well as nighttime (I attended the 9:30 p.m. show and there’s also one that starts at 6:30).

The circus acts include hoop diving, Cyr wheel (performers spiralling inside and around big metal wheels), aerial silks, juggling and Chinese pole: acrobats scrambling up, spinning around and doing death dives off of vertical poles. The skills of these performers, many of them trained at the National Circus School in Montreal, are top notch and overall the show feels very 2021 in how it challenges traditionally gendered expectations around circus acts.

Initially it plays into those traditional codes: guys (Lucas Boutin, Yann Leblanc, Mikaël Bruyère-L’Abbé) do Cyr wheel, while a lovely lady (Sabine van Rensburg) does aerial work. But pretty soon, it mixes things up in unpredictable and exciting ways. It’s great to see a combination of male-identified and female-identified performers (including Léonie Pilote) working on the Chinese pole; and Brin Schoellkopf, with a shock of peroxided hair and a long trench coat, cuts a graceful, elegant figure while literally dancing on a tightrope. Maude Parent’s aerial hoop act feels more like an exploration of strength and vulnerability than an affirmation of gender norms.

Most thrillingly, Louis Joyal and Samuel Renaud partner together on the Russian cradle, a sort of human trapeze hand-to-hand act in which one of the performers stands on a platform and throws the other in the air. It’s traditionally a man and a woman who partner on this apparatus; having two men work together here and embrace the intimacy and trust involved is beautiful to see, and Chassé underlines the importance of the act by having the rest of the company watch it attentively and embrace their fellow performers at the end.

A teeterboard act, with acrobats (including Jérôme Hugo) spiralling high into the air and whipping up the crowd to cheer them on, offers a fun and exciting finale.

The show is nicely timed at an hour long and the little girls on the platform next to me were loving it, dancing along to the music (composed by Antoine Seychal and Colin Gagné) and getting particularly excited when the performers acknowledged the audience’s presence. Those sensitive to sound and light may want to sit further back as the music is loud and the lighting effects (designed by Erwann Bernard) bright and ever-changing.

Audience members are instructed to arrive at least 45 minutes before show time and this is highly advised, as there is a single lane of cars to the parking lot after the initial ticket check-in point and this will surely get congested when the show is sold out (happily, the route out of the parking lot is a lot more straightforward). The show isn’t cheap — tickets start at $ 65; that’s per person, not per platform — but for families starved for entertainment and diversion it’s a good night out.