Physical theater company Machine de Cirque performs the U.S. premiere of La Galerie at Festival Hall June 8 | Photo provided

Machine de Cirque company member Connor Houlihan thinks of La Galerie as a roller-coaster ride for the audience. 

“We bring you up on the roller coaster, and we just let you fall and go crazy,” he said. “But then the landing is super smooth, and we bring you back down really softly.”

The off-stage journey for La Galerie, which opens June 8 at Spoleto Festival USA, had its own highs, lows and unexpected turns. Machine de Cirque began developing the piece in 2018 at Cirque au Sommet, an international circus festival held in Switzerland. After rounds of workshopping, La Galerie was ready by early March 2020. 

“We were like, ‘Oh, cool, that’s the show,’” said director and co-creator Olivier Lépine. “We did a run in Quebec City, and, the week after, everything ended.”

The pandemic stopped performances and the international cast departed for their homes. When cases dropped and restrictions eased, the physical theater circus troupe restarted rehearsals, and La Galerie resumed touring in February 2021. The show will make its U.S. premiere at Festival Hall, bringing dizzying circus feats for everyone to Charleston.

Not just for children

“People sometimes think that circus is for children, and they say, ‘It’s fun that the adults are coming with their kids,’” Lépine said. “For us, it’s more like, ‘Oh, we’re doing shows for adults but know that kids are going to have fun.’” 

Lépine started in theater in Quebec City before taking a teaching job at École de cirque de Québec, where he directed circus shows that drew from his extensive theater background. This interdisciplinary approach shapes all of Lépine’s circus works, including La Galerie. Instead of focusing on the spectacle and layering a story on top of a series of tricks, he focuses on the narrative. He works with the group of artists to develop the story first.

“Then we see how we can use circus to tell this story,” he said.

La Galerie centers on a group of gallery-goers and one woman who dares to break the rules so that she can fully experience the exhibit. It combines live music, acrobatics and a transformative set.

“We wanted to do circus in a place where there’s rules and it will be impossible to do circus, and choose to not follow the rules and see what happens,” Lépine said.

Highly regulated places like an airport were tossed around, but Lépine and co-writer Vincent Dubé knew they wanted the story to be about art and creation. “Say we’re going to go to the Louvre because it’s really important. But we just go into the Louvre and spend an hour walking fast,” Lépine said. “We see this, this and that, then say ‘Check, and now it’s done.’”

While La Galerie explores bucking convention, Lépine doesn’t think of himself as a rule breaker.

“Art doesn’t like to follow rules that much,” he said. “I’m not the one who really likes to break the rules, but I question them a lot.” 

By the end, creativity is celebrated in an explosion of popcorn and paint. Lépine typically begins work on a piece knowing only how it will start, but with La Galerie, he knew exactly how the story would end. 

“Some people will say that I really like to be messy on stage,” he said. “It makes all the artists on stage really there and in present-time and focused. I think that’s one reason why I love to make a mess on stage.”

The mess creates exciting challenges for the cast, especially as they navigate acrobatic stunts. However, Houlihan said, not every La Galerie scene could be regularly rehearsed because of the types of messes created. 

“If you want to try something new, it just has to be on stage during the show,” he said. “There’s always that little aspect of improv or little surprises that are very charming.” 

The company members have known each other for almost 10 years, and many went to the same circus schools in Quebec or Montreal. This familiarity forged trust among the cast as they collaborated on, and now perform in, the highly physical show.

“With any creation, if you’re doing it from point zero, from the base and up, part of you comes into it,” Houlian said. “We all created it ourselves. It’s all of our ideas together. It’s like there are little pieces of me, there are little pieces of everybody within the final product.”

Houlian and Lépine said audiences should come to La Galerie ready to enjoy the ride–and ask questions.

“I prefer art that makes people think, that creates conversation between people in the audience,” Lépine said. “I like shows when, at the end, we’re not able to know too soon what the show did to us.”

Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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