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Montreal festivals collide with each other, overlapping in space and time

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital

Montreal in summer is packed with festivals, especially during this year of major anniversaries for Confederation, Expo 67 and the founding of Montreal. Such is the crush of events that some festivals overlap in space as well as in time, as I inadvertently discovered while checking out free outdoor events by Montréal Complètement Cirque (MCC).

This fête strives each year to blanket more of the city in circus-related shows and workshops. It has a particular grip on parts of bustling Saint Denis Street, where several blocks have been closed to traffic, decorated with festival banners and opened to roving performers. The nearby Place Pasteur acts as a stage for emerging circus acts – the place to be, perhaps, to spot the next big talents. MCC also features large-scale creations such as the dance-inspired Rouge; and Les 7 Doigts' Vice & Vertu, a skilled but verbose three-hour spectacle about 1940s Montreal that left me thinking that documentary circus is an idea whose time has not yet come.

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In the free-range part of Saint Denis, I ran into a troupe of acrobats doing stunts on the asphalt, dressed in what looked like a skimpy version of paramilitary gear. Further on, some clowns pretended to stage equestrian events with horses that were actually extensions of their costumes – a playful allusion, I thought, to the once-central role of horses in the modern circus.

Another group of performers in a wooden pen were doing a hilariously detailed impersonation of sheep grazing, lying down and staring into space. This disciplined but nearly static clowning looked like a bold breach in the limits of circus, which is usually more athletic.

What I didn't know until later was that some of the clowning I saw on Saint Denis was part of another festival happening on the same city blocks at the same time. Both the sheep and the equestrians were installed by À nous la rue, a citywide July festival that will have presented about 800 street-theatre performances by the end of the month.

Embarrassingly, I discovered my mistake when I asked MCC director Nadine Marchand for her thoughts about how sheep impersonation could be an extension of circus. "That's not my programming," she said briskly.

And yet, the MCC website has a well-illustrated page devoted to several À nous la rue shows, including the sheep (Les moutons, by the physical theatre company, Corpus). There was almost more information there than I was able to find on Saint Denis, where signs associating some of the performances with À nous la rue were few and inconspicuous.

Does it really matter to most people if something they see and enjoy, for no cost, is part of festival A or festival B?

Probably not, but the festivals care. An important behind-scenes aspect of the business is proving you have an audience that knows when it is experiencing your work.

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Two winters ago, Luminothérapie seemed to realize that passersby couldn't distinguish between its annual light installations around the Quartier des spectacles and other creative projections nearby. It stopped inviting multiple parties to dream up diverse projects and hired a design company to create content that would give the multisite spectacle a single harmonious look. À nous la rue shouldn't think of going that far, but could stand to work on its street identity, especially when sharing space with another festival.

Another, more ghostly kind of spatial overlap is happening all this summer along Sherbrooke Street West, where the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has installed a kilometre-long exhibition called La Balade pour la Paix: An Open-air Museum. The art part of this show consists of about 30 large sculptures and dozens of photographs, all deemed by the curators to support "a humanistic message of peace."

The overlap in this case is with Balade's notorious precursor: Corridart, a 1976 display of sculptural installations and photographs on a much longer stretch of Sherbrooke, organized as part of the cultural program for the Summer Olympics. The night before it opened, however, the provincially funded exhibition was torn down and carted away by city workers under orders from mayor Jean Drapeau, who called the works "a pollution" of the streetscape.

Ironically, the mayor's vandalism against a show that might otherwise have been seen and forgotten ensured Corridart an undying place in Montreal's cultural memory. The show was on everyone's lips last fall, when one of its works (by Pierre Ayot) was restored and installed on the Plateau; and more recently when Bill Vazan, another Corridart alumnus, created a labyrinthine land-art piece near City Hall – "right under the nose" of a bronze statue of Drapeau, as Le Devoir noted last week.

Corridart is the spectre that haunts Balade. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new show has positioned itself to be as unlike its predecessor as possible.

Corridart was a mainly local meditation by Montreal artists on how the city's built environment was changing, not always for the better. Balade's photojournalistic images, and its choice of sculptors (including Magdalena Abakanowicz and Wang Shugang), are resolutely international. Corridart's prime unit of collective humanity was the neighbourhood or civic community. Balade's is the nation-state, as represented by more than 200 flags strung along cables the length of the display; though national flags symbolize conflict at least as often as they do peace.

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Balade has the identity issue well in hand, however: All components are uniformly laid out and labelled, in part to distinguish them from other artworks already on the street. Corridart was much more ambiguous in presentation, with photos mounted on construction scaffolding, and a three-storey installation by organizer Melvin Charney that mimicked the stately Sherbrooke mansions being sacrificed to civic modernization.

That may be the difference between a festival, as an orderly container of events, and an intervention, which positions things and events where they may startle. The best combination may be a street-festival performance that overturns your expectations of what can happen in a public place, while leaving you with a more or less clear idea of how it came about and who put it there.

Montréal Complètement Cirque continues at various locations through July 16. Rouge continues at Place Émilie-Gamelin through July 30. Vice & Vertu continues at Société des Arts Technologiques through Aug. 6. La Balade pour la Paix continues on Sherbrooke Street West through Oct. 29.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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