When 600 Russian acrobats, gymnasts, dancers and children take to the stage as part of the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics, they will be performing movements created for them by a small Montreal circus troupe – after a lot of soul searching.
Sept Doigts de la Main (Seven Fingers of the Hand) was first approached to create one of several tableaux of Russian history for Friday's opening about 18 months ago. The troupe agreed, only to find it faced a nasty dilemma when the Russian government passed a law last summer banning gay "propaganda."
"When it became an issue, we had multiple meetings; we put it out to our community," said Nassib El-Husseini, CEO of the internationally acclaimed circus collective that includes gays and lesbians among its artists and administrative staff. "The question becomes: 'Where do we play?' We are artists who are rebels. We play many places where we are disappointed by government decisions. … Our decision was to support the athletes, not to isolate ourselves and retreat."
The news that Sept Doigts would be at Sochi, announced to the francophone press on Wednesday, was generally met with delight in Quebec although theatre writer Gaëtan Charlebois did take to Twitter to denounce the company for taking "Sochi 2014 bloodmoney."
El-Husseini defended the decision, saying, "Being in Sochi will not change anything but it does give us the opportunity to say, we support those [human] rights."
Company co-founders Sébastien Soldevila and Shana Carroll have conceived and designed the segment, one of three, 10-minute tableaux of Russian history that will be performed by Russian volunteers. The tableau was workshopped in Montreal where the group recreated the layout of the giant Sochi stadium at one-tenth scale.
Asked how the artists approached the task of representing Russia's dark and often violent past, El-Husseini replied: "All history is difficult."
This marks the third Olympics for the group, founded in 2002 by former members of the Cirque de Soleil. Sept Doigts also participated in the closing ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and performed at the freestyle ski medal ceremony at the 2010 Vancouver games as well as mounting shows at the Maison du Québec for the duration of that Olympics.
Sept Doigts, which is currently providing acrobatics for two Broadway shows, Pippin and Queen of the Night, recently purchased the former Just for Laughs museum in Montreal, which it will turn into a production centre.