How Montreal’s circus life remained above water through the pandemic

Despite shows shutting down and training studio access restricted, artists have kept their passion burning

Costume designer Liz Vandal poses in her home with her very first drawing of an outfit done in 1978. Photo Iness Rifay
When it comes to large-scale projects, Vandal invests on average 7,000 combined hours brainstorming, sketching, drawing, and collaborating with directors to make her costumes come to life. Photo Iness Rifay
Vandal showcases her work and the figure made after it from Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ovo’ show. Her work was featured in the ‘25 Years of Costumes’ book. Vandal believes this to be the peak of her costume design career. Photo Iness Rifay
Liz Vandal adjusts the sleeves of the newest costume she is working on, in the small studio of her home’s second floor. Photo Iness Rifay
Circus artists Veronica Herrera Munguia (left) and Marie Lebot (right) are 10 minutes into their stretching routine at the 7 Fingers studio before starting to practice. The performers must adhere to new pandemic regulations. Photo Iness Rifay
Munguia (left) and Lebot (right) hold a pose to get a feel of how their bodies work together. Munguia moved from Mexico to Montreal before the lockdown. Once it hit, she decided to stay in Montreal to connect with Lebot. This is their first training session together. Photo Iness Rifay
Munguia (left) and Lebot (right) review a video just taken of their movement to look for any mistakes and possible improvements. Photo Iness Rifay
Back at her apartment after two hours of training, Lebot opens her university’s website to start doing schoolwork. Photo Iness Rifay
2020 graduate student of École Nationale du Cirque Jesse Harris strikes a pose on the 7 Fingers studio’s Chinese pole, which is his specialty. Photo Iness Rifay
Harris takes a few sips of water after some vigorous climbing on the pole. Photo Iness Rifay
Harris holds himself about three meters above ground while waving to another artist across the studio. Photo Iness Rifay
Harris finds the hook of his necklace as he gets ready to leave the studio after an hour and 30 minutes of practicing. Photo Iness Rifay

“A sudden shift to silence” is the recurring description given by circus artists Marie Lebot and Jesse Harris, and costume designer Liz Vandal when asked to think about the drastic transition to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montreal is a city of spectacle, shows, performance, art, and ultimately, circus. Whether it’s for Cirque du Soleil, the 7 Fingers studio, or the National Circus School, aspiring artists from all around the world travel to the metropolis with hopes of a flourishing and successful circus career. 

Read more: Bahay Collective celebrates third anniversary

When COVID-19 made its way to Montreal, the city’s art scene was the first to suffer from government-mandated sanctions. Many studios were forced to close. Shows were cancelled. Some of Cirque du Soleil’s artists were let go because the company nearly went bankrupt. The city’s circus scene went quiet.

Because of the fast-paced nature of circus performance, the first few months felt like a break to Harris and Lebot. However, when it became clear that the situation wasn’t improving, the two grew concerned. “I was worried choosing circus was the wrong choice,” Harris said, a 2020 graduate of the National Circus School. 

Instead of fighting it, the artists continued training and adapted to the restrictions. Vandal kept sketching different costumes, even if they were no longer going to be worn by circus performancers for the time being. Despite the lack of on-stage and in-person performances, behind the scenes, the industry has been preparing a loud comeback.