Cuisine & Confessions, a Circus with a Side of Baking, Comes to ArtsEmerson
Acrobatic feats, emotional stories, and freshly-baked banana bread blend together seamlessly in the Seven Fingers circus group’s Cuisine & Confessions. The internationally acclaimed show will have its U.S. premiere at ArtsEmerson from July 12-August 7 two years after its first performance in Montreal. The show’s nine performers use their training in circus to tell lightly fictionalized stories about food memories—all communicated through tumbling and other acrobatic feats. The show lasts for the amount of time it takes to mix up and bake banana bread—a process that audience members help out in, from creation to taste-testing. Don’t worry about any cooking mishaps: The company employs kitchen consultants to ensure that the baking process is down to a science.
So, how did such an innovative idea even arise? The show’s creative director Shana Carroll, who grew up in Berkeley, California, but trained in Montreal and Paris, provides a hint: her husband’s passion for food and cooking. “We’d joke that he was going to quit [the] circus to start a restaurant,” Carroll laughs. “As we’re thinking of what we should create a show about, we tend to go back to the things we’re really passionate about.”
The idea gained its emotional side as Carroll took inspiration from a cookbook-memoir hybrid her grandmother wrote called Young and Hungry, which explored the intimacy of food memories and their links to a cultural heritage. This emotional intimacy now drives the show. “We began creation with the performers all sitting with a microphone on stage telling full biographies of each of their parents, their grandparents, telling their life story through food,” Carroll says. The stories that the performers told are the ones represented on stage, translated by the show’s creative team into tightly choreographed acrobatic feats. “Sometimes it was just a sliver of a certain story that would imbue a certain number, but other stories we were able to flesh out in more detail.”
There is, however, a white lie in this multi-autobiographical bonanza: No one’s story featured banana bread. When the show was first being conceived, one performer shared a memory of a time cooking monkey bread with his circus troupe after leaving behind a rough childhood. The story represented the best of what food memory could be: community-centered, intimate, and filled with good food. Translating the moment to performance, the circus faced one technical difficulty: monkey bread, a bundt-shaped cake filled with cinnamon sugar coated pull apart biscuits, is as delicious as it is difficult to make. Switching in banana bread made presenting the story on stage a possibility while preserving the emotional core of the story.
Emotional expression is what it’s all about for Carroll. “Circus for me can be used to express anything. It’s a form of theatre, it’s a form of dance, and on top of that, it’s also a form of defying gravity and defying human possibility and showing us that anything’s possible.” All of this was at play in the moment Carroll realized she was destined for circus. At age 18, watching a young trapeze artist about her age, the acrobatic feats deepened the visceral, human connection she felt to the performer. “I was moved and touched by what she was doing on the trapeze and scared for her and I even felt my muscles contracting, because I really identified with her.” After seven years spent as a trapeze artist herself in Cirque du Soleil, Carroll has since turned her attention behind the scenes, acting as both choreographer and now director.
Carroll hopes that, despite the superhuman acrobatics and tragic stories, audiences will find happiness in the performers’ humanity and success—just like she did, so many years ago. “I think there’s an inherent joy in the show because there is a sense of pushing the limits of human possibility and pushing the limits of the body but also the moment of celebration because the performer succeeds at the trick and does something unexpected and unseen.”
Many typical viewers might be surprised that a circus company would invest so much of its energy in storytelling, but that’s standard fare for Seven Fingers Circus. The avant-garde company was founded in 2002 by seven circus enthusiasts who itched to create shows that exposed the human vulnerability of the performers—shows that audiences could relate to on an emotional level. This mission still holds true for Carroll today as she strives to create those connections. With Seven Fingers, she’s been able to blur more lines and create circus art in hybrid forms, but nothing has changed from her first feeling watching the trapeze artist so many years ago. “It’s all a continuation of the initial vision.”
$20-95 per ticket, July 12-August 7, Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, 617-824-8400, artsemerson.org.