Watching Cirque isn’t normally my bag (I will not say circus. There is zero resemblance to Barnum or Bailey here). I saw a deeply traumatizing Cirque du Soleil show in San Jose once, and have avoided the performance style ever since.
So when I tell you that Cuisine & Confessions by 7 Fingers of the Hand cirque troupe should be on your life bucket list, you can trust that you won’t be seeing “just another” costume, music, tumbling, flying trapeze extravaganza.
This show is more than excellent clowning and physical daring-do: It is full of stories that spill the guts, sweat, tears, and yes, love, of the performers out for the audience to see. There’s no holding back. Each performer’s viewpoint has been turned into a unique expression of the intertwined nature of community, family, and food.
The day before the performance, UCSB Arts & Lectures sent out a document titled 10 Fun Facts About Cuisine & Confessions. I didn’t get to read it until after the performance, but there were some very interesting items:
1) The stories are true. Cuisine & Confessions was built on the real-life personal stories of each cast member. Creation began with extensive storytelling sessions, and directors Shana Carroll and Sébastien Soldevila extracted facts, themes, and images and wove them throughout each act.
I didn’t know whether what I was watching was true or truthfully acted (or both). But I never in a single moment of the two-hour performance doubted that what I was watching was dredged directly from some individual person’s soul. It was too raw, real, and intense. Even if I hadn’t learned that it came directly from the performers, I was sure it came from a particular individual’s real experience of the world, and thus, a relatable, point of view that I could learn from.
As with the very best live theater, the show swings back and forth from serious to sporting. To give an example of what I mean, take a musical number about a perfect omelet, made by a one-night-stand-stranger. This is a fun and sexy staging filled with excellent clowning, including the juggling of eggs, oversized whisks, and giant stainless steel bowls. It is easy to envy the lucky audience member on the stage, surrounded by the exuberant cast waiting on them hand-and-foot.
2) All the music is original. The entire soundtrack was created specifically for the show. Notably, New York jazz club owner and pianist Spike Wilner came up to Montreal for extensive recording sessions, providing a bank of piano music to choose from during creation. (Director Sébastien Soldevila is also musical director.)
Playful movement and music are repeated over the course of the evening as we dance to re-imagined Bolero and even a wholly re-arranged classic hit from Grease “The One That I Want.” And the upbeat music is just as beautiful as the quiet and sorrowful pieces, building off of stories so true that the audience can’t help but revel in the sadness. In contrast, the varied stories and the diverse types of dance and tumbling feel like a celebration. It creates an incredible theatrical experience.
8) They keep a “to-do” list, too. Observant theatergoers will see a “to-do” list written out on a chalkboard as part of the kitchen set. This is actually a list of numbers performed in the show, and cast members cross off items as they are completed during each performance.
There are two things that constantly threaten to be spilled in this show: food and blood. While it feels nerve-wracking and death-defying, these acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, performers are waaaaaaaaay too good to so much as tear a cuticle while tumbling, leaping, climbing, and spinning as if gravity was a thing they had read about someplace. The aerial silk, the Chinese pole, the choreographed flinging and catching of bodies in constant motion…each number seems easy enough at the beginning, and then quickly becomes unbelievably heart-stopping.
The show feels like something immense that has been simplified, pared down, peeled only to the choicest morsel. But that is the deception of perfection.
How simple can it be to design props that are as flexible as the bodies of the performers using them? A series of wooden boxes that are a dinette in one scene, become 8 chairs in another. The same pieces also act as a series of wooden frames that can be stacked as “hoops” for acrobats to leap through. The tables used for cutting and cooking are at multiple heights, hiding or revealing props and tools as needed like any good kitchen does. What other pot racks (tempting as it always is to use them as monkey bars) can actually be used as monkey bars?!
If you don’t believe me that a lifetime without seeing these performers is a deprived life indeed, I will add a few last tempting details. The performers cook. Pasta, sauce, and banana bread are all offered at the end of the show. And you can eat, and not clean up – they wash all the dishes in the working sink that is part of their set!
The whole audience is encouraged to participate, by setting a timer for the banana bread. The last 36 minutes of the show tick by. The smell of baking INSIDE the theater gets more and more heavenly. No matter how off-the-cuff and playful the final numbers seem, as the smell increases, everyone begins to worry about whether the music and moves will be suddenly interrupted by the echo of a thousand phone alarms ringing in every tone known to Apple and Android. But the performance is so perfectly choreographed that the finale ends, the dancers gather for a bow, and having forgotten momentarily about the bread in the oven, the audience stands, clapping, whistling, and appreciating…just as the timers go off in a cacophony of sounds. Amazing, and timed down to the minute – maybe even second.
Many years after I learned to hate “cirque” at that terribly traumatizing show (faced with falling tightrope artists and mangled tumblers) Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco redeemed the art for me. But until I experienced Cuisines and Confessions, I still felt reluctant to encounter the artform. Now I can safely say I would go out of my way to experience the work of this team, over and over. See them anytime and anyplace you can!