Les 7 Doigts, the Montreal-based circus and acrobatic collective, performs about 1,000 times a year. At least one out of those thousand performances, and probably many more, received a standing ovation, this time at NYU’s Skirball Center.
As the audience streamed in, players chatted conversationally with the audience, while tossing eggs and lemons to each other and at the crowd. Haribo gummy bears and Hershey kisses were flung by the handful with a combination of utter seriousness and comedic smarts.
The show is Cuisine & Confessions, a multifaceted work which combines memoir, audience participation, sketch comedy, acrobatics, dance and circus arts. Created by co-directors Shana Carroll (formerly of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus) and Sebastien Soldevila, Confessions presents seven memoir vignettes over the course of 90 minutes and 18 scenes.
Yes, it is a little long but Confessions is worth the time. At the heart of this work is the very human, and cultural resonance of food. Confessions is not just a nostalgic foray into favorite recipes. It is about the romance and heartbreak of food, its earthy sensuality and ability to trigger memories as deep, dark and distant as they are warm and fuzzy. Food has to be prepared, either by us or for us. Whether the food came from grandma, oneself or a paramour, each dish, or a la carte item, has an inherent story, and that’s the terrain Confessions mines. Emotion and narrative are frequent ploys throughout the work, with varying results.
In an extraordinary feat of acrobatics, Melvin Diggs and Sidney Bateman hold the audience in thrall in a demonstration of hoop-diving. On a somber, moody blue stage, wood frame rectangles and squares are stacked and a male voiceover reflects on his younger self’s worries about being a young black man concerned about becoming a statistic, a life cut short either by a bullet or incarceration. The tumbling is terrifying but smooth and elegant – their bodies flying through the hoops with feline grace. Diggs’ body is a taut tight frame, lithe but with an internal spring. The rectangles get stacked higher and higher until Diggs takes a deep breath upstage left, and after a lengthy dramatic pause takes a flying leap (with a spot from Bateman) through the tallest hoop. The risks might be overdramatized but they are very real.
Each player has a story. Héloise Bourgeois has a grandmother who lived into her 90s and was “still doing it” when she died. Taking after her grandmother, whose mantra was “fruit is not dessert,” Bourgeois is an unrepentant dessert eater, smothering her upper lip with chocolate pudding.
Anna Kichtchenko performed an aerial silk tribute to borscht. Using a lengthy orange and white gingham tablecloth, Kichtchenko twisted and twirled with vertiginous aplomb, strapping herself in and out of enough knots to rival an Araki photo shoot, though without the same overt eroticism. In a mesmerizing spectacle she unwinds herself down from the uppermost rafters of the stage, upside down, suspended entirely by the cloth wrapped around the back of her neck.
Gabriela Parigi plays the budding gymnast who ate only raw broccoli. Her parody of the flex-wristed pomp and pretensions of high risk, high stakes sports, is hilarious. Matias Plaul’s story is morbid: he wonders what his father’s final meal was before his execution as a communist revolutionary in Argentina. With all the agility of a flying tree frog, Plaul leaps from the kitchen island and hooks the pole with a single ankle. Scaring the living daylights out of the audience, his flirtation with fatality fully manifests itself with an upside down free fall. Releasing all limbs from the pole, Plaul falls head first and grips the pole just in time, his head a mere three inches above the stage.
For all of its poignant moments, Cuisine & Confessions is boisterous and silly, and the sketch humor can be marvelous. In “Captain McCoy’s Ultimate Kitchen Set,” the troupe engages in a fake infomercial for everyday kitchen utensils, such as a cheese grater and an oven mitt. Plaul dons the full bag of tricks as armor, stomping around the stage, slaying his performers dead. It’s absurdist, slapstick and hilarious. There is omelette making chaos, flour powdered tumbling, whisk juggling and hysterical, impassioned rants in foreign languages.
Some of the humor works better than the attempt to blend dramatic narrative with the choreography. The feats are often astounding – particularly the acrobatic pas de deux, in which tumbles and flips land on a partner’s shoulders or feet – there is no lack of talent in this group, but the verbal narrative can make the package overly emotional. Within a scene, the acrobatics can lose rather than draw meaning from the narrative, growing apart rather than assisting each other in mutual illustration. The overall triumph of Cuisine & Confessions is that it achieves what it sets out to do: to offer an inventive thought piece on our humanity via food, and the convoluted rituals, emotions and memories behind it.