Canadian contemporary circus company The 7 Fingers this month presents the UK premiere of its hit show, Passagers, as part of Birmingham International Dance Festival. What’s On caught up with company co-founder & co-artistic director Shana Carroll to find out what audiences can expect... 

The seven founders of Canadian contemporary circus The 7 Fingers set up the company in 2002. Their aim was to redefine circus - stripping down the spectacle to its thrilling essence. In the action-packed years since, the internationally acclaimed company has gained a global reputation for shows like Passagers, which features an exhilarating mix of dance, acrobatics, circus skills and original music, interspersed with ‘humour and feeling’. 

Passagers is directed by Shana Carroll, one of the company’s founders and now its co-artistic director. Shana has enjoyed a 30-year career in circus (including 20 glorious years in the air), performing and directing for a host of international organisations. Cirque du Soleil and the Sochi Winter Olympics feature among her many credits.

“When we started the company, we wanted to make work that was a hybrid experience,” Shana explains. “It’s circus, it’s dance, it’s theatre. Passagers is pretty dancey, but circus is our language. Our specialist numbers - trapeze, highwire, aerial silks and hula-hooping - are like the monologues of traditional theatre; they’re continuing the story. And, of course, we have spoken word and song as well. The show is a mash-up of imagery, themes and emotions.”

Set on a train, Passagers is all about travel and people’s endless fascination with it. But after nearly two years of a global pandemic, ideas about travelling are markedly different to when Shana first created the work in 2018. Suddenly the stories in the show have a new resonance, evoking both nostalgia and future promise. 

“There are two extremes of reaction. On the one hand, there’s this crazy excitement; on the other, there’s the fear of getting into a moving vehicle with strangers again. But we yearn for travel. We have all these memories of places that we’ve been that we want to revisit, and so it’s a symbol of a dynamic future.”
Passagers has always been a personal show for Shana. She first created it after the death of a close friend and colleague: “It’s a celebration of life’s journey rather than anything sad. In some ways it’s autobiographical. I spend most of my life touring, travelling and on trains. This show became a metaphor for all those journeys. It’s infused with all the beauty, all the intimacy, all the connections, all the excitement, all the sadness, all the melancholy.”

The 7 Fingers is based in purpose-built studios in Montreal, a hotbed for contemporary circus, which is a very different beast from the traditional art form. “For someone who hasn’t seen one of our shows, it’s always good to point out that we don’t have outrageous make-up and costumes. With our shows, we’re trying to tell stories and show pockets of life.”

Born and raised in California, Shana fell in love with circus as an 18-year-old, watching a rehearsal by the innovative Pickle Family Circus, where her father was working.

“One day I was watching the trapeze artist up close. She was in sweatpants with messy hair, hanging from one foot and flying through the air. She looked like a normal human-being but was so brave and taking such risks. It was really powerful. She was someone I could identify with, and I could see myself in her.”
Shana went on to join the company as a trapeze artist, kickstarting her life in the circus: “The reason I do circus is because I had that emotional reaction. I want other people to be able to have that too. To look at the performers and think ‘this could be my friend, my sister, my son, my daughter’.”

Passagers is presented in the UK by Dance Consortium, an 18-strong group of large-scale theatres which is committed to touring the very best of international dance throughout the UK. The show’s nine performers are all skilled dancers but each has a different approach to movement, depending on their specialist circus skill. 

“Because they’re expressing themselves through their bodies in their acts and disciplines, the performers have found their own physical vocabulary and style. When they’re in their element, they move beautifully, and as a director and choreographer, it’s a matter of tapping into that.”

Passagers’ cast of nine includes five of the artists who originally created the show with Shana before the pandemic. Following a month of rehearsals, the new version will premiere in the UK, visiting six cities up and down England before heading on to France and Switzerland. 

Inevitably the global crisis has affected the company, not only logistically but also emotionally: “It’s scary to dedicate months of your life to something, feeling we’re on such fragile ground. But, on the other hand, everyone’s so excited to have an audience again, and to go back to doing what we do. And to travelling! Of course, there have been pros and cons to the year we’ve just had, but I think there’s this notion that if we can finally leave our country or our city or our continent, maybe life can continue to move forward.”

The UK premiere of The 7 Fingers’ Passagers shows at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 21 & Wednesday 22 September