Festival of contemporary circus draws crowds to Letna park

7 Fingers, photo: Letní Letná

Prague’s Letensky park this month sees the return of the annual two week Letní Letná festival of contemporary circus, now in it’s ninth year. The festivities kicked off on Sunday with events showcasing the best contemporary circus has to offer, from puppet shows and performances with soap bubbles in the afternoon to dazzling big top spectacles in the evening. I spoke to Jiří Sedlák, one of the festival organizers, and asked him what the original idea behind the festival was.

7 Fingers, photo: Letní Letná
“The original idea was to create a festival of contemporary circus to bring international stars from France, from Canada, from Sweden and from other countries to the Prague it was, and in fact still is the only festival of contemporary circus of its size. Of course one direction of the festival is towards international companies, and the other is children’s and family performances that run five times a day from the morning to late afternoon”

The tents, caravans and stages of Letni letna have been appearing in letensky park for nine years now, each year introducing an expectant Prague to new acts sights and sounds. I asked how the festival had developed over those nine years it’s been running.

“We’re growing and growing with more and more people, and I think we’re bringing bigger stars of contemporary circus, for instance this year three international companies have their performances running in parallel, whereas in the past we had one or two or smaller performances. Now we have one with a capacity of five or six hundred people, another one with of similar size and the French one seats three hundred people. So it attracts more and more people, so I think the quality is growing hopefully”

That quality is to be seen in the slick, professional, and glamorous acts that are performing every night until the ninth of September. The creative costumes, the characterisation and the use of live and electronic music, are a far cry from a traditional circus set up, and offer a completely different experience. I asked Mr Sedlak how contemporary circus differs from those traditional circuses.

“I think in contemporary circus there is a kind of general artistic idea with some kind of direction behind the performance. There is one theme, one topic, which underlies the performance – a kind of direction of dramaturgy, so the circus disciplines like juggling, tight-rope walking, and other disciples are used for some kind of reason to create an atmosphere or some kind of topic, for instance the French company has the topic of ‘Risk Zero’ and 7 Fingers has some kind of afterlife, of purgatory so they use the circus disciplines for this reason or this idea.”

Contemporary circus and its stories and drama has been gaining in popularity internationally for many years, perhaps it’s most famous troupe being the Cirque du soleil founded in Montreal in 1984, along with several other groups, particularly those from France. I wondered if this genre had caught the imagination of Czechs today as well.

“I think among Czech people it is very famous and very popular. It had a tradition even before Letní letná festival existed. There had been performances from Cirque Ici coming to the Czech Republic, to Prague and maybe there’s a kind of tradition with Boris Hybner, and tři boty, who are very famous mime and contemporary circus performers, and directors, so there is this kind of pantomime in the tradition of Czech theatre. Maybe contemporary circus is popular all around the world because it creates such feelings of fear, amazement, joy… People clap when the artists achieve their goal or do something dangerous, so these are really the kind of artistic expressions that are popular all around the world.”

Lacrimae, photo: Letní Letná
Letni Letna is, of course, an international festival, with groups from Canada, France and Sweden alongside home-grown acts, celebrating contemporary circus and theatre. I asked about the importance of getting international acts to the festival.

“Yes, of course, because the main goal of the festival is to bring in international companies that are involved in contemporary circus, and 7 fingers is nowadays one of the most famous in the world, so it’s really our aim and ambition to bring such companies to Prague. There’s no other opportunity to see these performances in Prague or even anywhere in the Czech Republic.”

The headline act at this year’s festival is Canadian troupe 7 Fingers, also hailing from Montreal, with their show La Vie. The show is set in a chaotic purgatory, ruled over by a devil-like ringmaster, and populated by bizarre characters and the stories of their deaths, re-imagined through the medium of dance, song, aerobatics and contortion. The two hour long show moves fast through its own acrobatic story arc, all set to a soundtrack by a live DJ. Every night each of the artists is an actor, comedian, dancer, musician, acrobat and more all in one go: I asked one of the members of the company, Isabelle Chassé, about her role in the show and the training that goes into it.

Cirque Galapiat, photo: Letní Letná
“I play the crazy girl, so the crazy, crazy character. I do a little bit of contortion in a straight jacket, and then I do some fabric work too, where the premise of the story is that I escape from the insane asylum, so there’s knots in the fabric I use, so it’s kind of a new apparatus in a way.

Yeah there’s a lot of preparation that goes into doing what we do, and I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years now, so all this counts for something, but it’s our show, so it’s our baby, so we get to try different things every night, and we get to play with audience a lot, so it’s really exciting, it’s fun.”

The members of 7 Fingers have been performing together for ten years now, and have taken their many successful shows all over the world on international tours, but they were once just seven friends from Montreal. I asked Isabelle how she first got involved with the group.

“I’m one of the founders actually of the company, and we were all friends and we met at Cirque du Soleil or at the circus school in Montreal, and after ten, fifteen years of career, we were all ready to do our own thing and create our own shows, so then we decided to get together and create a company and create our first show, and then ten years down the line we have eight different shows, and it’s been a crazy journey, but a really blissful one at the same time.”

This year’s instalment of Letni Letna is far from over, with another full week of performances yet to come, but already Jiri Sedlak is looking ahead to next year. I asked him what Prague can expect from the festival in 2013, the ten years since Letensky park first hosted contemporary circus from around the world.

Photo: Letní Letná
“I’m not sure – it’s in the head of our artistic director, but I think it’s not automatically the aim to bring bigger and more famous acts, but each year to bring interesting companies not only that have their names in the world of contemporary circus but also performances that are interesting and that have some spirit and feeling in themselves, so maybe Cirque Galapiat as an example of a smaller French company, not so famous, but I think maybe they have been the main stars for the audience here at Letní letná this year. And so, I don’t have any names in my head, but definitely next year there will be many nice and interesting performances here.”