I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Sébastien Soldevila, Co-Founder and Artistic Co-Director of the exciting Montreal-based circus Les 7 Doigts de la Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand). The company that choreographed Broadway show Pippin, immersive dining experience Queen of the Night, and the incredible circus performance Séquence 8 is coming back to the NYU Skirball Theatre April 11-16 with a new show called Cuisine & Confessions, which incorporates live cooking onstage with their signature dance-circus style. I spoke with Sébastien about the new show, the intersection of food and art, and how the company stays fresh in the circus world.
Why don’t you start by giving me a taste, if you will, of this new show you created with Les 7 Doigts, Cuisine & Confessions?
Sébastien Soldevila: The idea of the show started with my wife, who I co-direct the show with; her grandmother wrote a book, it was a biographical cooking book. Basically it was a recipe book linked to events of her life that reminded her of that kind of recipe. One page was the recipe and the other page was what memory she had about that meal. We thought the idea was really interesting. I do cook a lot, it’s probably my biggest passion in my life. We were looking for an idea, me and my wife, and we talked about that book and said how wonderful would it be to go through memories of people to talk about a kitchen as a place where we share knowledge about cooking, we share memories, we share moments, and also how we can relate to the food and what the food brings us and what memories it brings us. So we started to mix that with circus. We cast a really interesting bunch of people for that show and we spent a great deal of time talking with them and finding what touched them in their life, what interesting things they had about food. We started a kind of interview process for a few weeks and we wrote the show based on their memories. And that’s the premise of the show.
So all these people that you interviewed are also in the show?
Yes, of course, they are the artists of the show. All the stories that they talked about in the show actually happened. We realized really fast that we all have a connection with food. The best meal we ever had, everybody can answer that. The food they like and don’t like. They remember the first time they tried that. When people come into the theatre, we break the fourth wall really fast because it smells good, and it’s like when you go to somebody’s house for dinner or a meal. It truly creates a connection between the artist and the public. The public can go upstairs and walk around the kitchen, and talk to the artists, and that’s the premise of the show and how the show starts.
How do you see the experience of food and circus arts going together?
It was a big challenge. Basically, we do have circus acts like hand-to-hand and juggling, and we tried to make them happen in one place, the kitchen, so sometimes we cook an omelette juggling eggs, and we prepare the omelette for one person of the public. Sometimes it’s like a memory, a metaphor for what happened with a specific meal. For example, we have Melvin who grew up in St. Louis in a poor neighborhood, and he's talking about why the omelettes were important to him because his siblings would go to see the father and it was the only time he got to spend time with his mother alone, and that omelette for him reminds him of the connection he had with his mother. He tells us that doing an acrobatic number at the same time, so expressing how he feels through circus movement dance. So there's several ways that we use circus and dance mixed with stories, with food, sometimes cooking, sometimes not cooking. We also have a lot of interaction with the public. We bring them on stage.
How long have you been performing this show?
We opened it about three years ago. What is really interesting is that show has a really diverse cast: American, Quebec, French, Swedish, Argentinian, Ukrainian. Me and my wife needed to have not a linear show and one that would be homogenous. We needed to have an eclectic cast, so we cast people from different countries having different cultures having different memories, different ways, different approaches with the food. And it was really interesting for us. And those guys traveled in a lot of different countries actually and they did that show in seven different languages. Between all of them, they can speak seven, eight, nine languages. It's important for us to connect and also every time we go to a country we adapt the show, meaning we talk in the language of the countries and we connect with the people. That's really important for us.
It really sounds like it would be a very cultural experience not just for the audience but for the cast who are also learning about other cultures.
That's the beauty of traveling and performing a live show. It opens your mind. I started to travel when I was 20 I think, and you have less racism and less stupid-minded people because you realize that what you think is true might not be true. You realize that all the political problems you see at the moment are because people are living in one country and not open to other cultures. That's the beauty of art to be able to go abroad and bring another view.
You have done a lot of productions in the past with Les 7 Doigts and Broadway shows like Pippin and it seems like you are just constantly innovating. What does it mean to you to keep pushing the boundaries of circus, to stay fresh, and to keep audiences on their toes? What do you look for to find the next new and different thing to do?
The beauty of circus, and that movement that we call contemporary circus that started in the year 1980 in Europe, the idea was to forget about the traditional circus, which is also something I respect and I love -- a lot of my friends are doing traditional circus. But traditional circus is based on performing and having that wow effect and there's not really a narrative base; it's just tricks in some ways, they just try to dance and be nice and be beautiful. The beauty about circus is it's a medium that can incorporate all the different kind of media. We can link it with theatre, with dance, with video, with DJ, we can put it in a Broadway show. I just did an operetta in Russia and the base was not circus but the link between circus and opera and dancing is really interesting. I always see circus as a language and try to open it to other forms. That's why the narrative is really important in our show, because our approach with circus is use it as a language, just like dance can be a language, just like painting can be a language, poetry can be a language, movies can be a language. So it’s really important for us and we really try to open it up because a lot of people think about circus as Cirque du Soleil or Ringling Brothers, especially in North America. And there's a new way of approaching circus which is really interesting, and now people are opening their minds more to that. People who have never seen our show ask me, how can you do circus with dance and theatre? Well, you say that because you don’t have that culture but you'll see we use it as a medium. We’re not looking only for the wow effect, we're looking for storytelling, using just our language to express a feeling and emotional story. That's our goal for the company, and we're always open to new projects to try to push the boundary in different forms and ways.
Yes, I've definitely gotten that sense of storytelling and creating narratives from watching your productions in the past. I know you've also done that very large-scale opening sequence for the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. What is the experience like of directing such large-scale events like that compared to the relatively smaller productions like this one?
(Laughs) It’s day and night, you have no idea. I would say it's not even the same job. The thing about the Olympics is there's no school to be ready for the Olympics. This event is so big, and I was so lucky to be a part of it but there’s no way you can be prepared. You can think a lot about the way you're going to direct. But when you direct 1,000 people every day, it drains you so much because you're talking to 1,000 people and trying to motivate them. And that is a wonderful experience, everybody was excited to go on stage. For them it was the first time except we had this one guy, an old Russian acrobat, he was 52 years old. He was in the opening ceremony of Moscow in the 1980s.
They’re both wonderful. You have the intimacy of the show when you can tell stories, when you can really take time and work on small details. When you have a show with such a big scale, any change I would do, the movement, the choreography, any small change would take 4-6 hours. You need to be ready every time you go over there to work. You have to know exactly in your mind what you’re going to do and how you're going to do it; there's no improvisation. I had about 30-35 assistants to dispatch the information. It was exciting but also a lot of pressure on top of it. Unless you can handle the pressure, do not do the opening. Because everybody's on top of you; the Russian government was on top of me, and the CEO of the Olympic committee was on top of me. You need to have big shoulders and to say, "Guys, calm down, I know what I'm doing. We have three weeks, don't panic yet. We'll be ready." I learned not to invite them to rehearsal when it was not ready. It's a different ball game but honestly, I had a blast. I made some memories. It's something you do once in a lifetime. I love both jobs. It's just another job. It's like driving a huge truck and having a bicycle. It was wonderful, I have to admit.
What is the next new and innovative creation for you and Les 7 Doigts?
This year is the 375th anniversary of the city of Montreal. So we are preparing a big show celebrating a part of that history, which was during the Prohibition in the States, a lot of people would come to Montreal to party because it did not have any Prohibition. Montreal turned into a sort of red district with a lot of cabaret and artists, so we’re making a kind of memory going through the big artists of that time. It's more like an adult kind of show. There's no sex but there's a bit of sensuality and nudity. So we're celebrating that part of Montreal for the anniversary, which is really interesting historically speaking.
We also just opened a new show, Reversible, which is touring in Europe now. I mean the list of projects is so long. We might actually come back to New York with something special I cannot really talk about. It will be on Broadway but it's going to be something really different from what we've done, and we're working on that for a year, year and a half. Really interesting project, something new.