International dance and the pandemic: How The 7 Fingers have coped and responded during these challenging times

The pandemic has presented the dance industry with a host of challenges, but during this time, we’ve been encouraged to see companies finding new ways of producing work and connecting with audiences online.

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We were thrilled to speak with Shana Carroll, co-founding artistic director of The 7 Fingers, to hear how these unprecedented circumstances have affected their practice and the company as a whole.

The 7 Fingers are an artistic collective based in Montreal, Canada, who redefine circus by stripping down the form to its thrilling essence. For over 18 years, they have been touring and producing artistic works that blend circus, contemporary dance and performance, resulting in performances that mix spectacle with storytelling.

What was the company doing before lockdown and how did lockdown impact that? 

“Gosh, lockdown impacted everything! Most notably, we had two new shows opening the very week lockdown hit, another show (Passagers) touring in full swing and numerous projects in development for that same year. Suffice it to say, those were all cancelled or put on hold.

“As a company that creates live shows, it does leave us a bit without activities, without a voice, without income and a ‘raison d’être’, when live shows everywhere suddenly come to a screeching halt. We rounded up all our energies and talents to figure out how to stay alive, to stay productive, to stay creative, to continue to work and hope towards the future. Adjusting to the digital realm was a fascinating and informative experience that sparked our creativity in a new way, but does not still encapsulate the essence of our work. We also committed to prioritising the circus community here in Montreal, assuring artists still had a place to train, etc.

“Throughout lockdown, we have often referenced the fledgling days of our company, looking back on when we were young, broke and poured all of our hearts, souls and savings into this crazy notion we could start a company. We figured if we did it then, we could always do it again if need be; we were lucky that we, the founders, were still there, ready to pour our hearts and souls and savings into it again!

“As many have remarked, this pandemic with all its tragedy has had some silver linings, and I’d say a silver lining for us was that we really came together, regrouped and rebooted our priorities and passions. The last few years, we were super busy and really partitioned the work in such a way that the collective was kind of all over the place. So it was good to feel the company kind of cement itself again over a common mission, just like in the old days.

“We had a quote up on the wall, by a Mexican proverb: ‘They thought they could bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.’ And whenever things felt daunting we just kept saying, ‘We’re seeds! We’re seeds!’”

Photography by Cimon Parent

How has the company responded to lockdown? 

“We took the time to set the groundwork for lots of future projects. We often felt we didn’t have the time just to write shows, brainstorm and dream. We were so often working from a reactive position and coping with tight deadlines. In this way, the lockdown has allowed us the luxury of prep time.“

How have the dancers found not being able to train and practice? How did they overcome those challenges? 

“It was very interesting watching the circus performers react in different ways. There were some who adopted a glass half-full approach and decided it was a window of opportunity to develop new skills, pursue side projects, get inventive on how to keep training, while others were a bit more discouraged.

“Overall, there was only about 2 months where training was really on hold — which don’t get me wrong, is an eternity for a circus performer — but as soon as spring hit they were training in the parks, then about a month or two later our studios were open for Covid-safe training and have remained open ever since. It was a huge priority for us to assure we could maintain a safe training venue! Not everyone could train their discipline or with certain partners, so there were still challenges, but for the most part people found ways to stay in shape and stay expressive.

“I think harder than the challenge of not training was not performing! We are beasts of the stage and one of our most intimate relationships is with our audience – it was like a weird amputation to remove that completely from the equation. It forced everyone to focus on the creation and innovation, rather than execution, and I actually think there was an important step in the evolution of our form that happened during this performing pause.

“In terms of morale, I really noticed a difference based on age. I think it was harder for people in their late thirties who were already wondering how much longer they were going to keep going with the physical side of their careers, and it felt like a forced early retirement. Two of our cast members had just had a baby and had plans to tour for another year or so with the baby before really settling down, and then it was like that choice was kind of made for them, and suddenly they had to fast-forward to the next phase of life.

“For some who had been traveling and working nonstop, it was a blessing in disguise, being able to finally slow down and take down time. Others decided to take the time to try something new like learning Spanish, applying for grants for a dream project, or learning to play a musical instrument. It wasn’t easy on anyone, but I do think it was easier on those in their early twenties who don’t feel so much that the clock is ticking on their careers and instead have such a plethora of stuff that they want to do and so saw it as an opportunity to explore other projects. I often say, ‘It was a year of great change wrapped in great stasis’.”

Photography by Cimon Parent

What are they most excited about when theatres and venues can reopen? 

“Everything! The stage lights! The sound system! The noise of the crowd! Other humans experiencing the same emotions at the same time and doing what we love most in the world. But mostly, the audience – our work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is a dialogue, an exchange with another human being on the other end receiving it. We will be alive again!”

A huge thank you to Shana Carroll and The Seven Fingers for taking the time to share their experience of working during the pandemic. If you would like to find out more about the company or their show see here. We are continuing to explore international dance over on our social media. Connect with us at @DanceConsortium.