'L'art pour l'art': How Montreal became a street performance mecca

Home to Cirque du Soleil, Montreal draws performers from around the world, and the Canadian government is throwing its financial support behind its thriving art hub.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP/File
Members of Cirque du Soleil perform in a preview of 'Totem,' the latest production of the Montreal-based circus, April 8, 2010, in Montreal.

Drive by Montreal's massive Mount Royal Park and you might see a drum circle or the local Jimi Hendrix impersonator out perfecting his moves. Enter the city’s extensive metro, and chances are there’ll be a musician waiting for your spare change. And just ask residents where to find Leonard Cohen – many can point you to his favorite bar.

In almost every corner of this city, there’s a sense of creating art for the love of art – or as they say in Montreal, “l’art pour l’art.

Because much of the art world is driven by Canadian government funding, it has allowed many performers to take their craft professional and buoyed the local arts scene. While much of the world's art world took hits because of global economic distress, Canada's has remained vibrant. 

Of course, it also helps to have history on your side. Just as actors move to Los Angeles hoping for their great discovery in the isles of the local grocery store, and musicians move to Nashville with dreams of the Grand Ole Opry, performers migrate to Montréal after being dazzled by Cirque du Soleil.

Established in 1984, the renowned Quebecois stage show is now based in Montreal, drawing acrobats from around Canada and the world who are eager to flip, twist, and sometimes swim, their way to fame. 

“A lot of acrobats live up here, because the headquarters are here,” says Eric San, the DJ and turntablist better known as Kid Koala. Having lived in the city for more than a decade, he’s seen evidence of performance in nearly every neighborhood.

“I was in the video store, and I saw these people glide along, and realized they’re riding unicycles in the video store,” he recounts, laughing at the memory. “They’re looking for videos, but they’re practicing at the same time."

Performers Isabelle Kirouac and Elise Lessard-Mercier are currently performing as “ladies of a certain age,” perched on balconies constructed around their stilts. They have trained and worked professionally in gymnastics and theater, respectively.

Having toured with troupes internationally, they both say that not having to scrounge to make ends meet makes all the difference. Many here performers receive government assistance. Within the city of Montreal, The Conseil Des Arts De Montreal annually supports more than 350 cultural organizations. 

“Canada is really good for funding the arts, especially Quebec,” says Ms. Kirouac. 

“In Quebec, Montréal is the best,” Ms. Lessard-Mercier chimes in, grinning through layers of old woman face paint. “I am sure of that. Many things we can participate in. We cannot work on stilts in small cities.”

All this funding pays off. Inundated with art, the crowd seems trained to appreciation performance in a considerate, engaged way. Wanderson Damaceno and Michel Gionet, who perform as two oversized flamingos – Les Deux Flamants – and have worked festivals and streets both at home in Montréal and Brazil, see the difference.

“People pose for pictures with us,” says Mr. Damaceno, mulling over his recent experience at the city's famous jazz festival in July. “Not just kids. Grown men, women, [they say] ‘It’s beautiful can I take a picture?’ It’s new for us. It’s not just for kids.”

But it’s not just the crowd that enjoys the interaction. The admiration flows both directions, says Félix Imbault, a performer who wandered the streets on stilts in a heavy coat and top hat as flirty Steampunk character “Professeur Anachronic” during the jazz festival. 

“I really try to animate people who seem a bit lonely, and seem to be alone and don’t have any friends around them,” he says. “I try to go and see them and greet them, to have a personal impact on people who could be alone.”

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