The Circus of Life, Réversible Director Gypsy Snider reveals it all

Gypsy Snyder co-directed Réversible for The 7 Fingers, Photo: Jerome Guibord

The 7 Fingers returns to this year’s Fringe with Réversible after stellar success in previous years with Traces. Jean West speaks with co-creator, Gypsy Snider, about the comfort of families.

GYPSY Snider knows all about isolation – and the tools of survival.

The feeling has crystallised and overwhelmed the circus artiste several times in her life for all her death defying stunts. And each time she has found the dawn.
Take when she was hanging out washing in the garden, in the wilderness of the Berkshires, Massachusetts, where she was staying alone, without modern conveniences and wifi, and was overcome by the awareness of her solitude.
It was a short existential crisis that lasted only moments but gifted her with the material for her new show, Réversible, at this year’s Assembly showcase at the Fringe.
“I was in this place where you have to weed the garden and hang your washing on a sunny day long enough for it to dry,” she explains of the home that has been in her family for four generations.
“The day I came up with the idea for Réversible, I was here; no one else around. It’s a pretty, big piece of land. I was terrified – afraid a bear would come and eat me. I thought ‘I could just drop dead right here and no one would be around to find me.’
“That feeling of doom made me realise that we do not spend a lot of time alone, completely alone or unplugged. Then I had this incredible wave of courage knowing that my mother and grandmother had hung clothes on this line through World Wars amid great uncertainty. All of a sudden, I was so strong and solid and so much more emotionally intelligent than society was forcing me to believe I am.”

By examining her past she managed to reframe her fear, realising how others made of the same flesh and blood prevailed and shaped her very existence. This understanding of how history makes us, spawned the epic and beautiful show that has already won rave reviews for the gifted circus choreographer and the Quebecois company, The 7 Fingers, she cofounded and artistically directs.

Snider, who hails from one of America’s most celebrated circus lineages – the Pickle Family Circus – focuses on young people in the production, and how their lives were conceived, turning them into genealogical detectives for a year.

The Montreal based writer urged them to trace personal histories, through their ancestors to make sense of the present, which, with a certain political Maverick at the helm across the Atlantic, is a tightrope walk in itself.

Described as “a riveting mix of theatre, circus, dance, music and acrobatics, dedicated to a generation who forged the world that we live in today…” the narrative in Réversible involved interviewing and collating information about parents and grandparents to excavate memories of their lives at the same age, and help forge strength for the future.

They were looking for life-changing events that perhaps brought them into being. “Most of these kids had never dared ask their grandparents these kinds of questions,” says Snider. “What I also liked was that the children’s parents thanked me because the children asked their parents questions they had not the strength to ask them.”

The process uncovered some pretty spectacular material about who the players really are and made these ‘invincible young acrobats’ seem more multidimensional and both vulnerable and strong.

One grandparent fled an arranged marriage and ran off with a Swiss man, another grandfather had quit boxing but later developed Alzheimer’s disease. All the stories reflect the intricate web life weaves for us all.

And the theatrical results are utterly mesmeric, not least because of the mindful approach to physical theatre in Snider’s work, that makes the impossible seem simple. Acrobatics and aerial work steal the breath.

Snider began life immersed in circus – her step-father was the well-known clown, Larry Pisoni – and she was schooled in the art, alongside clowning legends, Geoff Hoyle, who trained at Le Coque in Paris, and Bill Irwin, one of America’s most famous clowns. “Watching him was like watching a silent movie,” she asserts.

The veneer of performance made her pretty expert at smiling at life and getting on with a demanding job. It is perhaps in part this spirited determination to keep the show on the road, that later saved her from a testing terminal diagnosis and aggressive form of cancer.
But in the 10 years since she brushed up close with her own mortality, she has also forensically examined the pressures that brought her to her knees.
Since then she has been scrutinising the demands, risk-taking and adrenaline-pumping activities circus performers face daily, to keep the tradition alive, with a view to improving both their lifespans and their lot in the workplace. And she has learned to prize the elusive everyday moments that elude so many.
“This is a business that compromises bodies and souls daily; not just travelling or touring but producing a piece of art that everyone will enjoy or not enjoy.”
She says she needed to focus on something that was a little more nurturing to these young people, “who are pushing and moving so much and taking so much physical risk.”

“I wanted them to ask: ‘Who are we? What do we want to talk about? In The 7 Fingers we need to feel transformed through performance. I want balance.”

Snider’s parents were Bohemian in the truest sense; meeting after the breakdown of her mother, Peggy Snider’s first marriage, they set up a circus in San Francisco almost in celebration of their union. It was a feminist company and boasted a five-piece jazz band, slapstick and buffoonery and intelligent emotion.

“I was raised by a village of very rebellious people,” she says. “The cast members were 50 per cent hippy artists and 50 per cent traditional, who had trained at clown college or come from a circus background. My mother ran everything, she built all the props and sets.”

At the time, circus, which, in its purest state dates back to Roman times, but as a more formal art form is celebrating its 250th year, seemed to have become a little caricatured; still focused on thrills, spills and tadas.

Snider’s family had begun to experiment with the genre and move away from animal acts and sparkly costumes. They gifted local community organisations with some of their earnings. Hippy, political and, in her own words ‘revolutionary,’ they began to revive the more poetic, dramatic aspects of circus, as a backcloth for the more daring feats of human endurance served up in their shows.

Says the writer: “I was raised on Shakespeare and political theatre and by these amazing theatrical, musical clowns. My mother worked for the rebellious, San Francisco Mime Troupe.”

Indeed, Snider herself moved onto work for many years with the radical outfit, Cirque Du Soleil, whose creation was influenced by the Pickles, and later began directing her own shows.

The mother-of-two, who was an advisor on America’s Got Talent, is also keen to unify and honour both traditions of the artform, and ameliorate the white trash, caravan persona, at times awarded to the travelling troupes by a cultural elite.

“The conflict has been between this idea of high art and low art, between trailer park and theatre” she asserts. “It’s not that one is art and the other is not. “That was the conversation that was being asked and I found it borderline offensive. I always wanted to play both.

 “Traditional circus is not as intellectual as say Shakespeare or Mozart, but there is still art and comedy,” she explains. “And for me there is still huge value in bringing people together in a big top tent to share these experiences.”

The first turning point in Snider’s life came when acclaimed film director, Robert Altman, cast her entire family and circus troupe in his film, Popeye, with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall.

He whisked them all off to the island of Malta for five months, which had become Olive Oyl’s home, Sweet Haven.  Snider had an immediate epiphany: “It was the best five months of my life. I left the US for the first time and was in Europe. I was fascinated with Robert Altman’s work and how he constructed a scene. I knew immediately that I wasn’t meant to live in the US but in some foreign land.”

She missed a trip with the Pickles Family to the Round House in London in 1981 but later moved to the British capital and never returned to the States. Life events later took her to Montreal, where she has remained and feels safe.

“From the age of 10, I wanted to do circus. But I wanted to do more than circus,” she says. Her aim to fuse the old with the new and still dazzle audiences has been realised.

The 7 Fingers previous show, Traces, at the Fringe was a stellar hit with sell out audiences; the bar was set high. Never one to sit on her laurels she is currently refining Sisters, a show that explores the passionate relationship between two sisters through contemporary circus: “We are very excited about the project. But we should let this show live a bit longer before bringing it to the Fringe.’

Ten-years-ago Snider was fighting for her own health. Today, she says the planet is the sick one and the politicians who are in charge. Her goal has become expansive: “It’s a little disconcerting. The world is now going through an illness.

“I’m thinking: ‘I didn’t survive cancer for this! I had a deep, deep desire to be here because the world is so beautiful, my children are beautiful, and does it really need to be so hard? Can we just figure this shit out together!”

Réversible certainly starts the glitter ball rolling.