Cirque choreographer calls Springfield home
By Debbie Gardner
Michael Montanaro. Reminder submitted photo
"It's always fun to come back to your hometown a success." So said former Springfield resident Michael Montanaro about the upcoming return to Hartford of Cirque Du Soleil's wildly popular touring show, Varekai, which he helped to choreograph.
Varekai will delight and amaze audiences under Cirque's trademark blue-and-yellow tent on the corner of Market Street in Hartford from Sept. 22 through Oct. 16.
In town Sept. 8 for some pre-show publicity, Montanaro spoke with Reminder Publications by telephone about his creative connection to the Valley and the experience of helping to create one of the most successful Cirque Du Soleil touring shows.
Bright beginnings in Brightwood
It may seem a long way from the Brightwood section of Springfield to the creative headquarters of Cirque Du Soleil in Montreal, Quebec.
But every journey begins with a first step.
In Montanaro's case, it was dance steps.
"I started [dancing] in Springfield when I was three-and-a-half, [taking lessons] until I was 16," the 51-year-old Montanaro said.
He said he got his first taste of "tap, jazz and a bit of ballet" at Anita's School of Dance.
"I think [the owner's name] was Anita Oskey, if I remember correctly," he said.
During his high school years at Cathedral and Technical High School, Montanaro said his interest turned to theater and stage production work.
"At Cathedral I did everything I could I think we did [a play called] The Pajama Game one year, the talent shows ... I also did stuff with West Springfield High School," he said.
He spent the summer when he was "15 or 16" working at the former Storrowton Music Tent, at the Big. E.
"I got to work with people like Mickey Rooney, Joe Mostello, those are the things I remember," he said.
Breaking into the dance world
"It wasn't until I graduated from high school [in 1972] and moved to Hartford that I focused on ballet and contemporary dance," Montanaro said.
After completing his studies with the Hartford Conservatory and working briefly with the Boston Ballet, Montanaro headed north to Montreal to try his luck in that city's vibrant dance community.
"The neighborhood I grew up in [in Springfield] was French-Canadian, and I went to school from first grade to eighth grade half in English, half in French," he said, talking about his decision to move to Canada. "It was the Fates' way to prepare me for the future."
Creating in Canada
It was 1974 when Montanaro crossed the border to Canada with seven suitcases and a T.V.
He quickly found a place with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens of Montreal. Then, between 1980-1996 Montanaro the dancer and choreographer created 15 works for the Montreal-based Group de la Place Royale and 12 for his own troupe, Montanaro Danse, touring internationally with both groups.
In the mid 1990s, Montanaro moved to teaching, first at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, the University of Calgary and at Concordia University.
Cirque came calling
Montanaro said he was chairing the contemporary dance department at Concordia when, in 2001, Cirque came looking for him.
"One day I got a phone call ... we've seen some of your work and we're interested ... send us some video and a bio," Montanaro recalled.
He said he sent the material off, thinking to himself, "I may not hear from them again."
Three weeks later he was invited to try out with a new creative team for Cirque Du Soleil.
"I did a six-week workshop with the director to see if I was compatible," Montanaro said.
The workshop was followed by an invitation.
"[They said,] we're putting together a creative team for a new touring show and we'd like you to be part of it'," Montanaro said. "The next thing I knew I was part of the team."
He arranged to take a sabbatical from his position at Concordia and joined Cirque.
"People dream of running away with the circus," Montanaro said. "Working with Cirque Du Soleil, everything is possible ... they don't close any doors in terms of creativity."
But that freedom to create does come with challenges.
"I think the hardest thing [about working on Varekai] was that, even though I'm a trained dancer and technician ... I'm not a contortionist; I can't wrap my foot around my head, " Montanaro said, refering to the athleticism that is a hallmark of Cirque productions.
Accustomed to plunging in and actively creating works, he admitted the first two months on Varekai he had to step back and just observe the performers, experiencing their talents visually.
"I learned by getting inside their movement skills ... vicariously ... so I could actually draw the act out of them rather than superimposing an act on top of them," he said.
The best part of the experience? Montanaro said it was being immersed in over a dozen cultures at once.
"Working with so many performers from so many cultures was very invigorating," he said, adding that, as a student of movement he was fascinated by the way individual performers' cultures were reflected through their movement styles.
The other highlight was being part of such a cohesive creative team.
"There were 22 designers on the show, and there was very little ego," he said. "I can watch the show to this day and I can't say 'this was my idea and this was Francis' and this was Dominic's' ... it was a very refreshing creative experience."
And though Montanaro has pretty much returned to his Montreal home base, he still tours with the show about "four or five times a year" to work on new things and touch up the acts
He'll be in Hartford the week of October 10 to check out this run of Varekai.
And to check in on his parents, Jean and Gus, who now live in Westfield.
For tickets to Varekai:
In person at the box office: Tues.- Thurs 6 - 8:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 2 - 8:30 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. Online: cirquedusoleil.com By phone: call the Admission Network at 1 800 678-5440.