7 Fingers Performers Flying High at Club Fugazi
By Jean Schiffman
At age 16, Melvin Diggs had never been to the circus, imagined it to be “elephants and clowns and a tent.” Now he’s one of nine performers, from Australia, China, Canada and the U.S., in The 7 Fingers, the famed Montreal troupe that is relocating to San Francisco’s Club Fugazi in North Beach.
It was “incredibly random,” Diggs says, of his journey to becoming a multi-talented, in-demand acrobat who’s been touring all over the globe since 2014 with various world-class nouveau circuses.
The beloved 7 Fingers — founded in Montreal in 2002 by Bay Area-raised circus artists Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider — creates original shows that form a dance/theatre/circus hybrid. With former local theatre artist David Dower returning home as co-producer and executive director, the company opens this fall with “Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story,” a new show illuminating the City’s singular history.
Diggs says he was a normal kid growing up in St. Louis but by 16 had gotten in with the wrong crowd. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, he was assigned a big brother, who gave him four options for a summer job. When the one he chose fell through, he was reassigned to Circus Harmony, a youth training and performance group at the St. Louis City Museum. One day, working at the snack bar there, he saw a friend doing backflips. “I never saw anything like that!” he says. “I wanted to learn to do that. That was the first stage into this crazy world which is now literally the most important thing in my life.”
Circus Harmony’s artistic/executive director Jessica Hentoff observed his physical potential and work ethic and began coaching him in the school’s pre-professional program. Later, Hentoff’s daughter set off for Montreal, to audition for the Ecole Nationale du Cirque, and asked Diggs to join her. He hadn’t known Montreal existed, had never heard of the prestigious school, had never left St. Louis, just knew the four blocks around his house, but went eagerly and auditioned for five days straight, demonstrating skills in tumbling, dance, theatre, juggling, partner acrobatics, everything. A few suspenseful months later, back in St Louis, he got the hoped-for letter of acceptance for the four-year program. “I thought, I guess I’m moving to Montreal,” he says. “I couldn’t get on a plane quick enough!” He paid for his tuition by teaching and performing at a prep school circus camp in Massachusetts during the summers, learned French quickly and acquired a set of acrobatic skills, of which Chinese hoops is currently his specialty; he can jump through a stack of hoops six feet high. A list of his disciplines (Icarian games, hand to hand, banquine and more) ends in an ellipse; he’s constantly acquiring new ones.
Since then, he’s toured Europe, South America and Asia with Circus Flora, Cirque du Soleil and other companies, and, he marvels, has friends from all over.
“It’s hard to find people who have the acrobatic and also the artistic abilities,” says Carroll, 7 Fingers co-artistic director along with Snider; he toured with the company for three years starting in 2014. “He’s at the top of the list.
“I’ve almost never met anyone with such a wide range of skills,” she continues. “There’s nothing he can’t learn. He’s developed artistically over the years but he always had charisma and sensitivity. . . . He’s a deep and thinking person, very physical, but he also has an emotional intelligence. . . . And he’s humble in his work, in adapting to the flow of creation as well.”
With 7 Fingers, Diggs has his own personal act with text about his growing-up experiences, which he adapts from show to show. When he performed in Moscow, people came up to him afterward to say that they related to his story. “For me, a Black guy from St. Louis in the middle of the United States — to say we can relate to one another! It’s unheard of!” he exclaims. With 7 Fingers he can tell his own story. He can be himself.
→ Club Fugazi opens with preview shows on September 22. clubfugazisf.com
Image: Melvin Diggs, one of nine performers of the acclaimed circus group The 7 Fingers, will be displaying his acrobatic artisty in "Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story," playing at Club Fugazi this fall.