In the Spotlight

Firefly Theatre

May, 2023

Taking performance art to new heights

As an aerial artist, Annie Dugan literally experiences a series of ups and downs in her work. But while she’s equipped to take on those altitude variances, she’d rather do without handling the more metaphorical highs and lows inherent in running her company, Firefly Theatre.

As an aerial artist, Annie Dugan literally experiences a series of ups and downs in her work. But while she’s equipped to take on those altitude variances, she’d rather do without handling the more metaphorical highs and lows inherent in running her company, Firefly Theatre.

A case in point was the pandemic, which shut down pretty much every business that didn’t sport a grocery or liquor storefront, just when Dugan was polishing off plans to introduce the company’s first annual Alberta Circus Arts Festival.

“I came up with it before the pandemic and it just takes a little while when you have a brand new idea for a festival. They don’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of planning, thought and design and fundraising. We had it already to start in 2020, and of course that didn’t happen.”

Annie Dugan, Firefly’s artistic director.

Two years later, when vaccinations and government quarantine directives mitigated the dangers of Covid, Firefly was ready to take another shot at its circus arts festival debut, retaining most of the lineup from the aborted 2020 version. But just days before the event, a flood at their choice venue of La Cité Francophone created a scramble to reassemble the proceedings at the University of Alberta’s Timms Centre. 

If there’s a sense of guarded optimism that all will go well for the second annual event, slated to run June 22-25 at La Cité Francophone and the Mill Creek Ravine, Dugan’s covered it up with bubbly enthusiasm. “We have contemporary circus coming from across Canada,” she said, wistfully pointing out one of its main attractions, Quebecois troupe Barka, an 18-piece ensemble of musicians and performers fusing dance music with circus disciplines. The band will also be on hand to inaugurate the festival with a dance party. “It gets everybody hyped up and gives you an outlet to dance and have a good time,” Dugan added.

Also on the itinerary is the profound “Twist of Fate,” a solo show by Angola Murdoch, a gymnast sidelined by scoliosis, although she uses her aerial talents to tell her remarkable story. Another female one-hander is “Deep Dish,” which stars Winnipeg contortionist Samantha Halas, who revisits her formative years working as a waitress. “She has these crazy skills she does with pizzas,” noted Dugan.

A mixed bag of Canadian circus performers will take part in the festival’s “North by Northwest” cabaret as well as a free family-friendly event in Mill Creek Ravine. Rounding out the proceedings will be a series of workshops that will include such skill sets as stilt-walking and juggling.

Ever since Dugan and her husband, local actor John Ullyatt founded the company in 2000, Firefly’s entertainment programming has not only delivered some all-ages fare, the company has also taken on some heady, surreal stuff. One production tackled a two-decade odyssey of the corpse of Argentinean icon Eva Peron. Another recent show explored the hellish works of Dante, while yet another aerial presentation concerned one man’s obsession with rubber ducks. 

Regardless of the content, Firefly’s won over a loyal audience, not only in Edmonton but worldwide, via the company’s performances at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland, a Canada Day celebration in London, England, and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The company has also received such honours as the City of Edmonton Excellence Award in Arts and Culture and a Mayor’s Award for Innovative Artistic Direction.

Former New Yorker Dugan first joined a circus in her region when she was 21, riding horses. After taking some time off to learn about theatre, she discovered an acrobatic style that would change her life.

“When I got out of theatre school, I saw some people working on aerial silks and the corde lisse [a vertically-suspended rope]. Which is very new and that really hit North America in the mid-‘90s. That style of working was developed in France in the ‘80s. To me, it looked like a fabulous way to tell stories.”

Annie Dugan

Dugan boned up on the intricacies of aerial art and took time off to head to Edmonton to play at the Edmonton Street Performers Festival in 1997 and the Fringe Festival in 1998. She made the permanent move to the Alberta capital in 1999. “I had a rope and I had trapeze and I wanted to find a place where I could hang them and train, and there wasn’t one anywhere,” she recalled. “I found a gymnastics club that let me hang my equipment and myself and John Ulyatt, we formed our company and started creating.”

They created more than an aerial theatre company, but a whole mini-industry focused on circus art. Since Firefly’s inception, scores of artists have learned the craft at the company and incorporated that knowledge into subsequent projects. “There are three circus schools and recreational circus schools in town which were started from people who came from Firefly,” said Dugan.

And while the business end of aerial arts has its own peaks and valleys, Dugan credits another unpredictable element that tipped the scales in her decision to stay in Edmonton, namely the nice summer weather the city enjoyed during her previous two visits. “I had a great time,” Dugan said. “The sun was shining, and I’m telling you, if the weather was bad, and if it rained and snowed, we might not
be talking now.” t8n

Firefly Theatre 

8540 Roper Rd NW, Edmonton, AB T6E 6V4

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