Take Me to the New Circus with Nassib El-Husseini

Take Me to the New Circus with Nassib El-Husseini

Girl swinging on white rope

A philosophical conversation with a master in the art of reinvention, the only Lebanese in the Canadian circus industry.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money. Everything else is supposed to be bad for you. But the circus is good for you. It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Undeniably, dream is the magic word!

This form of popular entertainment was developed in England in 1768 and mostly focused on horse acts. With time, the circus developed into the enchanting story we all know and love that lasted for more than 200 years.

Today, in Montreal, Canada, this love story is being reinvented. Colorful clowns, exotic elephants and airborne acrobats are being reborn into jugglers, trapeze artists and a new form of acrobatics under the roof of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a Montreal-based circus collective whose name, which means “The Seven Fingers of the Hand,” immediately sparks curiosity.

Since 2002, the group has been surfing the wave of smaller nonprofit circuses. They have strong values and seek to deliver larger than life bewilderment in intimate surroundings.

In 2003, Canadian-Lebanese Nassib El-Husseini made quite the leap from being a political science professor when he joined Les 7 Doigts as its CEO. As a former advisor and volunteer for dozens of provincial, national and international organizations, El-Husseini was the perfect candidate to lead the new circus. Today, the circus is operating at full capacity, with many of its shows currently touring through the world. Annual revenue has exploded to more than $10 million per year and the company has grown to more than 200 employees.

White, red and green colors in flag

HOME Magazine visited with El- Husseini to learn about the man behind the magic.

When asked about his Lebanese name and surname, El-Husseini explains “that he never wanted to change it to fit an American context.” As his grandmother told him, in her own rendition of a Lebanese proverb, “the one who renounces his roots has no principle.’’ Questioned about his Lebanese heritage, his eyes gleam as he states: “We Lebanese are equipped to go and get anything. We are survivors. The most important thing is to choose the right challenges.’’

His mantra is to foster generosity and to bet on solidarity. In his personal life and at work, he promotes welcoming the “other’’ as a friend. According to him, embracing those who are different than us is the global trend that’s needed to work toward a peaceful society.

His links with Lebanon gravitate around strong family ties, as well as his considerable achievements in his native region. He helped found LibanPost in the mid-1990s, an experience that brought to light the difference in work values between Lebanon and Canada.

When asked about his Canadian identity, El-Husseini replies: “Before being Lebanese or Canadian, at the age of 13, I decided to instead become a citizen of the world. It is important not to deny your origins nor the opportunity of a new, welcoming society.”

The conversation continued harmoniously.

“For me, it is very important to not die intellectually and to always be surrounded by artists.”

The political world is often associated with trickery, manipulation and fraud. How is the arts environment different from the political arena?

That is not my definition of politics. I focus on solidarity, conflict resolution and solutions to global problems. So, for me, the transition was very smooth because these are also the core values of the circus world. I wanted to seek new challenges stemming from a midlife crisis of sorts. I wanted to stay motivated and bubbling with interest. Then came the opportunity of Les 7 Doigts de la Main. For me, it is very important to not die intellectually and to always be surrounded by artists.

Man swinging between circles

Einstein said: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.’’ Did you imagine your life’s unfolding or did it just happen?

I allow imagination to play a major role in my life and I truly believe nothing is impossible. Destiny is also important, but it is how we react to it that will shape the future. We always have a choice. My adventure with Les 7 Doigts de la Main started with an email and I decided to give it my best. In 2002, I received an email from an old acquaintance informing me that she was gathering some money to launch her own circus collective with a group of friends. Their objective was to be both circus performers and directors of their shows to express their creativity. I pitched in funds and let go. The same friend invited me a year later to watch the show. I sat in the audience and was completely mesmerized by the storytelling approach, the talent of the artists and the performance. A sort of unpredictable “coup de foudre,’’ (love at first sight). I joined the group as CEO after a short while and have served in this role ever since. Life sends you signs and you know when it’s the right time or the right moment. You have to grab it. Never underestimate an idea and trust where life is trying to take you.

“The heart alone, nor the head alone, will lead you to where your dreams await.”

Are you the head or the heart of Les 7 Doigts de la Main?

I am at the service of Les 7 Doigts de la Main. However, one needs to align the heart and the head. Neither the heart alone, nor the head alone, will lead you to where your dreams await.

El-Husseini and Les 7 Doigts bring together seven artistic co-directors to author the circus. They have designed a new kind of experience: humane, intimate and poetic. This is why it is called the “new circus’’ with no animals on stage. The performers deliver an incredible show, combining contemporary dance, song, acrobatics, theater and circus. They explore several disciplines to offer the audience an extraordinary and indefinable moment. On stage, the usual lavish circus costumes are swapped out for street clothes. The set is always minimal with just a few props, such as chairs and tables.

In 1998, you declared in an interview: “I am the fruit of my time.” How do you feel about this statement some 20 years later?

Let’s say the fruit is constantly reborn. The fruit can change form but it is the same fruit connected to its source at its core. Tomorrow it can be a different shape altogether. I will be elsewhere.

El-Husseini is coming up on his 15th year with the circus and he has put on approximately 7,000 performances all over the world, from Paris to Moscow to Mexico and more, with millions of spectators. Indeed, nothing seems impossible to the CEO. He concludes with a real acrobatic finale: “Never be afraid to jump without a parachute. Only then can you climb a new mountain.” His advice applies on stage and in real life.

Bald man wearing eyeglasses

Nassib El-Husseini, a political scientist and author (L’Occident Imaginaire, Éditions PUQ), has been an advisor and volunteer for dozens of provincial, national and international organizations. In 2003, he fell under the charm of The 7 Fingers and took on the executive direction of this jewel on the Montreal stage. Nassib is currently the president of the International Exchange for the Performing Arts (CINARS). He sits on the boards of the National Theatre School of Canada and the Société des Arts technologiques (SAT), and was a board member of the Conseil des Arts de Montréal (CAM) from 2012 to 2018. In 2013, he received the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)’s Prix Reconnaissance in recognition of his exceptional career. Prix du gestionnaire culturel (Cultural Manager Award) attributed in 2019 by the Carmelle and Rémi Marcoux Chair in Arts Management of HEC Montréal.