Reinventing The Circus

May 1, 2005 by Laura Byrne Paquet

PHOTOS: PATRICK BERNATH; NATIONAL CIRCUS SCHOOL; LAURENT GUÉRIN

PHOTOS: PATRICK BERNATH; NATIONAL CIRCUS SCHOOL; LAURENT GUÉRIN

Clockwise from top: Cirque du Soleil costume designer Eilo Ishioka adds colour to body skaters; training for Cirque in Montreal; and learing the ropes at the National Circus School.

Every audience member seems to take away a different image from a Cirque du Soleil performance. For some, it is the high-tech light show or the fantastical costumes. For others, it is the aerialists moving gracefully on ropes and wires high above the ring. For me, when I went to see Cirque’s Quidam in Vancouver in May 2004, it was the young Chinese acrobats. Now, a year later, I can’t even remember exactly what they did. I just remember being awed by the degree of technical skill these tiny girls had been able to achieve.

And that awe is the key to the success of Cirque du Soleil and similar “new-style” circuses that have begun to flourish in Quebec in the last two decades. Traditional circuses relied on exotic animals and death-defying thrills to enthral audiences. The 21st-century spectaculars coming out of Quebec and other hotbeds of new wave circus—such as California, France and Australia—play on our modern appreciation for virtuosity.

Cirque du Soleil and its contemporaries “had the effect of bringing more attention to the human element of circus,” says Joel Schecter, a professor of theatre arts at San Francisco State University and the author of several books about circus history.

These circuses may seem to be offering an unprecedented type of show, but it’s not really new at heart. The modern circus industry began with one-ring shows in England in the late 18th century, and in Europe and in communist countries, the one-ring circus focusing largely on acrobatics has remained popular, Schecter explains. It’s only in North America, with our emphasis on increasingly busy entertainments and the “greatest shows on earth,” where “circus” came to be defined as a three-ring carnival with multiple performers constantly vying for the audience’s attention.

The genius of Cirque du Soleil lies partly in using lighting, music and precise direction to make a mass market entertainment seem like a small-scale event. “It’s more intimate. It’s more focused on specific events and talents (than a traditional circus),” says Schecter. “The audience can concentrate.”

But mass market it is, without a doubt. As just one example, Ka—a Cirque du Soleil show that opened at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev., in February 2005—is by some accounts the largest live entertainment event ever produced on this continent. It cost more than $165 million US to mount, a price that included the costs of constructing a new performance space with several floating stages. Interestingly, Cirque du Soleil’s direct investment in the show was just $15 million US; MGM/Mirage provided the rest of the funding. And why not? Cirque shows have become almost guaranteed money makers for the Vegas hotels that host them—as guaranteed as anything is in the rough-and-tumble world of entertainment.

Cirque du Soleil was launched from humble beginnings; it got its start in the holiday town of Baie-Saint-Paul, not far from Quebec City, in the late 1970s. Founders Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix were summer street performers, entertaining crowds as fire eaters and stiltwalkers. “The intention was just to have fun, entertain people, put a smile on their faces,” says Chantal Côté, Cirque’s corporate publicist.

Eventually, Laliberté and Ste-Croix decided to work with other buskers to create an indoor show that would amuse and amaze the masses. They received a $1.5-million grant from the Quebec government and staged their first show in 1984—part of a series of performances across the province celebrating the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s voyage of discovery. From there, Quebec’s new wave circus industry took off.

Today, Cirque du Soleil has become a success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The privately held company is currently running 11 shows around the world, including four in Las Vegas. The company employs more than 3,000 people, including 1,600 in the Montreal headquarters, and recorded revenues of $550 million US last year. Laliberté has made Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires and is a member of the Order of Canada.

Not bad for what was once a bunch of street jugglers.

Of course, with growth has come a slew of logistical challenges. Cirque du Soleil’s performers come from a wide range of backgrounds—circus arts, of course, but also martial arts, gymnastics, rock music and dance. Many are former Olympic competitors looking for a professional career after retiring from amateur sport. The performers come from some 40 countries, including Russia and China. So Cirque du Soleil employs translators and multilingual trainers, and provides second-language training in English and French for all employees who need it. However, its members also develop their own unique language, says Côté. “It’s strange and fascinating…they find a way of communicating: body language, through the eyes, with the hands. They have to trust each other.”

Language isn’t the only obstacle the circus’s managers need to overcome. There’s also the immense effort required to develop and mount new shows. A show can take between 18 months and three years to develop. When it is actually in performance, each show includes 50 to 80 artists plus at least as many technicians and other staff—a total of about 150 employees for each touring show and 200 for each of the permanent shows in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. Although they are all part of the Cirque du Soleil “brand,” each show is run like a separate entity, Côté says. “The key is to manage those little units as if they were independent.”

It all sounds a bit like an army or a multinational corporation. Suffice it to say, Cirque du Soleil has grown far, far beyond its street theatre roots. And in doing so, it has helped spawn a much wider circus arts industry in Quebec. Today, Montreal is positioning itself as a circus arts hub. In 1999, planning began for a complex that would come to be known as Tohu, located atop what was once a municipal dump in the city’s economically depressed Saint-Michel neighbourhood. The name Tohu comes from the French expression “tohu-bohu,” meaning creative energy and urban vibrancy.

The $73-million complex—built with a combination of public and private funding—is humming with activity. Its main pavilion opened in 2004 and hosts both circus and non-circus performances. Cirque du Soleil has relocated its headquarters to a 32,000-square-metre set of buildings on the Tohu campus, and the National Circus School opened the doors of its brand-new facility at Tohu in fall 2003.

The school is another key player in the evolution of the industry. Actor and circus artist Guy Caron and gymnast Pierre Leclerc launched the school in a Montreal recreation centre in 1981. It moved to bigger quarters in Old Montreal in 1989, before finding its current 7,200-square-metre home at Tohu. The school has more than 40 teachers who take 110 students through a rigorous training program that lasts a minimum of three years.

While training in custom-designed spaces devoted to disciplines such as dance, body-building and trapeze skills, students learn the latest twists on centuries-old circus arts. Younger students first earn their high school diploma—the school offers a full curriculum in academic subjects such as science and literature—while older students work toward a diploma of collegial studies in the circus arts. Tuition fees vary. The yearly tuition for students working towards a diploma of collegial studies is $3,280, plus incidentals.

While that is going on, school administrators criss-cross the country seeking talented students; in early 2005 alone, they held auditions in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, among other cities. Marc Lalonde, the school’s executive director, says he hopes to encourage more high school students to consider completing their education at the school. That way, they would stay there for as long as six years, getting a thorough grounding in circus skills while completing their academic courses.

As North America’s only diploma-granting circus school, the National Circus School holds a unique place. Lalonde believes strongly that Quebec’s booming circus industry could not have evolved without it. “The role of the school was very important because we had no tradition in Montreal of circus arts,” he says. In the past, circus skills were passed through families from one generation to the next. The fact that Montreal was not home to established circus families is one reason the city was a prime place for a professional circus school to develop. Lalonde points out that many of the world’s first circus schools opened in places where circus families had never existed or, in the case of many communist countries, had fled. Caron, for instance, attended a circus school in Budapest before bringing the concept back to Montreal.

Trapeze skills and acrobatic techniques may not be being passed from father to son in Montreal these days, but the circus industry there is starting to feel a bit like a family affair. Everyone seems to know each other. And as more and more people are coming to the city to learn the business, new circuses are springing up and expanding, like children leaving home and starting their own families.

Take Cirque Éloize, for instance. Started by a group of National Circus School graduates who grew up on the Iles-de-la-Madeleine (Magdalen Islands), Cirque Éloize is almost a decade younger than Cirque du Soleil. Its name comes from an island word for “lightning,” and its elegant performances—which usually take place in theatres rather than under tents—began taking audiences by storm in the mid-1990s, after a popular show in Philadelphia led to a national U.S. tour.

Then there’s a whimsical, seven-performer company called Sept doigts de la main (Seven fingers on one hand), whose performers are all Cirque du Soleil alumni. Meanwhile, Normand Latourelle, one of Cirque du Soleil’s founders, is moving new wave circuses back to their animal roots with Cavalia, a monumental production involving 37 horses that toured Canada last year.

In another development, dozens of private companies have sprung up to serve the circuses. For instance, Sollertia Inc. was founded by a former Cirque du Soleil technician. It specializes in, among other things, maintaining big tops. Twenty years ago, the idea that such a company could exist in Quebec—let alone thrive—would have seemed ridiculous.

All in all, the province has become a circus arts leader in just two short decades. Part of that success lies in intention: the Quebec government and circus industry leaders like En Piste—an association of circus arts companies that is one of the partners in Tohu—have made a conscious effort to work together to foster the industry’s growth. But many involved in Montreal’s circus scene believe there’s more to this success than just determination. They sense a unique magic and energy in Québécois culture that made it a fertile spawning ground for new wave circus. Camille Bégin, a publicist at Tohu, says that the importance of grassroots culture in Quebec was key. “Circus is all about the streets,” she says, explaining that cities like Montreal and Quebec City are known for their outdoor festivals and rich nightlife. “I would say that the emergence of circuses is very related to this organic culture.”

Of course, the new wave circus business is not without its detractors. Giovanni Iuliani, a Montreal clown and circus historian who has worked for five decades in the traditional circus industry, scoffs that these new entertainments aren’t circuses at all, just mass-produced events for what he calls a “granola yuppie public.”

“These so-called circuses, (which) are actually novelty acts surrounded by sound, lights, dance and music, attract a public whose demographics locate them in a more affluent society,” Iuliani argues.

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps these glittering shows, with their $150 tickets and their willingness to draw on disciplines like opera and ballet, don’t have much in common on the surface with the sawdust-scented air and human cannonballs of the traditional big top. But when the lights go down and a lone contortionist steps into the spotlight to twist his body into seemingly impossible shapes, or a delicate trapeze artist hangs upside down from her aerial perch as she swings around the ring, the boundaries between old and new, working class and yuppie, seem to disappear. All that is left is the wonder at the ingenuity of the human mind and the dexterity of the human body that has always, in the end, been the main factor that has lured audiences under the travelling tent of the circus.

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