As 2014 draws to a close, the most successful circus company in history celebrates its 30th anniversary by looking back at its past, taking stock of its present, and looking forward to the next 30 years.
By now, the facts of Cirque du Soleil’s provenance are well known: In 1984, the province of Quebec, through the personal intervention of the premier, who took an interest in the project, awarded a $1.5 million one-year grant to Guy Laliberté, a member of Gilles Ste-Croix’s street theater troupe, to organize a circus to commemorate of the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada. But how did that local, short-term show grow into one of the most successful live entertainment producers in the world?
First of all, Quebec in 1984 might have been the perfect time and place to start a circus. Circus arts were going through a renaissance that was taking a different form in Europe from in North America. In the United States, the Big Apple Circus and the Pickle Family Circus were “bringing back” traditional circus, presenting intimate, one-ring shows that focused on artistry rather than the spectacle and consumerism that had become the norm. Meanwhile, in France,a “new circus” movement was introducing a new aesthetic in shows such as Le Cirque Imaginaire that emphasized theatricality and character instead of just presenting a series of acts. Simultaneously, following the Soviet Union’s lead, circus schools were opening across Europe to re-appropriate circus skills for aspiring performers who didn’t come from the traditional family clan structure. Canada saw the the creation of its own national circus school in 1981, effectively democratizing access to circus training and raising the skill level of the potential labor pool for Cirque du Soleil when it started up three years later.
Scholar and circus scene observer Louis Patrick Leroux notes that while Cirque du Soleil picked up on what was happening in Europe, combining a “high art objective with a movement to democratize an art form that has been inaccessible to people outside the traditional circus families,” its unparalleled success came from combining this aesthetic and political philosophy with Laliberté’s “commercial savvy and resolutely North American sense of business” into a “successful marriage between creativity and entrepreneurship.” Moreover, the political climate was also favorable. The state of Quebec, whose population had only narrowly rejected a referendum to seek independence as a sovereign state, was in what Leroux terms “a state of becoming without necessarily arriving.” He explains; “It was extremely rich culturally with the sense of possibilities. Québécoise artists were trying to position themselves in the world. How are we different? There was a sense of creativity, or originality, or reimagining traditional form. Anything was possible.” The state government supported the emerging artists who were forging a local identity, and according to Leroux, Cirque du Soleil quickly established that it could stand for “commercial risk, an allure of high art, world music, and high-performance athletes and artists while tapping into a fundamentally North American relationship with circus.”
The first Cirque du Soleil show was such a success that the federal and provincial governments funded it for a second year so that it could tour other provinces. At the time, says circus historian Dominique Jando, Canada only had shrine circuses and Ringling Brothers: “Cirque du Soleil moved against the tide in a very smart way. They developed a look and a style that none of the shows in North America had. They were uniquely human and artistic.” Circus teacher Hovey Burgess agrees: “the first time you see a Cirque du Soleil production, it knocks your socks off.”
Wanting to elevate the artistic level of the troupe, Laliberté hired the founding director of the National Circus School of Montreal, Guy Caron, as artistic director of the fledgling company. The two Guys formed a common artistic vision of a “reinvented” circus that did away with the two defining elements of traditional circus: it had no animals and did not perform in a ring. The next major personality to join the company was also from the school: Franco Dragone, an Italian-Belgian who had worked in political theater and who had a major impact on Cirque du Soleil’s style. In addition to hiring existing acts, the directors frequently hired world-class athletes, created acts for them, and trained them to perform. This policy conferred two major advantages: the company was able to create a signature style and it owned the intellectual property of the acts it developed, reducing dependence on individual artists.
In addition to impressing audiences with its innovative style, Jando cites another reason for the company’s phenomenal success: Laliberté’s incredible business acumen. In particular, he turned two early deficits into benefits. First of all, the fledgling company didn’t have the financial resources to hire experienced artists, so it brought on young, fresh performers “weren’t just there to do their act and take a check.” Neither could it afford animals, although both founders were fans and even optimistically designed their first tent entrances to be high enough to allow an elephant to pass through with a rider on its back. Once the show started receiving positive press for performing without animals, the group adopted a no-animals philosophy as part of its identity. Burgess points out that even animal rights protesters who “had no love for circus at all” inadvertently helped Cirque du Soleil because their protests outside traditional circuses often steered circus fans to their productions.
During the 1980s, the company created a series of different shows, each of which toured in tents, with mixed financial results. The company took a huge chance in 1987, by agreeing to perform in the Los Angeles Arts Festival although they knew that if they didn’t sell well, they wouldn’t have enough money to get home. Luckily, the run was extremely successful, both financially and artistically. Still, the company struggled figuring out its mission and management, as several of its key players came and went.
In 1990, Cirque du Soleil produced the show that turned its fortunes around. Based on an idea by Guy Caron, and directed by Dragone with oversight by Laliberté, Nouvelle Expérience turned the company profitable. During that decade, the company grew rapidly. It created seven new shows, most of which are still running. In addition to its tented shows, it created shows for arenas and custom buildings, and it expanded operations beyond North America while at the same time establishing permanent outposts in Las Vegas and near Orlando. Leroux cites the “deep pockets and rare artistic ambition” of Cirque du Soleil partners such as MGM with enabling such rapid growth and the development of such ambitious projects: MGM underwrote production expenses in exchange for a share of box office receipts.
As the number of its theatrical productions proliferated, the company diversified. It has a formidable licensing presence and has also formed strategic partnerships to create new product and service offerings with Reebok (fitness), Desigual (apparel), Google (web services), Richard MacDonald (at galleries), Solotech (multimedia), EBG (vacations), Bell Media (television, film, digital, and gaming platforms), and MGM Resorts International (a hospitality lounge in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino). In fact, several of Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical productions are also produced by corporate partnerships; for example, it has collaborated with Disney and The Michael Jackson Company.
Throughout its growth, the company has maintained a strong commitment to charitable activities, beginning at home and spreading throughout its empire. It built its environmentally friendly headquarters on the site of a waste treatment plant in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Montreal, where it also cultivates community gardens and and grows some of the food used in its employee cafeterias. Since 1989, the company has earmarked one percent of its annual gross revenues towards programs to support its main areas of philanthropic interest: encouraging sustainable development and supporting and promoting art and artists. Its flagship charities are One Drop, which provides access to water and sanitation in developing countries, and Cirque du Monde, a social circus program for at-risk youth in 80 communities worldwide.
In 2008, Laliberté sold one-fifth ownership of the company to two investment groups from Dubai, Istithmar World and Nakheel, who promised to expand the company and create a permanent show in Dubai. For the first time since the company’s founding, Laliberté stepped down from day-to-day operations to focus on his family and his philanthropic activities. He also visited space. Meanwhile, bolstered by the promise of Dubai capital, the company expanded faster than ever. Too fast, in fact. As Leroux puts it: “they were in an outstanding and perhaps untenable position of growth, and they hit their peak.” Shows were selling well, but immense production costs were undermining profitability, some shows were perceived of as gimmicky, and the world financial collapse undermined the Dubai investors’ plans. In 2012, Laliberté stepped back in to spearhead a restructuring that included laying off a fifth of the company’s employees, and the next year he bought back half of the Dubai investors’ shares.
Jando credits Laliberté with being “a brilliant businessman who hasn’t lost his artistic perspective, a rarity in business world.” Laliberté has publicly lamented that the company lost focus and needed to return to doing what it does best. Jando says this is apparent in the shows’ renewed commitment to hiring good acts and creating “happier” shows. He compliments Laliberté’s lack of greed and says that even with all his success, he “hasn’t changed one iota.” Leroux agrees: “they closed some shows, streamlined, refocused, and got back to what they’re about: making good, high-quality, high-performance solid artistic yet family-accessible fare. They re-grounded themselves. Now, let’s see how long they can resist the temptation to spread out again.”
Since Laliberté resumed control, the company has tightened up operations, but not at the expense of creation. This year, it launched a new touring tent show,Kurios, and is looking to grow operations by seeking investors via three new investment products: a real estate fund, an intellectual property fund, and a production fund. He’s looking to sell 20 to 30 percent of the company, ideally to a private investor, but he hasn’t ruled out a public stock offering. Laliberté is hoping that the right investor could help the company expand into markets it hasn’t been able to penetrate, for example China and India.
Meanwhile, while maintaining its focus on creativity, the company continues to diversify. In March it launched a New York division, Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, that has its eyes on Broadway. The company’s previous attempts to establish a permanent presence in New York City have not been successful, but Burgess thinks the success of shows like Spiegelworld’s Empire, which played in a mirrored tent in midtown Manhattan, might signal that the city’s sophisticated theater goers are “ready for adult circus.”
From New York, Cirque du Soleil Theatrical may expand to London and other major theatrical centers. Meanwhile, the company continues to open new types of productions. In November, Cirque du Soleil will open a dinner-theater experience in Riviera Maya, in the summer of 2015, the company is performing at the opening ceremony of the PanAm Games in Toronto, in late 2015, the company will launch a show based on the movie Avatar, and in 2018, it will open a theme park in Mexico.
Chantal Côté, the company’s corporate public relations manager, confirms the company’s plans to continue creating its signature shows while expanding into new ventures: “Cirque du Soleil will continue to create one show per year, as well as developing projects in other fields of activities. For example, through its hospitality subsidiary company, Cirque du Soleil will develop and operate new concepts for clubs, restaurants, and hotels; through its special events subsidiary company called 45 Degrees, Cirque will create corporate galas and special private events; and through another one called 4U2C, Cirque du Soleil will create multimedia and video projects. Those are just some examples of what is in the works for the next few years.”
In fact, Cirque du Soleil is so prolific that it launched at least two new creative ventures while we were preparing this article: Luna Petunia, a French television show for preschoolers (Cirque du Soleil Média and Saban Brands) and Sparked, a short film featuring a human interaction with quadcopter drones (Cirque du Soleil, ETH Zurich, and Verity Studios).
This year, the company is celebrating this milestone birthday with a series of special events. It threw a big party for employees in June and has produced birthday celebrations at all of its current shows. In December, it will produce a concert in Montreal that includes one song from every Cirque du Soleil show ever produced. The two-week run will feature a 70-voice choir, six soloists, 28 musicians, and 40 costumed characters. The company has also announced an upcoming birthday book, featuring three decades of mostly behind-the-scenes photographs. The book will be available through its publisher Assouline.
In those three decades of operation, the company has created over 30 different shows. Although each one is different, they have come to express a Cirque du Soleil style, marked by lavish, theatrical production values, live music, world-class artistry, multicultural imagery, and dreamy, imaginative themes, many drawn from literature, art, mythology, cinema, popular culture, or other sources. We suspect that the Sun will continue to shine brightly for at least another 30 years.
Special thanks to the circus experts who helped with this article. Hovey Burgess is the author of Circus Techniques. He is chairman of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and dramaturg for Circus Flora. He has been teaching circus skills at New York University for 49 years and has also taught at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and for the New York Goofs and The Juilliard School. Among other awards, he has received the Red Skelton Award Gifted Mentor to Clown Theatre Artists (1991), the International Jugglers' Association Excellence in Education award (1997), and the Downtown Clown Golden Nose - Lifetime Achievement award (2009). Chantal Côté is corporate public relations manager for Cirque du Soleil. World-renowned circus expert and author Dominique Jando began his career as a clown in Paris's Cirque Medrano and later pursued an artistic and administrative career in theater and circus. In 1974, as general secretary of the Paris Cultural Center, he participated with Alexis Gruss in creating France's first professional circus school and Le Cirque Ancienne, which became the French National Circus, a catalyst of the contemporary circus movement. He moved to New York in 1983 to join the Big Apple Circus and served as its associate artistic director for 19 years. He left to become creative director of Circus Center in San Francisco. He is vice president and artistic director of Lone Star Circus in Dallas and founder and curator of Circopedia.org. Dominique has published books and articles on circus in Europe and in the US. He is the circus consultant for Guinness World Records and a founding member of Paris's Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Louis Patrick Leroux is a playwright, director, and scholar. He is a professor of playwriting and Québec drama and culture in both the English and French Studies departments at Concordia University in Montreal. He has recently been visiting scholar at Duke University and Charles University in Prague. He was a scholar-in-residence at Montreal's National Circus School for two years and is an ongoing collaborator with the school's and 7 Fingers of the Hand's focused exploration into circus, technology, and narrative. He is currently teaching history, aesthetics, and creative process at Canada's National Circus School and is director of the Montreal Working Group on Circus Research. He is also an artist in residence at matralab and is affiliated with the Hexagram Institute for research-creation in media arts and technology. Featured Image: Photo: Al Seib