Circus News

Costumes at Cirque du Soleil–The Challenging Work of Preserving Circus Heritage

Cirque du Soleil was founded over 35 years ago, and in that time has produced thousands of costumes for 52 stage shows. Its costuming department fabricates over 15,000 costume pieces per year at the international headquarters in Montreal, Canada that it then sends out to its touring and resident shows, as well as special events. Since the company’s founding in 1984, their shows have explored a variety of themes which has translated to a diverse history of costumes.
Cirque du Soleil costume
Costume from Kooza. Photo credit: Caroline Bergeron

The materials used for creating costuming has evolved to include 3D printed materials, LED lights, and even motors. Many contemporary circus artists have struggled with defining their work in a way that is not confined to and characterized by traditional circus, so preserving heritage is a topic that often seems to fall by the wayside, whether intentional or not. The evolution is an important part of the industry’s history though, and costuming is a critical component. It communicates when there may be no spoken words in a show. Vibrant colors spark emotions, just as drab, muted ones do. The costume of an imagined creature is the first indication that we are about to be transported to a different world. For shows that bring fantastical creatures and characters to life, the costuming is often on the forefront of developing new or unconventional materials in the world of garment making. There is a history here that the industry should be proud of. What is being done to preserve it?

Cirque du Soleil is arguably the most recognizable circus in the world. Have you ever wondered what happens to their costumes after they are retired? Maybe you’ve seen souvenirs such as Christmas ornaments for sale at their shows that contain recycled costume scraps. There is a deeper story to their costumes that reach the end of their life cycle. I sat down with Marilène Baril, Head of Public Affairs at Cirque du Soleil, to learn more about the company’s efforts to preserve costuming, and in turn, the heritage of their company, through the Show Heritage Collection.

Origins

Where did the difficult task of preserving costumes begin for Cirque du Soleil? Baril says “Sylvie François, a former Cirque du Soleil employee, presented a project more than 20 years ago, to preserve the memory of our shows by implementing measures to conserve costumes and accessories.” The idea was to leave a trace of each of its shows in an effort to conserve the heritage of the company. At the time, this was a relatively new idea in the field of performing arts, and therefore something that they were interested in pursuing. This resulted in the creation of the Show Heritage Collection. “Today, this collection constitutes a national heritage, an exceptional memory, unique in Quebec, Canada and the performing arts” said Baril.

During my visit to the international headquarters, I had the privilege of touring the “vault” where costumes from all of Cirque du Soleil’s stage shows are preserved. As Baril and I descended into the depths of the basement of their sprawling headquarters, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She told me that because the purpose of the vault is to preserve the costumes, access is restricted, and most of Cirque du Soleil’s employees will never have the opportunity to enter it.

collection of circus costumes
The Costume Heritage Collection at Cirque du Soleil. Photo credit Jerome Guibord
What’s in the Vault?

As we enter the vault, you can feel a change in temperature. Since the goal is to maintain costumes for conservation, the vault is held to preservation standards, where temperature, humidity, and light are closely monitored and controlled. The room contains rows and rows of rolling shelves which the preserved costumes are stored on. Although most of them are stored in boxes, some that are too large to fit in a box are stored hanging. The hanging racks are a diverse explosion of colors, shapes, and textures.

For the costumes that are stored in boxes, each set is stored in a separate box, and each box is labeled with information about the costume contained within. Inside the box, each piece is layered in tissue paper. This may sound easier than it is. Careful consideration must be taken with each piece, as many of the costumes are complex, and the richness in textures and colors often comes from the use of a variety of textiles and materials. Some costumes must be taken apart before they are stored in order to ensure that the costume is properly preserved. “To ensure that certain mixtures of materials age well and thus prevent damage that could result from the degradation of a material on the textile, we sometimes need to remove certain components from a costume and store it separately, for example integrated LED lights to a costume” said Baril. When costumes are taken apart, the exact process for reassembling it is detailed. This process, along with every other piece of information about each costume, is documented in an internal database.

The Selection Process

Initially, the program was not as selective about which costumes were kept for preservation. Over the years, the company has grown exponentially, and new shows are continually being added to its roster. There came a point when it was not feasible to store every costume from every show, and a more rigorous selection process was put in place. The conversation about which costumes will be selected begins internally, a few years after a show has premiered, but before the show closes. The Show Heritage Collection staff work with the show’s creative and/or artistic director to determine the most signature costumes or characters from the show that should be preserved.

Baril says that the conversation begins around the question “What do we want people to remember about this show 20 or 30 years from now?” Sometimes this could be a character that was prominent in marketing materials for the show, or the first time that the company used a new costuming technique or material. Since each show may have hundreds of costume pieces, this is often a long process to narrow down which ones should make the cut. Baril identifies the selection process as the most challenging aspect of their program. “With a significant number of new productions, we must ensure that our approach is sustainable. The acquisition criteria must be tightened in order not only to optimize storage space, human resources, but also to carry out a more targeted and significant collection. Collecting is making choices,” she said. I found the information she shared about which costumes make it into the collection to be the most interesting and surprising part of our discussion.

Some of Cirque du Soleil’s shows have been presented for more than 20 years. If you’ve ever seen one of their shows, and then many years later gone back to see the same show, you might see differences in which circus discipline is presented within an act. Each circus discipline presents unique costuming needs, even when they may look very similar to someone unfamiliar with the disciplines. For example, a pole dance artist requires bare legs whereas as a Chinese pole artist requires full pants. This can cause changes to be made to the design of a costume.

Many of the costumes evolve from the time the show premieres to the time the show closes, so after a costume is selected for preservation, it is looked at on a case by case basis to determine what part of that costume’s history makes it into the vault. Sometimes it is the first version of a costume, and sometimes it is the last. Other times they may be most interested in an early design that was eventually changed before the premiere. There also may or may not be initial design sketches included. Occasionally, more than one version of the same costume is kept. For example, when the show Corteo was converted from a tent show to an arena show, the costumes evolved to meet the demands of the arena touring schedule. Some of the costumes for the tent show were constructed out of linen and required more work to prepare for each performance. When the show evolved, those costumes were remade out of man-made materials that were dyed using the sublimation technique. This resulted in a more durable costume, without some of the upkeep. In this case, both versions of the costume were kept for preservation, and are currently on display in the materials library at the International Headquarters.

There is a very small team behind the Show Heritage Collection. Besides Baril’s oversight of the program, there is just one full time technician, Marie-Claire Dumoulin, whose background is in museology. She has the challenging task of not only preparing costumes for preservation, but also determining which costumes out of the thousands of pieces that end up back at the headquarters should be kept, and which pieces belong together in a set.

All costumes that appear on stage are sent back to the headquarters once they reach the end of their life cycle. If a costume piece has been selected for preservation, it is set aside. Often times, the entire costume will not be sent back at once since different parts of a costume can have a longer life cycle than others. There may also be more than one artist that plays a particular character, and therefore there may be different sizes of the same costume. The costumes are not preserved in the vault until they have the entire set, for one performer, with each piece having a similar degree of wear and tear. This ensures that they don’t end up with mismatched costume sizes, or pieces of a costume that are much more beat up than the rest – both of which could create a problem if the costume ends up on exhibition. An additional challenge that they face is that there may be several costumes in the same show that are very similar, with only minor differences. I was shown an example of two headpieces that to the untrained eye could look identical, but actually contained subtle differences in embellishment. Even though these two head pieces belong to the same type of character, but are technically different pieces, it is likely that only one will be selected for preservation. Dumoulin indicated that her next step with this costume was to determine which one would be kept.

So what happens to the costumes after they are collected, documented, and preserved in the vault? The last goal of the program is to exhibit the collection. The program receives at least one request per year for a public exhibition. Although this is a goal of the program, it does create an additional challenge for conservation. Many of the costumes that Cirque du Soleil produces are made of lycra or other stretch materials. Costumes on exhibit must be rotated so that they don’t stretch out from being displayed on a mannequin for too long. Once a costume makes it back to the vault after exhibition, it must rest for several years before it can be displayed again.

Looking Forward

Currently, Cirque du Soleil loans out the costumes for public exhibitions. The Show Heritage Collection plans to continue discussions with museums that may have an interest in permanent exhibits of Cirque du Soleil’s costuming, such as the Musée de la Civilisation. The goal is to look at moving beyond loaning out costumes and into donating part of their collection. This would not only make the costumes more accessible to the public, but it would also delegate some of the on-going preservation responsibilities to the museum.

My visit to Cirque du Soleil sparked many questions for me as a creator in the circus industry. It got me thinking about the importance of preserving our history, especially since circus hasn’t always been (and in some places is still not) considered to be an actual art form, and beyond that, one that is valued. The industry has changed so much in the last 50 years, and on our current path of constant evolution, it will likely look very different from now in another 50 years. As an industry, we often grapple with traditional versus contemporary circus, and frequently exhibit a desire to distance the two. In the midst of this, do we risk being so focused on the future that we forget to consider what we are choosing to preserve (or not preserve), and what stories, if any, we will leave about our creations for future generations? One thing is certain to me – our heritage is important. We must work to preserve it and seek opportunities to share it publicly. It is unrealistic to expect that someone else will do it for us.

circus costumes on display
Costumes on exhibit. Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
You can check out Cirque du Soleil’s upcoming public costume exhibitions currently scheduled for this year: May – October 2020: Pointe-a-Callieres Museum in the Old Port of Montreal, Canada. Displayed in exhibit on Quebec and International Circus. Part of the exhibit will also tour in the province of Quebec until 2022-23. 

Summer 2020 (dates to be announced): Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo. Costumes from the show Varekai displayed in Exhibit on Eiko Ishioka (retrospective), Varekai’s Costume Designer.
Photos provided courtesy of Cirque du Soleil and Katalin Lightner.The Costume Heritage Collection. Photo credit: Jerome Guibord

Katalin Lightner
Creative Director - United States
Katalin Lightner is the founder and creative director of Dream Rippled Productions, a company specializing in creating one of a kind experiences, and developing technology for live performance. She has performed in theatrical circus shows, festivals, and for special events across the United States, and has appeared in television and film. Her passion is in creating performances that tell stories using physical storytelling, designing unique circus equipment, and through unconventional uses of technology. In 2015, her project “Lit” won “When Technology Meets Creativity,” a National contest put on by Cirque du Soleil that examined the intersections of technology and creativity. “Lit” explored projection mapping onto a fabric slackwire/slackfabric with wire walking. Katalin is also one of the co-founders of Soda City Cirque, a performance art company based out of Columbia, SC that blends circus, dance, and theater in full-length theatrical circus shows.

Katalin Lightner

Katalin Lightner is the founder and creative director of Dream Rippled Productions, a company specializing in creating one of a kind experiences, and developing technology for live performance. She has performed in theatrical circus shows, festivals, and for special events across the United States, and has appeared in television and film. Her passion is in creating performances that tell stories using physical storytelling, designing unique circus equipment, and through unconventional uses of technology. In 2015, her project “Lit” won “When Technology Meets Creativity,” a National contest put on by Cirque du Soleil that examined the intersections of technology and creativity. “Lit” explored projection mapping onto a fabric slackwire/slackfabric with wire walking. Katalin is also one of the co-founders of Soda City Cirque, a performance art company based out of Columbia, SC that blends circus, dance, and theater in full-length theatrical circus shows.

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