Many dark months have passed on stages around the world. And suddenly a sign in circus– Cirque du Soleil announced earlier this spring that it would start up operations again (after a tumultuous year of layoffs, show closings, bankruptcy proceedings and restructuring) and would remount two of their shows, O and Mystere, starting in their home show zone of Las Vegas, Nevada. Soon after they announced that the Cirque affiliate showBlue Man Group will also return to the Luxor Hotel and Casino in June. Since then, waves of announcements have been streaming in from circus companies of all sizes and shapes for summer openings as well as far-reaching dates. For example, theHollywood Reporterreported that Cirque’sLUZIA will reopen at London’s Royal Albert Hall starting in January of 2022. While mid-sized Australian circus company Circa has been tentatively booking shows on their own COVID-managed continent since March of 2021, and UK-based Gandini Juggling has a full summer and fall touring their hit show Smashed around the UK and Europe even as they are developing new works. With signs like these, it is tempting to ask, can big circus companies that are remounting shows and tours be an economic indicator of recovery for circus in particular and performing arts in general? That may be the case, as some performing art forms like theater, with a history of deeper funding infrastructure, have had the luxury to postpone their return to the stage, Broadway plans to reopen in September for example, so looking for signs of recovery may fall to the performing arts genres that have taken a leap of faith or that can’t afford to wait. Leave it up to circus to take that leap!
These tentative signs of improvement as the vaccine rolled out in the spring and the COVID cases dropped were hopeful, but if you were watching the mainstream news at this time, it would seem as if only one recovery mattered, that of Cirque du Soleil. Is the recovery of this megacompany the main economic barometer to a recovery in the performing arts world, or are there other indicators? It turns out that it was a pretty good signal to the rest of the live circus show/touring scene, but that the company is not alone in its contingency planning and the urgent need to get back up and running–they’re just the most visible. Rumors of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey comeback have been circulating for months in the US, with an understated Linked In announcement of the new casting director (Giulio Scatola). Dragone has made no official announcements, but their social media has been showing rehearsals and dropping some heavy hints, such as this recent Instagram post on June 18th, stating, “The day when we can safely show our love and support to others in person is fast approaching.”
Simultaneously, around the world, Festivals are announcing their transition or partial transition from all digital to hybrid form (with some in-person, modified performances). In a recent article titled Festival Roundup 2021 on CircusTalk by associate editor Lydia Nord, she highlighted eight such festivals including the well-known Montreal Completement Cirque and Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland.
The inherent flexibility within our art form has always given us the tools to adapt our shows, which has made circus the great artistic antidote to the pandemic. –Rob Tannion, Cluster Arts
The New York Times took a less optimistic view of the scheduled Cirque du Soleil comeback, quoting several former employees’ doubts about the economic hurdles ahead, and instead focusing on the resiliency of the circus artists themselves who have been keeping active on their own projects in the meantime and fueling a grassroots recovery. On that same front, a quieter revolution is occurring in the circus creating and programming world, that of examining former practices which might have been extraneous.Cheng Tsung-Lung, Art director of the influential Cloud Gate Dance Theatre company in Taipei commented on this reflection period in the Hong Kong Tatler in an article titled “13 Experts Weigh In On The Future Of Arts And Culture After The Pandemic”, stating “The pandemic was an alert, reminding us to reflect on whether we are on the right path. With the cancellation of our performances, our busy daily schedules were replaced with backup plans. My dancers and I had more time to truly slow down and create. We took second thoughts on things we were accustomed to: does this need to be changed? How can we change it?”
But those comeback doubts in the NY Times article do not flag the enthusiasm of Cirque du Soleil’s frontman and CEO Daniel Lamare, quoted later in the Montreal Gazette with a sentiment most in the performing arts world can resonate with,“When I spoke to all our employees, I have to say there was a lot of emotion in the air…It’s more than 400 days that we’ve waited for this moment. It’s a relief.”
‘Post Pandemic’ Bump
We do have a historical precedent for how the recovery might go. In an article written by Thom Wall titledShowbiz & The Spanish Flu: Lessons from Last Century’s Pandemicfor CircusTalk in 2020, he quotes Vaudeville performer Mae West describing the re-entry phase, “…there was the memory of the Spanish flu epidemic. Maybe it was just all that change in the air. Anyway, audiences seemed restless. There was a pervasive feeling of the wiggles. I could sense it. I could even feel it, a sense of it myself” (Chandler, 2012).
The Atlantic magazine also discussed ‘post-pandemic’ recovery as related to the 1918 Spanish flu in an article by Yascha Mounk, stating “The devastation of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic was quickly followed by a manic flight into sociability. The Roaring Twenties saw a flowering of parties and concerts. The 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize.”
Of course, not every nation is experiencing the pandemic on the same timeline or given the same resources to combat it, which not only leads to inequality and uneven devastation, but will also complicate the recovery of a performing arts sector that has relied heavily on sourcing international employees, and on international touring. Just consider the visas and travel arrangements that are made for a midsize touring show annually–and it makes sense that we will see a recovery starting locally with local artists. The current Delta variant is also complicating the recovery effort, with waves of the virus reaching different regions at different times. One example is Australia which has had several short lockdowns and revivals over the past six months. Rob Tannion, producer and artist development manager at Cluster Arts feels optimism for circus, saying, “The inherent flexibility within our art form has always given us the tools to adapt our shows, which has made circus the great artistic antidote to the pandemic.”
He continued, describing how much of the Australian circus world has adjusted,” By the time Cirque du Soleil proclaimed that intermission is over in early 2021, the majority of the small to medium circus companies in Australia were already taking their bows –especially as some of our first socially distanced performances began back in July 2020. Without the security of ongoing funding support to absorb the impacts of last-minute cancellations or hard border closures, the independent sector has become razor-sharp reactive in embracing risk and facilitating change. Major annual calendar events were affected either directly or indirectly to hotspot designations, quarantine requirements, or hard border restrictions. Sydney Festival was the first major festival to remain open during the pandemic. Multiple companies could not attend Perth’s FRINGEWORLD due to hard border closures, decimating incomes. Adelaide Fringe operated at 50% audience capacity, which reduced profitability on a box office split arrangement. The National Circus Festival in Mullumbimby, our largest circus sector gathering was canceled last-minute robbing the sector of a much-needed time to share, compare and heal collectively. Yet there is an air of optimism in our sector. There is a stronger drive to create new shows, to take creative risks and to fight to engage our audiences — just this time around we have a plan A and B and C in place.”
Is Circus Bouncing Back?
We can again look to Cirque du Soleil for a hint on how a large show might proceed and set the tone for sourcing performers and touring as the recovery (or perhaps subsequent waves of recovery and shut down) recur. There is no doubt that larger circus companies have a plan A, B & C in place as well. According to reports that have been emerging since spring, Cirque du Soleil’s re-entry strategy is necessarily well-thought-out, with the plan to enter stationary shows and highly vaccinated markets first with each phase of recovery as a test to the circus market. The company claims that just the return of the first two shows in Las Vegas could mean the return of 300 workers in the United States. “Each time we announce a show, we add between 150 and 200 people and we could easily predict that would create jobs here in Montreal,” Lamarre told the Montreal Gazette.
In an article published on CNBC written by Nadine El-Bawab in June, Lamarre said that ticket sales were already double what they were pre-pandemic, and the plan was to ultimately rehire 95% of the circus artists. So maybe companies like Cirque du Soleil, Dragone and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (and their counterparts around the world) are the economic litmus tests of global circus sector recovery. Or perhaps they are the most visible forces driving the recovery, instilling confidence and replenishing the workforce–after all, they have the resources and funders to build that confidence along with the more arts-funded European countries who continue to support artists and small companies during fallow and recovering times. But while those companies with more humble resources might still continue to take their offstage cues from these bigger organizations, it is the pandemic’s development, and the economic reality of transnational commerce which will continue to exert strong outside forces that will impact the survival and thriving rates of smaller and mid-sized companies who cannot afford to waiver or fail at this moment in history, but must become as Tannion says, “razor-sharp reactive in embracing risk and facilitating change.”
Resources: CNBC Cirque du Soleil ticket sales are double digits above pre-pandemic levels, CEO says New York Times Cirque du Soleil’s Return Could Be Its Most Challenging Feat Yet Montréal Gazette Paralyzed by pandemic, Cirque du Soleil prepares for relaunch in June The Globe and Mail Inside the year that nearly killed Cirque du Soleil and its plan to return to the stage The HollyWood Reporter Cirque du Soleil Live Shows Set to Reopen After Virus Closures The Atlantic Prepare for the Roaring Twenties Smithsonian Magazine What Caused the ROaring Twenties? Not the End of a Pandemic (Probably)
This article was also published in Du Ma Xi.
Feature image credit: Collage. Performers skipping rope at Cirque du Soleil's show Quidam by Ververidis Vasilis (Source: Shutterstock)