Cirque du Soleil may be struggling, but the cluster around it is thriving
IN THE deconsecrated church of Saint-Esprit, jugglers toss fluorescent orange clubs in front of the former altar, trapeze artists soar under the gaze of stone saints and wobbly unicyclists use two lines of repurposed pews as handrails. Declared surplus to requirements after Quebeckers deserted Catholicism in droves, the church is now the École de Cirque de Québec, through which 20,000 aspiring entertainers pass each year. The school’s director, Yves Neveu, says only half-jokingly, “Someone said the archbishop should be jealous because I’m filling my church.” Nearby Montreal boasts an even bigger school for circus performers.Although only a handful of students go on to a career in the circus, the popularity of the programmes offered to would-be acrobats, local children and even tourists off cruise ships is the visible manifestation of the circus craze that has gripped Quebec. At its heart is the privately owned Cirque du Soleil, started in 1984 by a troupe of stilt-walkers from nearby Baie-Saint-Paul. It is now one of Canada’s most important cultural exports, employing 5,000 people at eight permanent shows in Las Vegas and at 12 others that tour the world. In 2012 its turnover was about C$1 billion ($900m)—it does not reveal its profits.
In 2005 this newspaper asked whether Guy Laliberté, majority owner of the circus, could keep it flying. That question was raised again early last year when the company laid off 400 employees, mainly at its head office in Montreal. The company has blamed the strong Canadian dollar (which has since weakened) and the after-effects of the global recession, which hit sponsorship income. It has launched a cost-cutting drive but insists it is not in crisis.
However, the company that reinvented the circus by eschewing traditional acts such as lion tamers and bearded ladies, and by targeting adults rather than children, is certainly finding it tougher going these days. It enjoyed early and rapid success because it had created an uncontested blue ocean in which to swim, according to two management strategists from INSEAD business school in France. “That ocean is now full of sharks,” says Gilles Ste-Croix, one of the original stilt-walkers, who is now the company’s “artistic guide”.
Competition comes not just from older circuses that have updated their acts, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but also from a trend in the arts to merge various disciplines, for instance by bringing acrobats into operas.
Smaller rivals have also emerged from the large shadow Cirque du Soleil casts in Quebec. A troupe called “Les 7 doigts de la main” set a box-office record at the Broadway theatre where they performed a show called “Pippin”. Flip FabriQue, formed by a group of friends just two years ago, is now travelling the world. And Cirque Alfonse toured Europe, Asia and America in 2013 with a truly Canadian spectacle called “Timber!”, which features chainsaw-juggling lumberjacks.
These newer outfits are both a source of competition and collaboration for Cirque du Soleil, with performers moving back and forth. It also collaborates with notable local talents, such as Robert LePage, a director, playwright and actor whose company Ex Machina is based in Quebec City. This has reinforced what has become a Quebec entertainment cluster.
Mr Neveu, a Cirque du Soleil alumnus, thinks that rather than serving a spell with his former employer, many of the students at his school will go straight to work in one of the many smaller troupes, which he sees as a healthy trend. Even so, Cirque du Soleil remains the sun around which all the others are orbiting.