There is no question that the Cirque du Soleil has been an exciting contribution of Quebec to pop culture at the turn of the 21st century. While circus art has a long tradition, what the creative team of Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix did when they started this project in Baie-Saint-Paul in 1984, was to rethink its basis. The idea was finally articulated when Cirque du Soleil launched its first seasons which changed everything about the notion of the circus. Gone was the use of performing animals, until then a typical and crowd-pleasing feature of circuses. Also, instead of the traditional sequence of separate acts, the Cirque structured those acts around a central idea serving as a common thread. The integration of music, acrobatics, and, of course, clowns, into a story resulted in a new product. In this new genre, theatre and circus fused in a very creative manner.
“Alegría,” a show created by Franco Dragone and Ste-Croix in 1994 (presented again with some changes last year as “Alegría in a New Light”), would probably be the Cirque’s best example of its vision as a precursor of a new form of circus art. But all of that could just become memory now. On June 29, Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy protection after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to close shows around the world. News about the Cirque probable demise was already circulating since the beginning of the lockdown caused by COVID-19. Therefore the disturbing news didn’t surprise many people. After Laliberté sold its controlling interests in the company for 1.5 billion in 2015, the new owners, the Chinese consortium TPG, an American investment group, and the Caisse de dépôts et placements (Quebec Pension Plan) embarked in a series of acquisitions. Those ultimately resulted in the company accumulating a debt of around US$ 1.2 billion. Some of the Cirque’s new productions were not successful either, as if that spirit of innovation and audacity that characterized the first creations had become somehow exhausted.
While in recent days a number of possible arrangements to save the Cirque are circulating, there are also some voices rejecting one of those rescuing plans that involve more money from the Caisse de dépôts et placements into the entertaining group. Those opposed to using public funds to save the circus allege that, after all, technically this is not even a Quebec company anymore (majority shareholders are Chinese and Americans, the Caisse holds only a 20 per cent of the Cirque’s shares). However, Cirque du Soleil still has its headquarters in Montreal. Certainly, there is a strong emotional attachment to it as an exponent of Quebec’s and Canada’s artistic creativity.
The future of the Cirque is then still unclear. The Quebec government intent to save the Cirque as a matter of “national” pride. However, investing public money in the Cirque, at a time that for any government things are getting financially complicated, may infuriate some people. After all, there are other priorities, some people say. However, Cirque du Soleil really was a great project that probably should go back to its root. Perhaps if Laliberté, its founder, retakes control of it, as he announced his interest in buying back the company. Or maybe not, as some free-market-oriented people would say. Cirque du Soleil, like any other entertainment company, should be open to takeover by any other big conglomerate. It shouldn’t matter if Canadian, Chinese, or American: Walt Disney perhaps? Well, better not: Mickey Mouse on the trapeze?
In any case, let’s hope that after the pandemic we will be back at reading about Cirque du Soleil in the arts and culture section, and not in the business pages.