Is It a Circus? or Is It Art? under Cirque Du Soleil's Blue and Yellow Big Top, It's Hard to Tell the Difference

By Helbig, Jack | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Is It a Circus? or Is It Art? under Cirque Du Soleil's Blue and Yellow Big Top, It's Hard to Tell the Difference


Helbig, Jack, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

From the moment you catch sight of Cirque du Soleil's distinctive yellow and blue circus tent, you know there is something special about this circus. The tent, with its multiple-peaked roof and decorated support poles, looms like the towers of some distant, magical kingdom.

And the sense of enchantment doesn't dissipate as you get closer to the action. Gone are the corny, carny elements that make circuses seem crude and old fashioned - the jumble of aggressive barkers hawking action figures, the snack stands selling all sorts of high priced, high caloric delicacies with no nutritional value.

Yes, you can still find Cirque du Soleil souvenirs. And there is popcorn for sale. What is the circus without popcorn? But you don't trip over the concession stands. Instead, the first thing you are likely to see is a juggler, perhaps, or some clowns in the midst of the crowds showing off their talents like Paris street performers.

Like the Disney organization, the Cirque du Soleil folks have spared nothing in creating a total environment, but one that is sleeker, more European, and, yes, a touch snobbier than Disneyland or Disney World.

Founded in 1983 by Guy Laliberte, then a 23-year-old street performer, Cirque du Soleil has from its beginning worked hard to maintain its unique identity in the circus world. Other, smaller circuses, cobble their shows together piecemeal, hiring acts, not performers, and they stitch the acts together like a vaudeville show - just one thing after another - hoping that somehow order would emerge from the three ring chaos.

Cirque du Soleil creates its show first - and then finds performers to fit the conception.

Circus historian Ernest Albrecht credits Guy Caron and Franco Dragone, the Cirque's first artistic director and stage director, with fostering a totally integrated philosophy within the company. Caron and Dragone's motto: "Behind each perilous leap, there is a purpose, an intention, an individual, an emotion."

"Eighteen months before a show premiers, we start," Cirque artistic director Andrew Watson tells me, "It all starts with a lot of brainstorming and a meeting of the minds. We start by asking each other why we are making a show, and if we are making a show, what are we going to make it of."

From this process emerges first the show's theme. For example, Cirque du Soleil's current show, "Quidam," is constructed around the theme of displaced persons - refugees, the homeless, rootless travelers, people who are lonely even in a crowd. Once the team arrives at a theme, they craft the show around it, looking for performers who might fit in, or creating new circus acts from scratch to fit the bill.

Watson likens this step in the process to a giant scavenger hunt. "We have people traveling around all the time. We consider it like a treasure hunt. We are always looking for a pearl. And it can be anything. Anything."

Recently Watson traveled from Cirque du Soleil's home base in Montreal to New York city to check out the work of a puppeteer whose off-Broadway underwater puppet show was getting lots of good press. Was Watson trying to find possible performers for the "water circus" Cirque du Soleil is reportedly building in Las Vegas? He didn't say.

But even if he wasn't fishing for acts for a specific show, Watson was clearly interested in keeping up with whatever new, daring, innovative thing happening in the unpredictable world of fringe theater and performance art.

Which makes sense, since Cirque du Soleil itself rose from fringe's fertile soil. Laliberte performed in the streets of Paris before moving back home to Quebec. Gille Ste.-Croix, the company's Director of Creation was a stilt walker who first met Laliberte when both of them were performing in Baie St. …

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