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The Creation of the Cirque du Soleil

INTRODUCTION

Cirque du Soleil is among the most prominent spectacles that come to mind for many Canadians when thinking of the most famous live performance entertainment companies in Canadian history. For this, and several other reasons, the creation of the Cirque du Soleil is arguably a moment that matters in Canada. Since Cirque du Soleil’s creation in a small town near Quebec City by a group of Canadian street performers, thousands of artists have worked with the circus to perform spectacles filled with Canadian art. However, Cirque du Soleil does not only play a significant role in Canadian art and culture, but is also a world-renowned circus that performs internationally. Since its advent in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has produced over 30 shows that have been performed in over 25 different countries.[i] Consequently, Cirque du Soleil is a piece of Canadian culture that has been seen by over 15 million people worldwide.[ii] The creation of Cirque du Soleil is a significant historical moment for Canada, and continues to bear national importance as it evolves and expands today. Cirque du Soleil is a part of Canadian history that deals with nationalism and political tensions, however, has a primary focus on the public’s enjoyment of Canadian art and culture.

CONTEXT

Cirque du Soleil’s creation in Quebec was a lengthy process that inevitably formed a distinct culture. Before the 1950s, culture was not a priority for Quebec, however, this changed with the rise of Quebec nationalism when citizens perceived a need to affirm their differences with the rest of English Canada and the United States in the south.[iii] The government decided that if they were to create an independent Quebec, they also needed to create a distinct culture and to help with identity formation.[iv] Arts and culture were areas that were not considered very organized or economically beneficial.[v] Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, the Quebec government started to help the province’s cultural revival by investing in it: they gave money to help many projects in art, architecture, theatre, and other areas to create a cultural identity in Quebec.[vi] With the help of the government of Quebec, culture began to be more lucrative and expansive across the Canadian nation as well.

Furthermore, Quebec did not have a circus culture before the creation of the Cirque du Soleil.[vii] When circuses did tours in Canada, they were mainly troops from the United States.[viii] These American circuses were what could be considered traditional circuses: shows with different kinds of performers like acrobats and clowns.[ix] The shows also featured animals that did numbers, such as elephants, lions, and tigers.[x] A traditional circus’ goals were to create wonder for audiences with acts they were not used to seeing in their daily lives. This traditional circus was exceptionally popular among children.[xi] However, Quebec did not have any circus schools like Europe did, so it was difficult to develop a Quebec circus culture when people did not have a place to learn it.[xii] Thus, circus culture in Quebec did not develop until the 1980s. However, even though Quebec had no concrete circus tradition, there was a type of circus culture found in street performers who did small numbers to entertain passersby.[xiii] They did several different numbers such as juggling, walk on stilts, or eat fire.[xiv] In places with more tourism in Quebec, like the Old Port of Montreal or Old Quebec City, it is still possible to see street performers entertaining visitors. While there was not a solid traditional travelling circus such as the United States, Quebec street performers nevertheless had their own small-scale impact of a cultural initiative in Canada with influences from abroad.

MOMENT

Cirque du Soleil first performed on July 16th, 1984.[xv] The Cirque’s origins, however, began several years earlier. In order to obtain a full picture of how Quebec’s internationally renowned circus began, one must first look at the early life of its founder, Guy Laliberté. Laliberté’s interest in show business began at the age of 16, when he began touring with the travelling folk-music group, La Grande Gueule.[xvi] Laliberté’s early introduction to the travelling life of an aspiring musician led him to Paris, where he claims that “street performers and folk musicians were kind of on the same circuit.”[xvii] Laliberté’s encounters with street performers in France led him to take an interest and pursue new forms of performance, such as fire-breathing. In 1979, Guy Laliberté returned to Quebec with his newfound skills, where he met the biggest influence for the creation of his Cirque du Soleil.

Upon his return, Laliberté found work as an entertainer at Le Balcon Vert, a youth hostel in Baie-Saint-Paul, run by a stilt performer named Gilles Ste-Croix. After working together for the summer season, the two became quite close. Ste-Croix, after seeing how successful the summer had been, introduced the idea of organising a troupe of theatre performers on stilts to Guy Laliberté, and Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul was formed.[xviii] The advent and success of Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul eventually led to Laliberté’s idea for the creation of the Cirque du Soleil. The two performers were fortunate; at the time – in the early 1980 – the Quebec government was offering funding for expressions of Quebecois culture. In order to secure funding and make a name for their troupe, Laliberté convinced Ste-Croix to walk from Baie-Saint-Paul to Quebec City – a journey of fifty-six miles.[xix] The stunt made provincial headlines, and a photo of Ste-Croix in his costume was published on the front page of Le Soleil (figure 1). The stunt was successful, and the troupe secured funding from the government, and their initial success fueled Guy Laliberté’s imagination; the young performer began to develop the idea of creating a “homegrown circus”.[xx]

Figure 1

In 1984, the Quebec government was celebrating the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada, where Laliberté and his troupe performed. The success of Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul won the performers further funding from the provincial government; Laliberté and Ste-Croix were provided $30 000 to produce the concept for a Quebec circus,[xxi] and the Cirque du Soleil was born, originally as a travelling circus under the name Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil.

Despite difficulties and conflict which arose due to the inexperience of all those involved, the Cirque was extremely popular, and finished their first year with $60 000 in profits. While they qualified as a success, $60 000 was not enough to fund another year of performances. However, their popularity won them further funding from the government, largely due to René Lévesque, who was Premier at the time. Lévesque was a big fan of Cirque du Soleil’s work, and “twisted a few arms”[xxii] in order to get Laliberté the funding he needed to continue. The extra funding came with the added bonus of allowing the Cirque to function as a legitimate circus, performing shows without needing to tour the province. The string of early successes and popularity continued to allow Laliberté and his colleagues to push the boundaries of traditional concepts of circus acts, and the Cirque du Soleil eventually grew into the world-renowned company that it is today.

SIGNIFICANCE

The creation of the Cirque du Soleil is significant in the sense that its development and international success had cultural, economic, and political consequences, either within Canada or outside. There are multiple cultural ramifications from Cirque du Soleil’s impact. The company performs their shows on all continents, and not only recruits their artists from Quebec and Canada, but also from other countries.[xxiii] The vast expansion of Cirque du Soleil created a new demand for artists mastering various circus skills, and enabled people to continue pursuing this artistic career. Furthermore, the image of the circus was transformed with Cirque du Soleil’s approach, as they did not incorporate animals in their shows, as was traditionally done, but still achieved tremendous success.[xxiv] It is then undeniable that the Cirque du Soleil has had a worldwide impact in changing the face of previous cultural activity in the circus, which enhanced its popularity. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada gave grants to Cirque du Soleil during its early stages.[xxv] The province and nation equally saw Cirque du Soleil as a way to showcase their assets to the world. Nonetheless, the circus was generally more affiliated with the distinct culture of Quebec than that of Canada.[xxvi] In addition to the grants, the province sought to strengthen the link between its own cultural identity and company by allowing the Cirque du Soleil to represent the nation on the world stage.[xxvii] However, the company’s worldwide success is partly because its shows are not associated with any particular country; even its language is an imaginary one. In fact, the Cirque says they are citizens of the “imagi-nation.”[xxviii] Although by early 2014 more than 100 million people saw shows of the Cirque du Soleil,[xxix] it is erroneous to say that the spectators specifically witnessed Quebec’s or Canada’s culture. Nonetheless, the spectators’ awareness of the circus, its French name and origin has an international cultural significance.

Additionally, the creation of Cirque du Soleil and its growth had political and economic consequences. The circus’ first show in 1984 was only a couple of years prior to Quebec’s second referendum for independence, in 1995.[xxx] As the distinctiveness of Quebec’s culture was a clear cause and argument for its nationalist tendencies,[xxxi] the Cirque du Soleil and its success played key a role in the separatist rhetoric. In fact, between 1984 and 1994, Quebec and Canada made big investments of 5 million dollars to the company.[xxxii] Furthermore, the provincial government kept giving smaller grants to the company even when it did not need them anymore, in order to keep a link with the Cirque.[xxxiii] In return, Cirque du Soleil contributed to Canadian employment. As of 2013, the Cirque employed 2000 people in the city and possessed various offices.[xxxiv] The company also had international economic impacts, and also hired numerous employees and performers globally.[xxxv] In other words, the foundation of the Cirque du Soleil is significant because of the worldwide cultural impact that reformed the circus, and brought awareness to its distinct cultural identity within Canada. Its significance also lies in the political role being factor of tension between the governments over the issues of jurisdiction and sovereignty, and an economic role by giving jobs to many people within Canada and abroad.

CONCLUSION

The creation of the Cirque du Soleil was a provincial endeavour that expanded into a global triumph. Although political tensions allowed for uneasiness in cementing a cultural identity both provincially and nationally, chaos eventually flourished into Guy Laliberté’s vision of a lively entertainment possibility that would be comprehensive across the globe. The question of a transnational image for Canada was presented through Cirque du Soleil’s grassroots start-up in Quebec, as well as the international stage they would entertain on. As a testament to the importance and utmost significance of the company’s cultural and artistic form, the Cirque cultivated influences from abroad, and ultimately fostered a vibrant identity that many Canadians can be proud of. The creation of the Cirque du Soleil is a moment that matters through the contribution of building national and cultural identities, solidifying a Canadian genre of entertainment, and bringing together circus enthusiasts politically, economically, and culturally.

[i] Cirque du Soleil. “Shows by Cirque du Soleil,” Cirque du Soleil (2017). Accessed April 4, 2018. https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/home/shows.aspx.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii] Deborah Leslie and Norma M. Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Industry: the Case of Cirque du Soleil,” UrbanStudies 48, no.9 (July 2011): 1778.

[iv] Leslie and Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Industry,” 1778.

[v] Jean David, Quel Cirque! Ma Théorie Générale de la Réalité (Quebec city : Un monde différent ltée, 2005), 47.

[vi] Leslie and Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Industry,” 1779.

[vii] Leslie and Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Industry,” 1772.

[viii] David, Quel Cirque! 41.

[ix] Ibid., 42.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 43.

[xii] Leslie and Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Industry,” 1776.

[xiii] Ibid., 1777.

[xiv] David, Quel Cirque! 30.

[xv] Babinski, Tony. Cirque Du Soleil: 20 Years under the Sun. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004), 9.

[xvi] Ibid., 18.

[xvii] Ibid., 24.

[xviii] Ibid., 25.

[xix] Ibid., 28.

[xx] Ibid., 44.

[xxi] Ibid., 51.

[xxii] Ibid., 55.

[xxiii] Issam A. Ghazzawi et al. “Cirque du Soleil: An Innovative Culture of Entertainment,” Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies 20, no. 6 (2014): 31. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=9f0344fe-8138-4f81-8403-4b55fa6becce%40sessionmgr4006.

[xxiv] Deborah Leslie, and Norma M. Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Society: the Case of Cirque du Soleil,” Urban Studies 48, no. 9 (2011): 1772.

[xxv] Jennifer Harvie, and Erin Hurley, “States of Play: Locating Québec in the Performances of Robert Lepage, Ex Machina, and the Cirque du Soleil,” Theatre Journal 51, no. 3 (1999): 303. http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 25068678

[xxvi] Deborah Leslie, and Norma M. Rantisi, “Creativity and Place in the Evolution of a Cultural Society: the Case of Cirque du Soleil,” Urban Studies 48, no. 9 (2011): 1780-1781.

[xxvii] Harvie, “States of Play” 302.

[xxviii] Leslie, “Creativity and Place,”1772.

[xxix] Ghazzawi, “Innovative Culture of Entertainment,” 31.

[xxx] Harvie, “States of Play” 301.

[xxxi] Ibid., 300.

[xxxii] Ibid., 303.

[xxxiii] Leslie, “Creativity and Place,”1781.

[xxxiv] Ghazzawi, “Innovative Culture of Entertainment,” 31.

[xxxv] Ibid.

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