What Makes Cirque Best in Show?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Monday, January 26th, 2015

Cirque du Soleil acrobats

There is no name in live show design that inspires the same level of excitement and awe as Cirque du Soleil. The Quebec-based company, which was founded in 1984, describes its mission as having “constantly sought to evoke the imagination, invoke the senses and provoke the emotions of people around the world.” It seems like a pretty on-point description to us. Cirque du Soleil is synonymous with some the most creatively demanding live shows in the entertainment field today. Here is a closer look at what makes Cirque best in show.

One of the aspects that’s helpful to frame what Cirque has achieved – both creatively and as a business – is to understand the core values that drive the operation. According to the company’s manifesto, their key values are audacity, creativity, imagination, and people as the backbone of their success. It’s easy to see how each of these manifests through Cirque’s creations. But its a fifth element, which the company describes as “dream,” that perhaps best embodies what really sets them apart.

Cirque du Soleil performers

Dreaming and creative freedom are, it seems, the magical ingredients that bring these wondrous productions to life. “Cirque du Soleil dream is also an integral part of its philosophy: To take the adventure further, step beyond its dreams and, above all, believe that our people are the engine of our enterprise. Cirque du Soleil offers its artists and creators the necessary freedom to imagine their most incredible dreams and bring them to life.”

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each production – which feels vast in its scope and scale – is actually the culmination of thousands of little details. Visually, the productions rely on carefully crafted costumes and props to help convey the milieu. Each item that’s used in the shows, from performers’ shoes and hats to the lace trim that adorns the sets, is made in-house. Cirque’s Workshop, at the company headquarters in Montreal, employs over 400 artisans with a variety of trades including costumers, shoemakers, hatters, carpenters, and more. The Workshop has made an estimated 25,000 items to help bring the shows to life.

Sensory details play an important role in each production. Custom music can include live orchestras, ambience singers, and other touches. Players are adorned with visually striking costumes and makeup. Often, these visual and audio touches underscore a sense of playful illusion, whether it’s a group of performers blending into one or one person seemingly transforming into another.

Cirque du Soleil costumes

The Cirque lineup is vast and diverse in its approach to storytelling. But one aspect that stands out across shows is how the writers skillfully select universal themes: love, dreams, exploration, growth, and darker emotions play across the stage to connect with audiences. From Zumanity, The Sensual Side of Cirque du Soleil to the whimsical Kurios, Cabinet of Curiosity, the different angles appeal to a wide range of guests.

Cirque du Soleil productions feature incredible talent, including artists, acrobats, and dancers at the top of their fields. At the headquarters in Montreal, a series of acrobatics studios, dance studio space, and studio-theater performance areas provide the backdrop where Cirque’s creative talent comes to train. New talent will train anywhere between a few weeks and a few months before joining a production.

Cirque set

Understanding what goes into the creation of each set is humbling. Seamless set design is crucial: each set must be assembled and broken down in record time. In many cases they fold in on themselves, transform from one thing to another, and other creative twists that allow a team in motion to adapt its environment. Not only must the sets be visually striking, they must also be safe and highly functional for the shows’ acrobatic talent.

Cutting-edge technology is constantly integrated into the shows. For example, in Kurios, there was a hand puppet scene where performers created “characters” with their hands while a steady cam filmed them, projecting the show live onto a balloon overhead. Cirque invests in the development of new acrobatic techniques and technologies, including employing engineers and specialists for ongoing R&D purposes.

Cirque du Soleil Clockwork Set

From a business perspective, the Cirque story is a huge success. From its founding the company has grown to more than 4000 employees, with nearly 1300 of those being artists representing 50 nationalities and 25 different languages. To date, more than 150 million spectators have seen their shows. The company is now planning to expand its operations with the addition of a theme park in Mexico.

The world of Cirque is hard to adequately capture, but from an entertainment and live show design perspective their success perhaps comes down to a few essential elements. One is a clear, bold vision that drives everything else. Another is an obsessive attention to detail that impacts everything from the smallest touches – handcrafted lace for a costume – to the stories that they choose to tell. Finally, their signature fantastical worlds are unlike anything else out there and they keep finding new and interesting ways to reinvent that experience for audiences time and again.

Image credits: Inyourpocket.com; Cirque due Soleil; Canary District

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