Cirque du Soleil’s return could be its most challenging feat yet

By Dan Bilefsky

Confinement has posed a particular challenge for Québécois aerialist Guillaume Paquin.

Practicing signature moves, such as twisting his way up a 20-foot rope before spinning downward like a helicopter propeller, is a bit tricky from his cramped living room.

Now, however, the former Cirque du Soleil performer may soon be able to trade in his Montreal apartment for the big top: The famed circus is returning to the stage after the pandemic forced it to shutter 44 shows, from Melbourne, Australia, to Hangzhou, China.

With vaccinations accelerating across the world, the Cirque announced late last month that its two longest-running Las Vegas shows, “O” and “Mystère,” will return this summer. “Luzia,” a crowd-pleaser featuring acrobats jumping to and from a pair of huge swings, will open at Royal Albert Hall in London in January. And talks are underway to reopen in China, Japan, South Korea and Spain.

At a time when the pandemic is still raging and uncertainty remains about people’s willingness to return to large theaters, the attempted comeback by the former behemoth is a litmus test of sorts for the live-entertainment industry.

Can the badly battered Montreal-based circus, already struggling with creative exhaustion before the pandemic, rise again?

“It’s been more than a year that we are all stuck at home,” said Paquin, 26, who previously starred as the extraterrestrial humanoid Entu in “Toruk,” the elaborately staged Cirque show inspired by James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” He is not part of the Las Vegas shows soon to commence but is eager to get back onstage.

“Audiences are hungry for live entertainment,” he said.

The reopening of Cirque du Soleil comes as the global performing arts are cautiously reemerging.

In New York, actor Nathan Lane and dancer Savion Glover recently performed, briefly and one at a time, in front of a masked audience of 150 people, presaging what theater producers hope will be the resumption of Broadway performances in the fall.

In an early peek at what a vaccinated future may look like, Israelis with two shots can get a “Green Pass” that allows access to indoor and outdoor cultural and sporting events.

And this month, Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, plans to host the Eurovision Song Contest in front of a limited live audience.

But before Cirque shows can restart, it must put back together a company that was all but dismantled at the start of the pandemic.

During its 400-day hiatus, Cirque’s revenues plummeted to zero, and it shed nearly 4,700 people, or 95% of its workforce, leaving many of the world’s best trapeze artists and acrobats confined at home, unable to practice.

Paquin said the long pause had undermined his confidence, since he could not rehearse his airborne routines. When he recently started retraining, he said, he discovered that he had lost his “muscle memory” and felt afraid to be in the air. “It was really painful for me to go back,” he said.

“Mystère” and “O” — scheduled to open June 28 and July 1, respectively — will operate at full capacity in theaters of 1,806 and 1,616 seats without social distancing and at pre-pandemic ticket prices, said Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre. Employees will be tested regularly, and vaccination, while voluntary, will be strongly encouraged. The aim is to open the remaining three other Las Vegas shows by the end of the year.

Under new rules by Clark County, in which Las Vegas sits, shows can proceed with no social distancing once 60% of the state’s eligible population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Masks will be required. On Thursday, Nevada reported that nearly 47% had received at least one shot.

Gabriel Dubé-Dupuis, a former Cirque creative director, cautioned that the company faced a significant hurdle there, since the younger fans whom Cirque needed to remain relevant were more likely to be drawn to nightclubs and hotel pool parties.

But Lamarre said he was optimistic that audiences, emboldened by vaccination, would return to performances with greater fervor than ever. “We are banking on the fact that people have been confined for so long and that people are desperate to be entertained,” he said. But then he added, “Maybe I am too much of a dreamer?”

Cirque must also grapple with out-of-shape circus artists, many of whom have been forced to pursue other ways to make a living.

Paquin, the aerialist, last appeared with Cirque in December 2019 as a sequined snowflake in “’Twas the Night Before …,” its schmaltzy holiday show at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Since being grounded, he and a group of fellow Montreal-based performers formed their own circus collective that will perform this summer in outdoor spaces such as fields. To keep in shape during lockdowns, the group does handstands, splits and stretches around their apartments. But Paquin said it would take Cirque performers months to get show-ready again.

For Uranbileg Angarag, a Mongolian contortionist, rehearsing favorite moves from home — including putting her legs 180 degrees in front of her head while balancing on a cane in her mouth — has been difficult: The ceiling of her apartment in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, gets in the way. She has supplemented her income by offering online yoga classes.

A former Cirque artist, Olivier Sylvestre, has been working as a barista at a Montreal cafe, while Arthur Morel Van Hyfte, 26, a French trapeze artist, has used his time off to study acting.

Morel Van Hyfte said the health risks of a pandemic would add stress to a job with already-superhuman demands.

“I hope that the pandemic will help Cirque du Soleil to regain its poetry and soul,” he said.

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