The circus town

From clowns on trapezes to milliners in their workshops, Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular HQ has transformed an ordinary Montréal neighbourhood into a hub of circus activity

On the outskirts of Montréal next to a disused quarry sits a vast steel building. Stretching over several blocks in the Saint-Michel district (an area once notorious for its gang violence) by day the plain and unassuming site appears to house a small factory. In fact, it’s the international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil.

This formidable arts powerhouse churns out a staggering number of colourful, inventive circus productions each year. Since its humble beginnings as a group of street performers in 1984, the company has gone on to become a global and instantly recognisable brand – an estimated 100 million people in 300 cities have seen a Cirque show. What’s more, Cirque hasn’t received a public or private grant since 1992.

Around 5,000 people are employed by Cirque, 2,000 of whom are based here at the HQ, which was established in 1997. A huge, buzzing creative laboratory, this is where all the Cirque shows are conceived, developed and produced. The expansive site, which is illuminated by night, houses acrobatic training rooms, a dance studio, a gym, costume and props workshops, a library, and administrative offices.

Once inside, the unspectacular exterior is juxtaposed by a fun set-up: performers mill around the floors in casual rehearsal clothes, there’s a rock-climbing wall in the lobby for staff to use, and the corridors are decorated with colourful scraps of material – off-cuts from Cirque’s costume department – turned into intriguing fabric sculptures.

There’s a definite ‘Cirque’ feel running throughout the place. It’s a relaxed atmosphere conducive to inspiration, certainly, but there’s a sharpness to the professional drive here that reflects the organisation’s creative influence, as well as its remarkable commercial success.

Following a lengthy, gruelling audition process, every Cirque artist has to spend time training at the Montréal HQ before being transferred to a production. For performers who are already trained in circus arts, this can take as little as a few weeks, preparing specifically to replace someone in a particular show. Others spend between four and six months in Montréal training in the art form more generally. In the first of three cavernous and noisy studios, acrobats are hard at work; one is practising a nimble leap on the trampoline, one swings confidently on the trapeze,while others warm up, laughing and chatting.

‘This is a major challenge. But it’s not about pushing them, we want them to succeed’

Chantal Côté, Cirque du Soleil’s corporate PR manager, explains that many of the performers are former gymnasts, synchronised swimmers, divers and sports professionals. So while they have a strong physique that lends itself well to the art form, developing their own circus character and creative perspective is a major aspect of the training. As a specific exercise, performers are often asked to act like fire: ‘The performers have a lot of questions,’ says Côté, ‘they want specific answers on how to act. But their trainers won’t say any more.’

This is an important part of developing the artistic personality that’s crucial to Cirque shows. It’s not about being competitive; the artists have to move away from the highly structured, regulated mindset required of an athlete and into a creative frame. As well as classes in dance and movement, the crew have access to fitness therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. ‘This [training]is a major challenge for them,’ Côté adds. ‘But it’s not about pushing them, we want them to succeed.’

How does the casting team know that the performers they choose will be able to sustain these standards? Côté says the casting team very rarely makes a mistake: ‘sometimes it doesn’t work out for a particular performer, but not often’.

‘We usually sign two-year renewable contracts,’ she adds. ‘Performers can stay with us for many years and transfer from one show to another, or change discipline if the possibility occurs for them within the same show or in another one.’ The average age of a Cirque performer is 25, she adds, but this can vary dramatically depending on discipline.

After their training stints at the HQ, performers spend an average of two weeks on the site of a particular show before they appear in front of an audience. ‘This time is spent rehearsing in a different environment (the backstage tent and on stage) with new visual references, lighting and costumes,’ Côté says.‘The performer will often start by sitting in the audience to experience the show from the spectator’s point of view. If he or she is joining a group act, there will be some time spent getting acquainted with one another in the act as well.‘

Opposite the training hall is a dazzling, brightly lit studio. Here each performer is trained in the art of stage make-up: large books contain detailed instructions that lead the artist through the steps required to perfect a character’s specific look, as well as advice on the different sized brushes and application techniques that should be used. Les Cons (The Nuts) in La Nouba, for example, require very precise, expressive lines to animate their eccentric character. Côté says there are so many looks required for so many different characters, that it just isn’t feasible to have a make-up artist for each performer. At the end of a training stint each performer will leave with make-up as an added skill.

Exploring the rest of the HQ, the sheer size of Cirque’s operation hits home. The average Cirque touring shows costs an average of  13 CAD20m (€15.4m) to produce, so as well as the artistic aim of delivering the directors’ creative visions, there’s an impetus to sell tickets: in some ways, Cirque is an example of the hybridisation of culture and commerce. And a substantial part of the HQ’s work is geared towards bringing these ingenious visions to life and putting together the nuts and bolts of large-scale stage productions.

The costumes and props for all the company’s shows are created in Montréal, drawing from regional and global suppliers. The costume department boasts 400 full-time specialist employees, including milliners, textile experts, seamstresses, tailors, lacemakers, carpenters, wigmakers, patternmakers and cobblers. The costumes are made entirely from scratch. Cirque orders miles of white fabric, as most of the material is processed and dyed on site by the textile team. ‘Our shows run for so long that the colour could go out of production,’ says Côté,‘so it’s easier and cheaper to buy white fabric and dye it.’

As we walk through the sprawling warehouse space, the textile team are deep in concentration, colouring material in dye baths, with silk-screens or by hand painting the fabric. Downstairs, in a smaller space cluttered with colourful rails of half-finished shirts and waistcoats, costumemakers cut and measure reams of cloth, working to detailed notes for each outfit.

‘The costume department is designing the visions of the artistic directors. But sometimes they make suggestions that really help a particular issue’

The headwear of Cirque characters is a trademark and so the wig and hat department has particular importance. Designer Dominique Lemieux brought a twisted charm to Alegría’s nostalgic old birds with her crooked, textured bowler hats, as well as a surreal, madcap edge to the ultra-colourful Baroque characters in Saltimbanco. The master wigmakers here often use ‘ventilation’, an intricate technique that involves building the wig one hair at a time onto a base using a hook.

Measurements of each artist’s head are taken using a 3D printer that creates an accurate mould that is then used for fitting hats and wigs. ‘Staff [in the costume department]are designing the vision of the artistic director or designer of a particular show,’ adds Côté. ‘But sometimes they make suggestions that really help a particular issue.’

One example is O, Cirque du Soleil’s 10th show, in permanent residence at the Las Vegas Bellagio hotel since 1998. Written and directed by Franco Dragone, and with costume design by Lemieux, parts of the spectacular show takes place in a pool of water. In the production’s early years, the synthetic hair on some of the characters’ hats became clumped together when wet.

‘Someone in the costume department suggested putting a little bit of material in the nylon hairs, similar to polystyrene,’ says Côté. ‘It made each strand of hair float, and actually contributed to the look and atmosphere of the show.’ Another costume designer suggested using a whisk to twist the threads of a wig together, greatly speeding up the process.

All the athletic training and resourceful craftsmanship that goes on at the company’s HQ is geared towards a substantial global market: its gross profit for 2012 sat at USD1bn. And in this year alone, 20 shows were staged around the world, attracting 15 million spectators.

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