Three months ago, Cirque du Soleil was considered one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world. From its origins in 1984 as a Quebec street troupe, the French-Canadian circus had grown into a global brand.
Its long-standing multimillion-dollar circus productions in Las Vegas, as well as multiple international touring productions and a regular January residency at London’s Royal Albert Hall since 1996, had made it the world leader in contemporary circus. Could the company really now be at risk of becoming one of the most high-profile entertainment industry casualties of the coronavirus crisis?
Had only one region been affected, then Cirque may have been able to come through relatively unscathed, but to have every show suspend performances all at once makes this a unique and devastating situation.
On March 26, Reuters reported that Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group was exploring options that included a potential bankruptcy filing. Its chief executive Daniel Lamarre said the report was “overstated” and that it had rich backers in the form of private equity company TPG Capital and a major Canadian manager of pension funds. But it also has a lot of debt.
Going forward, every industry will recognise how fragile it is to a pandemic or another global disaster, and crucially that no organisation – however successful – is immune from it. Whatever happens beyond coronavirus, we will almost certainly see arts and entertainment companies reducing their level of risk. Cirque’s travails are a warning that in the current situation no entertainment company is too big to fail.
Away from the glitz of Cirque, there is a need for better support and a greater awareness for the plight of those working in circuses. In recent years, this age-old art form had already begun to struggle and seen the demise of circuses such as the legendary Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey in 2017. Big Apple Circus declared bankruptcy in 2016 before returning the following year when the assets were bought by Big Top Works.
It’s important not to forget how interconnected the arts are, and that they feed off each other’s talent
Many circuses may now face a challenge to avoid bankruptcy because of this pandemic, while also trying to plan for how the industry will look once it does reopen. Globally, circus workers are a group within the entertainment sector that has been forgotten during this crisis. Their community is not afforded the same unions as those of other entertainers, and for the most part, they are reliant on touring.
It’s important not to forget how interconnected the arts are, and that they feed off each other’s talent. Circus’ contribution has always been vital: when the 2013 Tony award-winning Broadway revival of the musical Pippinopened, part of its success was the inclusion of circus artists and acrobats who could sing and dance as well as they could balance on a ball.
Many of those performers had grown up learning their craft in different circus productions including with the 7 Fingers and Cirque du Soleil. Leading director Robert Lepage has long worked extensively across theatre and circus, both in his works for Cirque and in productions such as his legendary 1992 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Theatre.
Musicals such as Barnum demonstrate the vital fusion that can exist between accomplished circus and musical performers. This tradition of collaboration runs all the way back through pantomime and vaudeville. It can also be seen today in the evolution of circus into cabaret, with productions such as La Clique and La Soirée. However, its legacy is now at risk.
While Cirque may sit at the top end of the circus spectrum, it has also developed and trained many artists around the globe who have gone onto work with other circuses, and across art forms including dance, film, musicals and gymnastics.
If a company as recognisable and successful as Cirque de Soleil can reportedly face the threat of bankruptcy within a matter of months, what does it mean for other arts organisations, large and small?
Therefore, the longer-term ramifications of Cirque’s current problems affect many sectors of the arts and entertainment industry and are far more significant than may first be realised. If a company as recognisable and successful as Cirque de Soleil can reportedly face the threat of bankruptcy within a matter of months, what does it mean for other large arts and entertainment organisations – and where does this leave the smaller ones?
For many, this crisis will be a fight for survival, which will be reliant on organisations of all sizes, with their artists and workers, supporting each other and working together. It will also require much resourcefulness.
Post-coronavirus, some companies will lose their grip on their sectors within the industry. That may not be a bad thing, provided other, smaller companies and theatres can weather this storm.
Let’s be clear: nothing is going to succeed without proper and urgent government support and funding that fully recognises the value of the arts and the contribution the industry brings to communities and the country.
Cirque du Soleil, and the workers it employs from around the world, has to survive – but equally, so must many other circus companies, including Zippos, Great Yarmouth’s Hippodrome Circus, Superfan, and NoFit State Circus. All provide vital, diverse contributions and opportunities across the circus world and the broader arts and entertainment sector.
The arts rely on a range of works at different scales being produced, together with a foundation of grassroots-level talent coming through, ensuring that they can all keep progressing and evolving.