Friday, June 19, 2009

Quebec's Cirque du Soleil turns 25


Has Cirque du Soleil really been around for a quarter century? I saw one of their shows in Seattle a few years back, and most recently Cavalia in Montreal (described as Cirque du Soleil with horses). The latter is currently touring in North America (it opens in Chicago on July 14) and was founded by Normand Latourelle -- who is also a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil.

But I'm still itchin' to see O in Vegas. Recently, I ran across an article by fellow travel journalist Cinda Chavich of Calgary, courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission. It bears repeating!
I've witnessed lots of spectacles in many particular spots, but nothing sticks with me like my first encounter with Canada's creative circus, Cirque du Soleil of Quebec. It's Cirque's signature show in Las Vegas -- "O" -- that returns often to my mind's eye: a troupe of androgynous swimmers emerge like space creatures from the watery depths to pad softly across a puddled stage; when another dives headlong from a high wire toward the same spot, the stage miraculously dissolves from solid to liquid. In that split second I'm moved from shock to delight.

That surreal encounter was more than a decade ago, but it's still with me. It's been 25 years since the motley collection of 20 Quebec street performers joined together to form the now iconic Cirque du Soleil, and I've yet to see anything that matches the depth of their artistry and imagination.

Nearly 90 million spectators have witnessed Cirque's magical shows and, like me, they're lured back every time this unique circus comes to town. There's probably a show opening somewhereyou, with 20 running simultaneously around the world this year, including my favourite, "O," and five other permanent shows in Las Vegas.

Guy Laliberte -- himself an accordion player, stilt walker and fire-eater -- founded this company of stylish circus performers in 1984, building the phenomenon, literally, from nothing. Now Cirque du Soleil is a huge global company, with some 4,000 employees from around 40 countries (including Olympic athletes and Broadway performers) -- which I'm guessing makes it the world's biggest international theatre troupe.

And I'm sure it's the circus with the biggest social impact. When they're not breathing fire and turning themselves into human pretzels, the Cirque machine is a truly socially responsible citizen of the world, with programs such as ONE DROP foundation, to help ensure everyone across the world has access to water resources; and Cirque du Monde, circus workshops that train and inspire street kids.

Perhaps because of its crazy fusion of Euro-style circus traditions, Chinese contortionists, marvellous mimes, amazing athletics and operatic themes, Cirque du Soleil crosses cultural boundaries as relevant in Toronto, Ontario as Tokyo, Japan. With its visually and physically powerful show, it's a circus that captures the essence of wonder and delight, and a kind of beauty that is familiar yet truly unmatched as an art show.

There have been 25 Cirque du Soleil shows created over the past quarter century, including the new Cirque 2009, which opened in the Old Port of Montreal in April. It all started with the first show, Cirque du Soleil, and an early touring show, We Reinvent the Circus, and they certainly did -- life under the big top has never been the same.

By Cinda Chavich, June 2009

Photograph from O by Veronique Vial