"Ladder." Photo: Marie-Reine Mattera © Cirque du Soleil, Inc. 2005

Cirque du Soleil: 100-Watt Egos, Disintegrating Costumes & Big Top Dreams

“When you go into unknown territory, you’ll inevitably undergo trial and error,” says Cirque du Soleil co-founder Gilles Ste-Croix as he describes the massive challenges the now-legendary Canadian theatrical troupe encountered while putting together “O” – the first-ever underwater circus performance.

It’s an understatement, of course. But that’s what Cirque du Soleil is all about: Taking extreme challenge, exertion, and achievement and transforming them into a performance so beautiful and seamless that the audience would never guess at the struggles behind its creation.Over 25+ years, Circque du Soleil has utterly reinvented the circus and grown massively in the process – now employing over 5,000 creatives and performers from over 50 countries.

To get a glimpse of what goes on behind the big top, I chatted with Cirque co-founder and Artistic Guide Gilles Ste-Croix about the challenges of creating a show, breaking new performance ground, and managing so many artistic egos.
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“Smooth Criminal.” Photo: OSA Images

Your newest tour is a tribute to Michael Jackson. How did that idea come about?

Michael has been present throughout Cirque du Soleil’s story. I will always remember the first time that he came to see our show at the big top in 1988 at Santa Monica Beach. It was really a major acknowledgement for us because he was so creative and was doing things that nobody had ever touched. He was a very important creator. We thought that if he kept coming to see us then maybe one day we could create something together. And he continued to come, he came to our Vegas show and I was very happy to greet him personally and he even came here, to a show in Montreal, and brought his kids in 2004.He was interested in our process and during his last visit we talked about maybe creating something together. So when he died we spoke with our CEO, Daniel Lamarre, about producing a tribute to Michael. Based on our success with the Beatles, we thought we could do it, so we presented our idea to the [Jackson] family and it was really Michael’s mother who encouraged us to move forward. She said that Michael always wanted to work with Cirque and that she knew he’d be very happy if we did this. And that’s how it came along.

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“Contorsion.” Photo: Matt Beard © 2011 Cirque du Soleil

How long does it take to bring a show from concept into the real world?

36-50 months, but it depends how complex the show is. When we launched “O,” it demanded an incredible amount of research because acrobatics had never been done underwater. So we spent a good 18 months just researching and refining with engineers how we could make it happen.

Did you encounter any problems? Surprises?

Oh, there are always surprises in the creative field! Especially when your goal is to constantly break new ground. With “O,” we did a lot of research but there were still problems. You and I both know that if you swim in chlorine often your bathing suit will be damaged. So we did some tests in advance of the show to see how the acrobat costumes could survive underwater. In our research we learned that bromide [a chemical found in sea water] was less damaging to the costumes, so we used that instead.

But after 4 months we realized that the bromide was eating up the rubber seal in the pool and that we had to change the process again. So we took a break – we have a 3-week break every year – and changed all the seals, emptied each pool and reverted back to chlorine to filter the water, but the costumes were literally turning to shreds after only a few months.

There are always surprises in the creative field! Especially when your goal is to constantly break new ground.

We have over 400 people who just work on costume replacement and this was by far the highest number of costumes we had to create for any show. Eventually we found a material that could survive a bit longer in chlorine and not be eaten up, but it was almost 2 years before we civilized the process, just because we threw water into the mix. When you go into unknown territory like that you’ll inevitably undergo trial and error.

How involved are you in the details of each show?

I used to be really involved, but now not so much because you have to learn to let go at a certain point. You need to let other people who’ve grown in your company have the chance to be in charge. And I think I have other priorities now – I need to relax a bit.

Can you actually go to a show and relax and still be entertained?

No! I cannot relax. Even when I see other non-Cirque shows I’m sitting there thinking, “Why did they do this like that?” It’s a pain, and I can’t turn it off.

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“Russian Bars.” Photo: Daniel Desmarais

How do you manage so many creative personalities and artistic egos?

We actually hire people because they have big egos. I prefer to have 100 watts on stage rather than 30 watts.  And in that sense we want our artists to be brilliant, we want them to shine each time they perform. Now that doesn’t mean that they can be assholes when they get off stage. We definitely make sure that the personalities of new hires mold with the team, but because this is such an incredible opportunity everyone is really appreciative for the most part. After an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal they are soon forgotten or they might end up back at home. Whereas our athletes can establish careers, create families and have stability all based on their talent – that’s pretty rare in our industry.

We actually hire people because they have big egos. I prefer to have 100 watts on stage rather than 30 watts.

What are some aspects of a show that your average audience member might not recognize?

I think that people don’t realize just how much training these artists have to do just for one summersault. In order to do one summersault perfectly you have to practice it at least a dozen times, because only then will you fully control it. And then you have to maintain a level of fitness and keep your body in great shape in order to keep doing these perfect summersaults. Because Cirque artists do everything with such perfection and ease, the audience doesn’t always realize how much work and practice has gone into it. I think that when there is a miss and an artist falls and gets hurt the audience realizes just how difficult the act is, but we don’t want to show the difficulty.

How did you get started in performance art?

Since I was a teenager I always wanted to be in performing arts, but my parents didn’t see it this way. So I studied architecture and worked in architecture for a few years, but I was really unhappy. Eventually I dropped out and became a hippie living in communes for many years and through that I met people that were doing street theater. I joined them and became a performer. I realized that I didn’t need to go through years and years of schooling to work in theater and that the street could be my stage.

When an artist falls, the audience realizes just how difficult the act is, but we don’t want to show the difficulty.

Cirque was intended to be a one-year project and it’s now in its 28th year of production – what happened?

It’s like anything else, if you believe in something enough to create it and then realize you’re onto something, you have to continue. We had a street festival based in Baie-Saint-Paul [Quebec] and I told Guy [Laliberté], “You know what we do here is a kind of circus. It has no animals, but it’s a kind of circus and we could take this on the road!” So that’s what we did in 1984. That first tour was very expensive to produce, but we had a big grant and the year after Guy took it to another level by taking creative control and selecting who we wanted to work with. That next year it became more of what Cirque du Soleil is today– it still had no animals and we realized we didn’t need them.

You and Guy have been partners for over 30 years. What’s your secret?

We’re very complimentary. We’ve been together for over 35 years, but we connected right away because his talents and my talents merged into something better. He has a great mind and works very quickly with ideas and I’m a good organizer, so we complete each other. And today even though we’re less involved in the day-to-day, when we see a show together we ask what the other thought and are always really honest with our feedback. We notice and care about different things, but we understand and respect each other. That’s why it works.

 

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The young Gilles Ste-Croix.

Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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