Fair warning: This is a long post with a lot of pictures. However, if you’re a fan of Cirque du Soleil, it’s totally worth the journey.
Mrs. Roarbot and I are big fans of Cirque du Soleil. Although some of the shows share similar acts, each is remarkably unique from the others. They’re all so distinct that it sometimes seems unfair to compare them. If pressed to name a favorite of the eight or nine I’ve seen, I’d probably say Kà (a resident show in Las Vegas) for the sheer spectacle it presents. It was the first Cirque du Soleil show to present a cohesive storyline, and it is one of the most technologically advanced productions ever made. Plus, the music is really great.
The 5yo Roarbot is also really into gymnastics, so she’s been enthralled by most of the acrobatic acts she’s seen on YouTube or DVD.
Since 1984, there have been a total of 35 different Cirque du Soleil shows. Currently, there 19 shows in simultaneous production around the world. The Cirque du Soleil brand has truly become an artistic juggernaut that is blatantly emulated by scores of smaller troupes (sometimes by simply using the word cirque to lure in audiences).
On a recent trip to Montreal, which is Cirque du Soleil’s hometown, we were fortunate enough to be invited to tour the organization’s international headquarters. Built in 1997, expanded twice in 2001 and 2007, and housing some 1,400 full-time employees, the building is not open for public tours. This made the private tour given to the Roarbots all the more special.
Curious about how Cirque du Soleil creates a new show? The creative process for a new show typically takes two to three years depending on whether it is a touring or resident show. The resident shows (such as those in Las Vegas) take longer because they’re not only developing the show but also designing the performance space (the theater).
New productions begin with a director, a production manager, and a director of creation, who is in charge of liaising with freelance creators and various in-house teams such as casting, costume workshops, and coaches. This trio will develop a preliminary idea for the show before they bring on other creators, such as a set designer, a costume designer, a composer, a choreographer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, an acrobatic performance designer, a rigging and acrobatic equipment designer, and other specialists, depending on what is required for the development of the show.
At each step of the way there is considerable brainstorming involved. The creators meet and toss around ideas, and then they go their own ways to develop their individual designs and bring them back to the creative table. The final concept of a show will have evolved immensely from its original embryonic idea. Indeed, the show can continue to change up to six months after opening.
What about the performers? In addition to the full-time employees, there are roughly 1,300 performers at any one time. Even though a majority of these performers are either in residence or traveling with their respective shows, they all begin their Cirque du Soleil careers right here in Montreal. Scouts travel the world looking for new talent, but it’s here that performers learn the ropes (pun most definitely intended).
They undergo four months of general training, during which time they’ll learn their routines, develop their characters, learn to apply their own makeup (all performers do their own makeup), and become part of the Cirque du Soleil family. More specialized training (depending on the act/character) can take up to a few months more.
This is all great, but wasn’t there a tour involved on your tour? Indeed. Simply walking down the hallways here is an assault on the senses. Cirque du Soleil is known for its quirky performances and eccentric view of the world, and this comes across in the building. This is not a stale cubicle farm by any stretch of the imagination.
The hallways feel like they’re part museum space, part fun house. And in a very real sense, they are! They’re filled with art, and the building hosts rotating exhibits, including some that showcase art created by employees. At the end of each exhibit, one piece is chosen to stay in the permanent collection.
There are some other unique pieces around the building, including this one below. It’s an acoustic wall designed to reduce echoes in this four-story atrium. It’s made of papier-mâché and the remains of costumes and scenery from three Cirque du Soleil shows: Alegría, Saltimbanco, and Mystère.
Everyone charged with creating and maintaining Cirque du Soleil’s many shows all works under the same roof. This includes hundreds of dressmakers, hatmakers, cobblers, makeup artists, painters, designers, carpenters, musicians, gymnasts, instructors, and on, and on, and on. There are a staggering 100 different professions represented within this one building!
Where do they practice all of those amazing acrobatics? Right here. In total, there are five performance studios (including those for dance and music).
One of the most impressive spaces in the building is the main rehearsal studio. Well over 15,000 square feet (1,425 square meters) and 60 feet high, the space is large enough to construct a full big top inside. When we were there, they had the space partitioned into much smaller sections so individuals could rehearse various acts.
And yes, there were some guys swinging around on ropes, having entirely too much fun while they worked.
Interestingly, there is a false “ceiling” made of woven steel wires suspended almost 60 feet (18 meters) above the floor. They call it a trampoline, and technicians can walk on it and work on the rigging without the need for harnesses.
They make stuff there, too, right? Yep. All of this performance space is just part of the story. In 2014 alone, the artists and craftspeople will create approximately 17,000 separate pieces (hats, shoes, costumes, scenery, etc.). The costumes alone require more than 40 miles (65 km) of fabric!
Speaking of fabric, we were fascinated to learn that all fabric used in the shows begins as white. The white fabric is then stained and painted according to strict “recipes” that ensure consistency. Most of the costumes are made on site (roughly 80%). Those that aren’t are made by suppliers because they require specialized machinery.
If a costume rips during a performance in, say, Beijing, a replacement order is sent back to Montreal. Nearly everything, for every show, in any country, is made within these walls. And every costume is made specifically for one person. Everything is custom made and made to order.
It can take up to two weeks to make a single costume. Costumes for O need to be remade every six to eight weeks because of the water and chlorine used in the show. But this is an anomaly. Typical replacements for other shows come in at around 2–4 months for acrobatic roles and 6–12 months for other characters (who punish their costumes far less).
All of this must take up a ton of space. You said it. It certainly does. Total space inside the building comes to an impressive 387,500 square feet. In addition to all of the design, rehearsal, and administrative spaces, there are rooms and rooms of storage. Making costumes and whatnot not only requires dozens of miles of fabric but also mountains of thread, buttons, feathers, sequins, leather, glitter, paint, ribbon, etc.
Where is this place? The Saint-Michel district of Montreal, Canada. The building is located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods not only in the city but also all of North America. Why is this significant? Because the site was chosen specifically for this reason—to stimulate new development and pay tribute to the heritage and culture of the circus.
Just as traditional circuses during the early to mid 20th century would travel between small towns, bringing entertainment to the masses, Cirque du Soleil intentionally sought to revitalize a neighborhood on the decline (through the natural economic boost of locating their headquarters there and through various green initiatives they’re spearheading).
In 2003, the National Circus School built a new building across the street and moved into the neighborhood. So the plan seems to be working.
I want to visit! I don’t blame you. The tour lasted about 90 minutes and was an awesome experience. But unfortunately, the building is not open to the public. There’s a good reason: it’s a place of business that isn’t set up for large tour groups. There is no museum or visitor’s center here.
However, with 19 shows currently in production, chances are that there’s a Cirque du Soleil near you…or there will be in the near future.
Schedules and tickets for the various shows are available here.
If you’ve made it this far, here’s a present:
(We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Claudia Silva and Cirque du Soleil for inviting us and conducting such an amazing tour.)