The previous post focused on the vanishing American tradition: The Greatest Show on Earth and the closing of a piece of American culture. We continue with the introduction of a new tradition that has captured our attention.
Cirque du Soleil, Based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and located in the inner-city area of Saint-Michel, it was founded in Baie-Saint-Paul in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix.
Up until the late 20th century, the term ‘circus’ carried connotations far different than what it means today. Early circus performances conjure images of traveling families with bizarre skills, flamboyant ringmasters with whips, waltz music from marching bands, and animal acts.
However, in the late 1970s a new type of performance began to emerge around the world, which focused on human physical skill instead of obscurity, and on narrative rather than bewilderment. Developed simultaneously in Australia, France, Canada, the United States, and Britain, nouveau cirque manifested itself as an international movement, but it wasn’t until the ’80s when Cirque du Soleil surfaced that contemporary circus was truly brought to the world’s attention.
In the early ’80s, the emergence of street performances was filled with larger-than-life characters: stilt walkers, contortionists, unicyclists, fire breathers and musicians. This wave of success inspired a new dream: ‘to create a Quebec circus and take the troupe traveling around the world.’
Consider Cirque du Soleil, a performance that broke away from traditional circus shows by borrowing ideas from Broadway.
Cirque’s productions to date have been seen by some 150 million people in over three hundred cities around the world. In less than twenty years since its creation, Cirque du Soleil has achieved a level of revenues that took Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey—the once global champions of the circus industry—more than one hundred years to attain.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had long set the standard for what makes a circus, and competing smaller circuses essentially followed with scaled-down versions: offering animal shows, hiring star performers, presenting multiple show arenas in the form of three rings, and pushing aisle concession sales.
In contrast, Cirque du Soleil did away with all of the factors that had long been taken for granted in the traditional circus industry. This included the use of animals, one of the most expensive elements (including not only the cost of the animals but also the training, medical care, housing, insurance, and transportation) and a source of increasing public discomfort.
The lasting allure of the traditional circus came down to only three key factors: the tent, the clowns, and the classic acrobatic acts such as the wheelman and short stunts.
So Cirque du Soleil kept the clowns but shifted their humor from slapstick to a more enchanting, sophisticated style. It glamorized the tent, an element that, ironically, many circuses had begun to forfeit in favor of rented venues.
By breaking the market boundaries of theater and circus, Cirque du Soleil gained a new understanding not only of circus customers but also of circus noncustomers: adult theater customers. Cirque du Soleil created a new market space in the entertainment sector, generating strong, profitable growth as a result.
Significantly, one of the first Cirque productions was titled “We Reinvent the Circus.”
Personally, I love and have fond memories of the old, and love the inventive creativity of the new. Embracing both gives a new perspective to change…
So, what’s your take on the circus reinvention? Join the dialogue and let us know what you think about the old and the new.
As always, I am…the Boomer Explorer.