How Cirque du Soleil Works

The Fire Dance
Photo Courtesy of Al Seib

Any way you look at it, Cirque du Soleil is a phenomenal success story. In only 20 years, it has carved out a unique niche in the entertainment industry, spread to cities all over the globe and earned rave reviews every step of the way. And it's doing just fine financially too: Cirque's assets are worth an estimated $1 billion, its annual ticket sales have climbed above $450 million, and more than 40 million people worldwide have attended at least one Cirque show.

You can attribute this massive popularity to the extraordinary experience of actually seeing a Cirque show. The combined work of performers, directors and the backstage crew add up to a completely original whole that leaves most audiences in awe. Just about everywhere Cirque goes, its reputation seems to precede it.




As you might expect, it takes a lot of work and talent to put an awe-inspiring show like this together. In this article, we'll go under the "Grand Chapiteau" of the touring show Alegria to uncover the magic of Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque du Soleil was born in 1984, when a group of Montreal fire-eaters, stilt-walkers and juggling street performers joined forces to create one show that had everything. Over the years, the Cirque group grew, creating new shows and spreading to new cities.

Today Cirque du Soleil has five touring shows and six installation shows (shows that stay in a single city). Cirque plans to add a new show to their lineup each year.

While its shows and touring operations have become more sophisticated, Cirque du Soleil has never strayed from its street performer roots. Unlike three-ring circuses, which feature animal acts along with human performers, Cirque du Soleil has always been solely devoted to the extraordinary talents of performers. In assembling a show, the Cirque crew gathers diverse talent from all over the world and brings all the performers together into a cohesive whole.

Whether it's a touring show like Alegria or Varekai or a resident show like "O" or "Love" in Las Vegas, all Cirque shows are built around the same two core elements: a unique theme and a unique soundtrack. As we'll see, these two essential elements guide the development of each show's acts, sets and costumes.



The Fast Track
Photo courtesy Al Seib

Alegria, like all Cirque du Soleil shows, was conceived at Cirque's $60 million state-of-the-art international headquarters in Montreal. Here, a creative team including Cirque founder Guy Laliberte, directors, artistic directors, costume and set designers and choreographers gather to brainstorm concepts and ideas for new shows.

The first thing the team determines is the show's theme. The theme is a delicate balance, because it must tie the acts together without adding up to a narrative. The Cirque team avoids straight narrative in order to allow room for the audience to interpret the show any way they want.


Alegria's central themes are power and contrast. According to Pierre Parisien, artistic director for Alegria and a Cirque veteran, the creative team was inspired by a tragic event that occurred in London: "At the beginning of the '90s… two children killed another child. They were young, they were like 10 or 11 years old and they killed… just for the sake of it. That major incident had an effect on our set designer who brought this story up at the conceptual meeting. And everybody started to talk about it and that is where the idea about doing a story about power emerged."

Each Cirque show's theme is tied closely to the show's soundtrack. In the next section, we'll examine this part of the creative process.



Monsieur Fleur
Photo courtesy Al Seib

The soundtrack for each Cirque show is developed by members of Cirque du Soleil's creative team. The team is led by a composer, such as Rene Dupere, who wrote the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to Alegria as well as several other Cirque shows.

Alegria's soundtrack, like all Cirque du Soleil soundtracks, is an eclectic mix of music styles. This mix of music establishes the changing mood and theme for the audience.


The soundtrack also serves as a cue to the performers, guiding them through the show and each act. To ensure that the musicians follow the pace of the performers, all Cirque shows use live music. In the event an act fails, the musicians adjust tempo and volume and improvise if necessary.

The soundtracks to all Cirque du Soleil shows feature music which uses "phonetic sentence strings" instead of actual words. According to Parisien, "use of real words blocks the possibility of imagination." Parisien believes that this signature lack of a language, like the show's open-ended theme, leaves room for audience interpretation and lends Cirque a universal appeal.


The Cast

Photo courtesy Al Seib

The heart of all Cirque du Soleil shows is the performers and their unique acts. Casting agents and scouts scour cities and remote areas looking for new talent to add to new and existing Cirque shows.

Additionally, Cirque's casting agents hold auditions twice a year at their International Headquarter (IHQ) in Montreal, and performers can also submit video auditions. The Cirque du Soleil database currently holds more than 20,000 artist data cards on acts ranging from the sublime to the strange. Parisien recounts one man's video audition: "[It was] something very special…he puts his nose on the glass and he moves the glass so the nose is doing the choreography…it's very strange…the first time I saw that, I laughed."


All Cirque du Soleil performers must complete training or a "formation session" before they can perform with a show. Each performer is sent to Montreal where they will train for one to four months at the International Headquarters. More than 50 percent of Cirque's acts come from the gymnastic arts; the rest come from a mix of circus arts and theatre backgrounds. For those performers without theater or circus arts backgrounds, the formation session is critical. During this training period, performers learn the skills needed to effectively interact with audiences of 3,000 people.



Set Creation

The aerial high bar
Photo courtesy Al Seib

The Cirque du Soleil set design department creates the stage and equipment for each show. The two major considerations are aesthetics and safety. With Alegria, the sets were designed to convey the show's themes of power and contrast. The set of Alegria is reminiscent of a church dome, a symbol of power with two staircases on either side to illustrate contrast or "two sides."

For another Cirque show, Varekai, the set designer used Discreet's 3D Max animation software and industrial engineering software to design a magical golden forest. The set design team made the golden trees in the Varekai set from proprietary materials developed by Cirque that are flexible yet strong enough to support the weight of the acrobats.


Innovation in aesthetics and safety design is an essential ingredient in the recipe for Cirque's success. Cirque has invented many pieces of equipment specifically for their shows, including the fast track, a specialized trampoline, and the double Russian swing. Cirque du Soleil will hire other companies to help in the creation of some aspects of the set and stage, but anything that is actually used by the acrobats is designed at a research and development facility at the IHQ. The in-house designers have total control over the safety and design of the devices they build.

The fast track
Photo courtesy Al Seib



The Old Birds
Photo courtesy Al Seib

Costuming and makeup design is an important element in all Cirque shows. The costume designer's goal is to design a costume that creates a character and allows the cast member to perform unconstrained, all while blending aesthetic elements and safety concerns.

Dominique Lemieux has been the costume designer for many Cirque du Soleil shows, including Alegria. Lemieux works with the over 300 artisans and 80 designers at Cirque du Soleil's IHQ to design, produce and maintain all the costumes for Alegria and Cirque du Soleil's other shows. In Alegria, Lemieux used costumes to illustrate the contrast and power struggle between "youth" and "the old guard." For example, the costumes worn by the White Angels and the Old Bird characters illustrate the contrast between young and old.


Here's how Cirque du Soleil describes the White Angels and the Old Bird characters:

"The White Angels are the graceful guardians of Alegría. Agile, confident and daring, the angels are the youth of tomorrow. Their bearing is regal, their arms - like wings - are always poised elegantly at their sides. Dressed all in white, with breastplates of woven gold and their noses painted red, the Angels support one another as they take turns tumbling through the air on the Russian Bars.

The nostalgic Old Birds observe the goings on as though they were still young and beautiful and the future was still theirs. They admire their reflections in mirror-less frames but are only empty shells, shadows of their former selves. They are the old aristocracy, still convinced of their power and beauty. But they are twisted, deformed and ugly. They wear fanciful hats and hide behind their flamboyant costumes in rich tones of mauve, green and gold, covered with lace, jewels and embroidery."

Act Info Courtesy - Cirque du Soleil

Lemieux and the Cirque costume design team spun a little Cirque magic to create simple white lace costumes for the Angels and garish, flamboyant costumes and masks for the Old Birds. Since the White Angels act takes place on the Russian bars, safety and range of motion were major considerations in the design of their light but solid costumes. Using a special Cirque-designed tool, the costume designers made the White Angel costumes from a special lace incorporating fishing line. The modified lace is strong enough to support 1,000 pounds of pressure.


The White Angels

The strong man outfit in Alegria is also highly innovative. It incorporates unobtrusive support mechanisms that allow the performer to safely lift the heavy weights required for the act. The costumes for Alegria's storytellers, the White and Black Singers, are dresses outfitted with hoops and a steel blade typically used for unblocking toilets.

The White Singer
Photo courtesy Al Seib


The Mobile Town

Photo courtesy Al Seib

Today, a touring Cirque show like Alegria traverses the world in a Cirque du Soleil "mobile town" designed to sit on a 180,000 square foot site. The town requires a permanent staff of 140, as well as a temporary staff of 150 in each new city, to set up, break down and operate its facilities. It includes the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) and attached entrance tent, the stage, artistic tent, kitchen and dining areas, a school and the supplies needed to run it all. It takes 50 trucks carrying 1,000 tons of equipment each to move the town. It takes the crew eight days to set it up and three days to break it all down.

The Grand Chapiteau is a consistent fixture in all of Cirque's touring shows. This is the location of the main stage and performance areas. The Grand Chapiteau seats 2,500 people and requires the work of 70 people including "tent masters," trained specifically by Cirque for the monumental task of raising the big top. Public Relations Director Renee-Claude Menard recalls the first time Cirque put up the Grand Chapiteau: "no one knew how to do it…and it actually fell. The day of the press conference…there was a huge rainstorm and the water puddled in and it collapsed."


Cirque and its performers have many company-wide traditions as well as traditions unique to each show. One company-wide tradition is naming each Grand Chapiteau. According to Menard, this tradition has also been around since the beginning of Cirque: "Over the past 20 years… one of the traditions I find amazing is the naming of the big top. All big tops have a name… When we inaugurate a new Grand Chapiteau, we name it with a name unique to not only Cirque du Soleil but to the troupe. There is a small group in Cirque du Soleil that gets together to make sure this naming is always done and it's not necessarily something that we broadcast… It's done to show the evolution of the show… At first we had one and now we have many."

Another hub of activity for those traveling with a Cirque "mobile town" is the kitchen and dining area. Here, performers and staff dine on meals prepared by five chefs (with thirteen staff in total). These chefs serve 300 meals a day to Cirque's performers and staff. During Alegria's ten-year run, the cast and crew have eaten a lot of food:

  • 1,622,400 strawberries
  • 324,152 pounds of meat
  • 374, 400 cookies
  • 20,800 gallons of milk
  • 2,800 pounds of seafood

The kitchen and dining areas are also places where performers and staff can congregate, socialize and check their e-mail.

Several Cirque traditions have begun in the dining area. On premiere night for example, the chefs will often prepare traditional dishes from the city they are visiting. Frequently, a cast member will step in and help to prepare food from their country. On "break down" or moving day, the chefs prepare spaghetti bolognese, made from the foodstuffs still left in storage. Menu planning must be exact because food cannot be wasted or brought on to the next stop on tour.


"Cirque Memory"

The Nymphs
Photo courtesy Al Seib

In the past, managing and coordinating the creative aspects, casts, sets, costumes, show facilities and touring arms of Cirque du Soleil was extremely difficult. Cirque's growing staff and show network added to this strain. For example, in 1984, Cirque had 73 employees and one Grand Chapiteau. Today, Cirque has nine shows with 2,700 employees representing 40 nationalities and speaking 25 different languages.

To aid the management of these various components, Cirque du Soleil built an International Headquarters and deployed "Cirque Memory", an online database. The construction of the headquarters and the institution of Cirque Memory have contributed to the evolution of Cirque as a structured yet creative organization. The facilities at the international headquarters create a central place where the team trains performers, designs sets and makes costumes.


Developed as a way to organize and manage Cirque's shows, Cirque Memory tracks and organizes the artists and staff as well as their needs. Working with outside IT consultants and their own IT department, Cirque developed and implemented a global database that is accessible online in five different languages. Built using only Microsoft Windows 2000, Internet Information Server 5.0 and SQL Server 2000, Cirque Memory has six applications: Casting, Make-up, Costume Memory, Medi-Cirque, Kin-Cirque and Act Management.

This system allows Cirque to track the 20,000 performers in their casting directory. The database also includes photos and instructions on makeup application for each character as well as 5,000 costume designs and 4,000 alternation notes. Staff and Cirque doctors can track and monitor performers' health and rehabilitation through 24,000 Medi-Cirque files. If necessary, directors can use Cirque Memory to find replacements whose height and weight match those of the injured performer, thereby eliminating costly prop and costume redesign. This data management ensures that the quality of each show is consistent throughout the course of its run and helps to ensure that cast, costume and set replacements or changes can occur as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Cirque de Soleil has come a long way from a circus started by street performers in Montreal. For 20 years they have provided shows of such breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring talent that Cirque is bound to continue to redefine live entertainment and sell out venues around the world.

To learn more about Alegria and Cirque du Soleil, check out the links on the next page.