Cirque du Soleil may be struggling, but the cluster around it is thriving
No lions, no bearded ladies
Feb 15th 2014 | QUEBEC CITY | From the print edition The Economist
IN THE deconsecrated church of Saint-Esprit, jugglers toss fluorescent orange clubs in front of the former altar, trapeze artists soar under the gaze of stone saints and wobbly unicyclists use two lines of repurposed pews as handrails. Declared surplus to requirements after Quebeckers deserted Catholicism in droves, the church is now the École de Cirque de Québec, through which 20,000 aspiring entertainers pass each year. The school’s director, Yves Neveu, says only half-jokingly, “Someone said the archbishop should be jealous because I’m filling my church.” Nearby Montreal boasts an even bigger school for circus performers.
Although only a handful of students go on to a career in the circus, the popularity of the programmes offered to would-be acrobats, local children and even tourists off cruise ships is the visible manifestation of the circus craze that has gripped Quebec. At its heart is the privately owned Cirque du Soleil, started in 1984 by a troupe of stilt-walkers from nearby Baie-Saint-Paul. It is now one of Canada’s most important cultural exports, employing 5,000 people at eight permanent shows in Las Vegas and at 12 others that tour the world. In 2012 its turnover was about C$1 billion ($900m)—it does not reveal its profits.
In 2005 this newspaper asked whether Guy Laliberté, majority owner of the circus, could keep it flying. That question was raised again early last year when the company laid off 400 employees, mainly at its head office in Montreal. The company has blamed the strong Canadian dollar (which has since weakened) and the after-effects of the global recession, which hit sponsorship income. It has launched a cost-cutting drive but insists it is not in crisis