The Stage: Do Cirque du Soleil and Big Apple Circus need to freshen up their formats?

June 10th, 2016 § 0 comments

Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I never wanted to run away and join the circus when I was a child. This is no doubt due to the fact that I never saw a circus live (I was aware of them through other cultural means) until I was 23 years old. The first circus I ever saw was the Big Apple Circus.

The founders of BAC began as street performers in England in 1974, but within three years they created a circus that quickly became a New York fixture, with a commitment not simply to selling tickets, but to educating young people about the circus – and through the circus – making certain their not-so-big top was accessible to people throughout the city (not just in Manhattan) at reasonable prices. Set up as a subsidised enterprise, it pursued its mission of a one-ring circus with a genuine intimacy that was in marked counterpoint to the famed Ringling Brothers shows that played arenas in the area annually. Last week, a feature by The New York Times laid out a rather dire outlook for BAC’s future, attributed in part to lost corporate group sales in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Their 39th season, at Lincoln Center this fall, is in jeopardy.

As it happens, the report came just after Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour opened on Broadway, the company’s third attempt at a sit-down production in Manhattan. Cirque has beginnings equally as humble as BAC, but its trajectory has been markedly different. Over 32 years, Cirque du Soleil has exploded into one of the major brands in entertainment, with shows both touring and playing in purpose-built venues around the world. I imagine, only slightly facetiously, that its beverage and candy sales each year exceed the entire budget of BAC. Since it arrived on the scene, with its distinctive production values and new approach to circus arts, even using the word circus has become old fashioned – there are countless cirques everywhere, and many have never been near France or Quebec.

In 2013, Cirque pared back its staff, as several shows closed or underperformed. At the time, I wrote about not being particularly worried for the company’s fortunes. Like any fast-growing multinational business, it took stock of where it stood and needed to restructure. It’s possible that BAC should have done the same thing a few years ago, or if it did, it didn’t fully anticipate the degree to which its income model was changing due to forces beyond its control. Even as Cirque’s Paramour opened to a welter of mixed to negative reviews, and pulled in only 56% of its potential gross revenue last week, I think the company can weather another shaky New York effort, while the hometown team is in direr straits.

Big Apple Circus (Photo by Maike Schulz)

Despite the divergence in scale between these two companies, I do wonder whether they both haven’t fully faced up to one common issue, namely the nature of their work more than three decades after they began. Each has a fairly distinctive house style that transcends any particular production or season; you could walk me into either BAC or Cirque with no foreknowledge and I could immediately tell you which company I was seeing. But whereas both probably emerged in response to the three-ring spectacle of Ringling Brothers and other circuses in that style, perhaps both Big Apple and Cirque now grapple with their own aesthetic histories. Big Apple hasn’t bowed to the Cirque style or scale, as so many other companies have, while Cirque still offers shows that echo the DNA of Nouvelle Experience, their first show to tour the US. Their efforts outside of those parameters are the ones that haven’t succeeded (such as their Las Vegas Elvis show or their first theatre venture, Banana Shpeel).

In the meantime, yet new iterations of circus have emerged, with my particular favourite being the Canadian Les 7 Doigts De La Main, whose stripped down, jeans and t-shirt style shows place the focus solely on the art of the performer, not on the man in the top hat or the clown babbling nonsense. In its simplicity, it is all the more remarkable. As for merging circus and Broadway, director Diane Paulus (who also staged Cirque’s Amaluna) already did that impeccably with her revival of Pippin, aided by 7 Doigts’ Gypsy Snider. This came after the singular Bill Irwin, both alone and with his occasional partner David Shiner, had created utterly original pieces, including Largely New York, Fool Moon and Old Hats, bringing clowning to new levels of artistry in theatres on and Off-Broadway.

I genuinely hope the charming Big Apple Circus finds the funds to sustain its mission, but uses the opportunity to explore whether its performance template has contributed to its financial decline. As for Cirque du Soleil, whose productions have sometimes thrilled me, perhaps they’ll take the time to ponder their future and realise that bigger isn’t always better – and that Broadway musicals are a unique art unto themselves. Maybe some new creative energies and artists, breaking from the past, can help to sustain these two circuses, both alike in revelry.


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