Cover Story: Bringing a Different World View to Cincinnati

Cirque du Soleil supports a big organization under the big top

Jared M. Holder

A traveling army of 150 Cirque du Soleil staff teams with 150 local workers to create the Grand Chapiteau ondowntown's riverfront.

When street performers like jugglers, fire-eaters and strolling musicians go legit, you get Cirque du Soleil. Yet this nontraditional circus company won't bring the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals out in protest, because there aren't any animals being exploited under the climate-controlled big top — just 150 people from 19 countries doing what the founders were doing in Baie-Saint-Paul, a small town near Quebec City in Canada: performing.

"People who aren't familiar with us think it's a traditional circus in the three-ring-variety," says Reggie Lyons, publicist for Cirque's Quidam production opening here Thursday. "It's a mix of circus arts and theatrics and amazing music that's composed specifically for the show. People have heard of Cirque du Soleil, but they think we only have one show (and) they think Cirque du Soleil is the name of the show.

"We have 12 shows running around the world. This is one unique show, and you won't see this show anywhere else in the world. It's not like Cats where there's 20 productions running everywhere."

Quidam is one of seven different Cirque shows currently traveling throughout the world. The organization also has five permanent shows in the United States, with more planned for other countries.

That means more than 1,500 Cirque staffers are on the road most of the year. One crew will be in Cincinnati for about a month — almost three weeks of performances and 11 days for set-up and tear-down.

"Because we travel all over the world, it's just easier for us to have our own village set up," Lyons says. "If you're all over the world, you don't want to be dependent on anyone for power. You're in a lot of different places with a lot of different power concerns. We have our own electricians and technicians and plumbers that run the show and keep the site in check. They have their own workshops with a lot of tools, because you don't want to be in Hong Kong and need a tool you can't find there. Everything's based on North American standards."

Forty-eight trucks bring in the Grand Chapiteau as well as a school, kitchen, artistic tent, box office and warehouses in addition to generators, toilets and the tools necessary for keeping it all running. The circus staff is augmented with 150 locals servings as "Cirquadors" doing everything from serving as ushers to driving the 5-foot spikes into the ground that hold the tents in place. After an eight-day set-up process, the fun begins.

Remembering their roots
Founded in 1984 by street performers, Cirque has never lost touch with its roots. The corporation donates 1 percent of its revenues — estimated at more than $600 million in 2006 — to social and cultural action programs.

"Youth at risk is our main force that we work with, because this company was started by people who were in their early twenties, young street performers, and know what it's like," Lyons says. "For them it was always important to give something back to the community. They felt the best thing they knew how to do was the best thing to give back, which was to teach circus arts."

Cirque du Monde is a program that teaches kids what it takes to be a circus performer Cirque du Soleil style. Lyons rattles off 20 different countries in Africa, Australia, South America and North America but says most Cirque du Monde programs aren't located in towns where the circuses perform.

"It's not like a way to promote the show or anything like that," she says. "We purposely choose not to get press on it because that's not why we're doing it. We're going to the areas of greatest needs but also places where we can partner up with organizations. Sometimes in the United States it might be Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

"We partner up with existing organizations working with disadvantaged youth and youth at risk to bring them together and create a sense of purpose, to have fun and teach circus arts but also to teach them what it's like to be a part of a team. Learning in cooperation. These kids are told or feel they aren't worth much, so we want to bring them up and help them feel better ... to make them feel special."

Performers who volunteer their time and staff dedicated to this program are specially trained to serve as coaches so that they're prepared to deal with the kids' special needs. While having a local show isn't a requirement for benefiting from Cirque du Soleil's generosity, it doesn't hurt.

"In Las Vegas we work with the Andre Aggasi Foundation," Lyons says. "He has a school he has built that's a prep school but for underprivileged kids in the area. Cirque is building a gymnasium for that school."

Cincinnati's young people are now in a unique position, according to Lyons. Building on the relationships established during this first Quidam tour, Cirque will most likely return to the Tristate.

"Once we go to a city, if the run is successful — which we're anticipating — we would return every two to three years," she says. "That's the ideal for us. It takes a lot of work to find a location."

Responding to rumors that Cincinnati might be in the running for a new permanent Midwest-based show or production company, Lyons says that's news to her.

Regardless of the future of Cirque du Soleil here, the upcoming performances will be fun for all ages.

"It's not one of these things that you have to understand all of the underlying themes to get it," Lyons says. "We're not here to push a thought or idea on anyone. When you're in our big top enjoying the show for those two and a half hours, you're escaping from reality." ©

Cirque Fun Facts
The Cirque du Soleil "village" proves that you can take it with you:

· 48 trucks carry 750 tons of equipment

· Site set-up takes eight days and teardown takes three days

· The Grand Chapiteau ("big top" for those who never took high school French) is made up of 18 pieces of flame retardant vinyl held up by steel masts measuring 78 feet and 6 inches in height to create a space of 165 feet in diameter that seats approximately 2,500 people

· More than 1.55 miles of cable, 100 carabineers and 20 high-performance swivels are used as the acrobatic rigging for the show

· The stage set-up takes 48 hours and is dismantled in 20 hours

· Lighting technicians, stage technicians, riggers, audio technicians and the prop master are all Cirque crew members who travel with the show — 15 in all

· In each city, the local newspaper is used as a prop by the Father character; the newspaper is changed every day so it's that day's edition. Watch for CityBeat during the Wednesday performances!

SOURCE: Cirque du Soleil

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