What is Tohu?

As a former Olympic host city, Montreal had the privilege of being the sole Canadian city included the Olympic Torch Relay this year. On June 20th, 2004 the Olympic torch made a stop in Montreal en-route to Athens. A team of 120 selected torch-bearers, comprised of former Canadian Olympians, public personalities, and private citizens relayed the torch on its journey through the city, beginning at the 1976 Olympic Stadium, winding through 11 boroughs and arriving at Tohu where festivities would culminate in a party. While the other stops along the Montreal leg of the Olympic Torch relay are well known, the destination, Tohu, is fairly new and relatively unknown. Which begs the question; What is Tohu? No, it’s not the curded soy-bean extract staple of vegetarian diets!

Tohu, “La cité des arts du cirque” is a non-profit organization founded by En Piste, a collective comprising several prominent organizations in Canadian circus arts (most notably the National Circus School and our beloved Cirque du Soleil). Membership in Tohu represents a major aspect of Cirque du Soleil’s social and cultural action policy.

Tohu aims to create a circus arts “city” in the province of Québec as a unique means to centralize the creation, training, production and performance of circus arts in the province and as a major centre for the development of artists.

The organization, founded in 1999, has taken root in Montreal’s Saint Michel district. Currently, the “city” is home to Cirque du Soleil’s International Headquarters and artists’ residences and l’École Nationale de Cirque (the National Circus School) which opened a brand new, 7200 square meter facility in 2003 directly across the street from Cirque’s headquarters. Tohu will also be the future home of a new, circular performance hall called the “Chapiteau des Arts” which is already under construction.

Tohu has a unique approach to fulfilling its mission while promoting culture, ensuring environmental sustainability in all of its actions and revitalizing the local community.

The organization’s cultural mission is to establish Montreal as the circus arts capital of the world by creating a community to pool the creativity, expertise, talent and entrepreneurship of Québec’s circus sector. Tohu is already home of l’École Nationale de Cirque which is a prestigious, world-class school for the training of circus artists. Another step towards Tohu’s cultural goal is the presence of the internationally renowned, circus industry leader Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters. In 2000 the company’s international headquarters was expanded and in June 2003 the company opened a brand new official artists’ residence in the Tohu neighborhood. The final piece of the cultural mosaic will be in place in the Summer of 2004 when Tohu opens its Chapiteau des Arts. Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a troupe comprised of Cirque du Soleil alumni performers, will inaugurate the new performance hall with a run in September. Located at the intersection of Jarry and d’Iberville streets, the Chapiteau will feature a unique, circular, 840-seat performance hall, exhibition space, reception hall, artists workshops, studios, and bar/restaurant, as well as serving as the home of Tohu’s administrative offices. The Chapiteau des Arts will host performances year-round; some developed in-house, and others from around the world. The building will be surrounded by a large public square where a 1700-seat big top will be erected in the summertime. The square will be home to a variety of free cultural and environmental activities. Every Sunday afternoon during the summer, Tohu has been the site of free outdoor concert and dance performance series co-sponsored by Cirque du Soleil.

The Chapiteau des Arts will also house the welcome centre for the Centre Environmentale de Saint-Michel (Saint-Michel Environmental Complex), which dovetails with Tohu’s second mission of operating in an environmentally sustainable manner. Tohu’s site (including the headquarters of Cirque du Soleil) is situated on the edge of the CESM, a 192-hectare territory that was a limestone quarry at the turn of the 20th century. It was turned into a landfill in 1968 and by the end of the 1980s received nearly one million tons of trash every year. In 1988, the site was acquired by the City of Montreal and became the focus of one of the largest environmental rehabilitation projects ever undertaken by the city. The CESM development plan called for the former landfill site to be transformed into an urban park with educational, cultural, sports and commercial/industrial sectors. Tohu’s presence will fulfill the CESM’s cultural mandate.

The Chapiteau des Arts was designed to reflect Tohu’s environmental values of ecology, recycling, recovery and renewable energy resources. Environmentally sustainable concepts incorporated into the Chapiteau’s design and construction include an ice-bunker system that will replace traditional air-cooling systems, a “green” roof featuring vegetation to serve as a means of insulation and temperature control, and a “Trombe” wall which will passively trap the sun’s heat during the day and slowly and evenly release it during the night. The Chapiteau will also operate using renewable energy sources. For example the water running in the Chapiteau’s heated floor is waste process water from its neighbor Gazmont, a company that turns biogas into electricity. In this sense Tohu has become a major partner in reclaiming and renewing a site that was once the victim of environmental short-sightedness.

In choosing the Saint-Michel district, Tohu has already made a large step towards fulfillment of its third mission of community revitalization. The Saint Michel district in Montreal is one of Canada’s most underprivileged neighborhoods. By establishing their headquarters in Saint Michel, Tohu will revitalize the urban landscape of the neighborhood with its modern architecture and create new community spaces such as parks and public squares. The Tohu programming team will organize community events to encourage neighborhood residents to adopt the space as their own. As Tohu and its member organizations grow the organization will adhere to the principles of social economy and offer area residents long-term employment.

What Cirque du Soleil and Tohu offer is a very important glimpse at the forward-thinking development and management styles that businesses must take in the future to ensure positive growth that comes in cooperation with, instead of in adversity to culture, the environment and the community. One can only hope that Tohu can serve as an example to reinvent the world of corporate management the way Cirque du Soleil reinvented the world of the circus. We’d all be better off for it.

To find out more about Tohu, the Chapiteau des Arts and upcoming events and performances visit http://www.tohu.com.