Cirque’s Return Could Be Its Most Challenging Feat Yet

Confinement has posed a particular challenge for the Québécois aerialist Guillaume Paquin. Practicing signature moves, like twisting his way up a 20-foot rope before spinning downward like a helicopter propeller, is a bit tricky from his cramped living room.

Now, however, the former Cirque du Soleil performer may soon be able to trade in his Montreal apartment for the big top: The famed circus is returning to the stage after the pandemic forced it to shutter 44 shows, from Melbourne to Hangzhou.

With vaccinations accelerating across the world, the Cirque announced late last month that its two longest-running Las Vegas shows, “O” and “Mystère,” will return this summer. “Luzia,” a crowd-pleaser featuring acrobats jumping to and from a pair of huge swings, will open at Royal Albert Hall in London next January. And talks are underway to reopen in China, Japan, South Korea and Spain.

At a time when the pandemic is still raging and uncertainty remains about people’s willingness to return to large theater venues, the attempted comeback by the former behemoth is a litmus test of sorts for the live entertainment industry.

Can the badly battered Montreal-based circus, already struggling with creative exhaustion before the pandemic, rise again?

“It’s been more than a year that we are all stuck at home,” said Mr. Paquin, 26, who previously starred as the extraterrestrial humanoid Entu in “Toruk,” the elaborately staged Cirque show inspired by James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” He is not part of the Las Vegas shows soon to commence but is eager to get back onstage.

“Audiences are hungry for live entertainment,” he said.

The reopening of Cirque du Soleil comes as the global performing arts are cautiously re-emerging.

In New York, the actor Nathan Lane and the dancer Savion Glover recently performed, briefly and one at a time, in front of a masked audience of 150 people, presaging what theater producers hope will be the resumption of Broadway performances in the fall.

In an early peek at what a vaccinated future may look like, Israelis with two shots can get a “Green Pass” that allows access to indoor and outdoor cultural and sporting events.

And this month Rotterdam plans to host the Eurovision Song Contest in front of a limited live audience.

But before Cirque shows can restart, it must put back together a company that was all but dismantled at the start of the pandemic.

During its 400-day hiatus, Cirque’s revenues plummeted to zero, and it shed nearly 4,700 people, or 95 percent of its work force, leaving many of the world’s best trapeze artists and acrobats confined at home, unable to practice.

Mr. Paquin said the long pause had undermined his confidence, since he couldn’t rehearse his airborne routines. When he recently started retraining, he said, he discovered that he had lost his “muscle memory” and felt afraid to be in the air. “It was really painful for me to go back,” he said.

With touring on the horizon, the circus also faces the logistical challenge of navigating different health and safety rules across the globe. “It’s going to take a very long time for the Cirque to come back to what it was before the pandemic — if ever,” said Mitch Garber, who stepped down last year as Cirque’s chairman.

Yasmine Khalil, who recently stepped down as Cirque’s executive producer after 25 years at the company, said the group retained a sparkling global brand, while the pandemic offered the radically scaled-down organization the opportunity to reinvent itself.

But Ms. Khalil said the dusting-off of decades-old Las Vegas stalwarts underscored that in the era of lethal coronavirus variants and decimated profits, Cirque was not prepared to take creative or financial risks. Innovating is hard, she added, “when the primary goal is to break even and to focus on getting people to shows without them getting sick.”

“Would I go sit inside a theater with 2,000 people and wear a mask for two hours?” she asked. “Probably not.”

Originating in the 1980s as a troupe of Québécois stilt-walkers, fire breathers and other performers, Cirque du Soleil went on to reinvent the circus with jaw-dropping acrobatics, live music, flamboyant costumes and monumental, if thinly plotted, spectacle. At its height in 2019, when Cirque had seven simultaneous shows in Las Vegas, it was drawing nearly 10,000 theatergoers nightly.

“Mystère” and “O” — scheduled to open June 28 and July 1, respectively — will operate at full capacity in theaters of 1,806 and 1,616 seats without social distancing and at prepandemic ticket prices, said Daniel Lamarre, Cirque du Soleil’s chief executive. Employees will be tested regularly, and vaccination, while voluntary, will be strongly encouraged. The aim is to open the remaining three other Las Vegas shows by the end of the year.

Under new rules by Clark County, where Las Vegas is, shows can proceed with no social distancing once 60 percent of the state’s eligible population has received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose. Masks will be required. On May 6, Nevada reported that nearly 47 percent had received at least one shot.

Gabriel Dubé-Dupuis, a former Cirque creative director, cautioned that the company faced a significant hurdle there, since the younger fans Cirque needed to remain relevant were more likely to be drawn to night clubs and hotel pool parties.

But Mr. Lamarre said he was optimistic that audiences, emboldened by vaccination, would return to performances with greater fervor than ever. “We are banking on the fact that people have been confined for so long and that people are desperate to be entertained,” he said. But then he added, “Maybe I am too much of a dreamer?”

Cirque applied for bankruptcy protection in June after its debt ballooned to nearly $1 billion. Mr. Lamarre said the company had since been buttressed by a $375 million infusion from its new owners, a group that includes Catalyst Capital Group, a Toronto-based firm that invests in distressed companies.

Critics, analysts and former employees say the former entertainment colossus faces an uphill struggle.

Even before the pandemic, the Cirque was grappling with creative tensions, with producers complaining that they were being squeezed to produce shows too quickly. Other artists lamented that the artistic alchemy of the past had been supplanted by over-the-top production values and convoluted story lines in an effort to churn out formulaic blockbusters.

Cirque managers, however, retort that an old guard of artists never fully adapted to the business realities of a sprawling entertainment company.

Among recent commercial failures was “Run,” which premiered in Las Vegas at the Luxor Hotel in fall 2019 and billed itself as a “live-action thriller.” After development costs of $60 million, it closed after just five months because the decision to eschew Cirque’s signature acrobatics alienated fans.

Cirque must also grapple with out-of-shape circus artists, many of whom have been forced to pursue other ways to make a living.

Mr. Paquin, the aerialist, last appeared with Cirque in December 2019 as a sequined snowflake in “’Twas the Night Before…,” its schmaltzy holiday show at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Since being grounded, he and a group of fellow Montreal-based performers formed their own circus collective that will perform this summer in outdoor spaces like fields. To keep in shape during lockdowns, the group does handstands, splits and stretches around their apartments. But Mr. Paquin said it would take Cirque performers months to get show-ready again.

For Uranbileg Angarag, a Mongolian contortionist, rehearsing favorite moves from home — like putting her legs 180 degrees in front of her head while balancing on a cane in her mouth — has been difficult: The ceiling of her apartment in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, gets in the way. She has supplemented her income by offering online yoga classes.

A former Cirque artist, Olivier Sylvestre, has been working as a barista at a Montreal cafe, while Arthur Morel Van Hyfte, 26, a French trapeze artist, has used his time off to study acting.

Mr. Morel Van Hyfte said the health risks of a pandemic would add stress to a job with already superhuman demands.

“I hope that the pandemic will help Cirque du Soleil to regain its poetry and soul,” he said.

{ SOURCE: The New York Times }