Sunday, March 02, 2008
Cirque du Desertion: Why and What to Make of It?
About those performers on the Kooza unit who are rumored/reported to have walked off, the reasons range from low wages to callously disrespectful treatment at the hands of their bosses. I for one was quite surprised at the sudden exits, although when I think about what I know of this phenomenally successful enterprise, there is no reason at all to be shocked.
Ample are the examples, some bordering on the sadistic, of a ruthless operation that treats its employees like discardable electronic components. For one, the Bravo tv special on the creation of Varekai was an eye-opener.
Guy Laliberte, Cirque du Soleil’s brilliant founder and impresario, can, I suppose, continue to treat his secondary acts as chattel. Something like how Broadway chorus hoofers get pushed around, so they say. I doubt that he can get away with it for long in his dealings with the real ring stars he will increasingly need as the public tires of too much same-old same-old special effects, choreography and senseless narrative allusions. Noted the Savvy Insider in an e-mail to me, “Let’s face it, a large part of every Cirque show requires basic circus skills prettied up with choreography, staging and music.” And as he also points out, whatever little money they make is fairly typical around most circus lots. It was always thus.
On the positive side, if you spend some time at a Cirque fan website, you will understand that through the eyes of the young bristling with talent and ambition, here is a form of circus to feel good about. It is, as Ringling once was (recalling the words of the late Harold Ronk) the “modern circus.” Its production values are nearly without compare. It has billions to afford. And it may need to start spending more on first rate talent.
But with all its money, might the darker quirks of Guy Laliberte — who might, for example, suffer a serious greed problem — at some point self-destruct artistically? I think not, and I will tell you why.
Kooza tells us many things. It show us what excitement true stars like Anthony Gatto bring to a show that was beginning to look a bit too fey, too precious. It tells us that Guy Laliberte is able to let go of one aesthetic and charge ahead after another. After all, at the very beginning, he and his cohorts set out to “reinvent” the circus. At his relatively young age, he may still have a few more reinventions left inside of him.
Kooza also tells us that you can’t expect to treat your staff like dirt without consequences. Perhaps the most telling element of this new edition is the program magazine itself. Unlike every other show that has preceded Kooza, the magazine for this edition comes with a separate insert listing the acts. Does this not suggest that management has already suffered or expects turnover? And what does that say, may I ask you, Mr. Laliberte?
The young and the hip have a very new age circus to aspire to. But they will not stick around forever. “The glow is gone,” guesses the Savvy Insider. And if that’s the case, some of the same kids — among them, our possible ring stars of tomorrow — will begin to look elsewhere, and they might change their attitudes about traditional circus. If they can’t increase their pay scale, at least they can look around in search of friendlier circumstances. There are a number of shows out there, I have to believe, that treat people like human beings. John Ringling North II, for one, has shown real compassion in managing his Kelly-Miller staff.
Circus performers with rare exception have never been unionized in this country. They are known for accepting low wages, for going well beyond the call of duty (“cherry pie”) when needed, to help move the show. At times, they have nearly spilled their blood in the love of the big top. The least they deserve is respect.