Showbiz David from out of the past
In the beginning they had a duck. Soon they retired the duck, realizing the marketing advantages of shunning animal acts. However, they stayed wisely clear of the smugly disdainful position taken against performing animals by the Pickle Family Circus in the mid-1980s (“cruel and unusual behavior”).
Yet since Cirque du Soleil's meteoric rise to global fame and fortune in 1987 at Los Angeles, it has on occasion flirted with feathers and more. They tried to train a pair of snakes for Zumanity. In 1992 when they toured 60 towns in Switzerland with Circus Knie, Knie’s animals were kept on the bill. In Wintuk, they lend the aura of favoring performing dogs by including puppet versions of them in the show. They are using real birds in Believe. And, not to be overlooked, a couple of Cirque co-founders on their own have mounted Cirque-like horse shows in past years. What does this all suggest? At the very least, an existential mind-set at the CEO desk. Darwin may be alive in Montreal.
A couple of days ago on this blog during a commentary back and forth between Wade Burck and Logan Jacot (you can check it out, end of the second post down), Burck posed an interesting question to Jacot: “What would you think of the idea of Soleil using animals?”
More than interesting, in fact, because, although I have long wondered if Cirque du Soleil might someday bring animals into the ring, I’ve never pondered how such a move might affect the circus world. And that is just what Jacot took up in his highly insightful answer. Here is what he wrote:
“Overall I think if Soleil added animals it would help the circus industry in general... because people trust Cirque, more people trust something with the name ‘Cirque’ on it than they do if the word ‘Circus’ is there. I think when Cirque has animals, the customers for the most part feel comfortable that the animals are being well taken care of. They know Cirque as reputable company. Cirque in America is regarded on the same level that theatre, opera, and ballet is on. This for some reason causes people to think, ‘It’s cirque, it’s a multimillion performing group of course they are going to take care of the animals.’ Once somebody recognizes that one company does take great care of its animals it leads to a better trust that animals can receive good and proper care on the road. This opens lots of doors."
Indeed, it could have a tremendously positive impact on the animal rights issue. Now you may take offense to Jacot's implication that animals would be better treated in a Cirque show than they are in circuses, but he is onto something: Imagery is everything, and for that reason alone, I find his reasoning to make a lot of sense. Cirque du Soleil enjoys the passionate allegiance of a broad base of upscale fans, many of them young adults who are so passionate that when they are disappointed by second-rate Cirque they are not shy in venting their displeasure (which I think is healthy). Were Cirque to admit animal acts into even one of its shows, what a dazzling affirmation of the menagerie this would mark.
It is all in Guy Laliberte’s hands, and Laliberte, I continue to believe, is by far the most interesting, indeed, the most powerful figure in the circus world. I rank him up there with Phillip Astley, William Coup, Anatoly Lunacharsky and John Ringling North. Each in their own way significantly defined and redefined the art of the circus performance.
If Laliberte is artistically amoral, all the better for the flexibility needed to once again make drastic shifts in the way he stocks and shapes his ring programs. He is still relatively young. What are the chances he might spread a little sawdust and sport an elephant or seal or two? I think they are good if he can be convinced to experiment. Would he be throwing away product identity and branding? Hard to say. Modern times, this very moment, tell us that a majority of Americans, especially adults with children, still prefer animals in circuses. And this lingering affection may not die anytime soon, not as long as circuses continue to maintain healthy conditions and present the animal stars in exemplary fashion.
Cirque du Soleil could surprise us yet another time. After all, is that not what King Laliberte delights in doing the most?
[photos, from above: Ingeborg Rhodin; Stephenson's Dogs; Yuri Kuklachev and cat; Alfred Court's mixed animal act]
[originally posted 12/27/08]