Editor’s Fanfare Vol. II, No. 6

Cirque du Soleil Takes It on the Chin 

In recent weeks Cirque du Soleil has had more than its share of problems ranging from human tragedy to economic strain.  Sarah Guyard-Guillot, an aerial acrobat in the Ka production at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand slipped free from her safety harness and fell more than 50 feet to her death a few weeks ago. This and the news of the company’s  economic problems  has been met in many quarters with barely disguised schadenfreude.  The level of envy it must take to find pleasure in real tragedy is disturbing, and it is foolish to think that any diminution of Cirque’s  influence in the entertainment world would somehow benefit more traditional circuses.   Even if it completely disappeared from the scene its absence would not cause a rush to other kinds of circuses.

But the recent news is hardly a death knell.  I don’t want to be an apologist for CDS,  but realistically its past successes and potential for continued success are impossible to deny.  Cirque maintains nineteen touring productions in operation worldwide, including the recently launched “Michael Jackson ONE” at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.  It is a reportedly $1 billion company which employs 5,000 people globally, including 2,000 at its headquarters in Montreal.

“The Cirque is not in crisis,” spokeswoman Renée-ClaudeMénard recently told a Business Week reporter Keenan Mayo, but she also mentioned that the company had not turned a profit in 2012. Production costs had spiraled out of control, she said, which was compounded by a weak U.S. dollar. Ménard claimed that, on the whole, Cirque du Soleil was affected by $3 million for every cent the Canadian dollar gained on its U.S. counterpart. “We are now in the process of reviewing within the company worldwide all of our expenses to ensure that we decrease them significantly.”

It remains to be seen how the recent death will ripple through the company’s numerous productions and how this will affect  ticket sales. But danger is the whole point of circuses everywhere, after all, and the show must go on. But not for “Ka,” at least for now. According to the Cirque du Soleil, “performances … will be canceled until further notice.

But it isn’t only in America that Cirque du Soleil is met with bitter resentment.  Consider the current controversy emerging out of Russia.

According to a piece that appeared in the Russian newspaper Kommersant by Oleg Khokhlov and Diana Khromvskikh  the St. Petersburg State Circus  is unhappy about the naming of Vyacheslav Polunin as their new director because they fear he may move the circus in a direction away from tradition. “Changes are always difficult,” Polunin has said. “The only way to return the Russian circus to its rightful place on the world stage is by combining tradition with a search for new ideas.”

What is causing so much unease in the Russian circus isthat the animal rights’ organization Vita is said to be behind some of those supposedly new ideas. It recently released a 10-minute video of circus rehearsals in which five animal trainers beat circus animals.

Polunin is promising to address the issue of “circus animals.”   Last week Russia’s Minister of Culture received a request to establish Russia’s “first cruelty-free circus” in St. Petersburg – which is to say, a circus without animals. Polunin asked the audience to speak up, and many well-known cultural figures voiced their support for an animal-free circus.

The circus community is also writing letters. “In hiding behind false slogans about the humanization of the circus, animal rights organizations are colluding with our foreign competitors and are trying to forbid animal trainers from performing on Russian stages,” reads the declaration on the Russian Circus Company’s website.

They don’t say exactly who the “foreign competitors” are, but it’s clear they are talking about Canada’s famed Cirque du Soleil. “I don’t want to accuse Cirque du Soleil, because I don’t have proof, but our American partners talk about it openly,” said Edgard Zapashnii, general director of the Moscow State Circus. “American and Canadian circuses with animals – and they do exist – don’t like Cirque du Soleil.”   Zapashnii says that Cirque du Soleil has been waging a long-running secret war to clear other circuses out of the market. “Cirque du Soleil is very rich, and it is clearly interested in freeing up the Russian market, so that there are no alternatives to Cirque du Soleil here,” he said.

On its part Circque du Soleil  spokespeople refused to comment on accusations of colluding with animal rights organizations. Irina Novozhilova, who is seeking to create the animal free circus  maintains that she has never met with representatives from Cirque du Soleil. “We have been working on this for 19 years, and we are always getting complaints from witnesses, people from the circus system and, most frequently, veterinarians,” Novozhilova explained. “We have been doing this since before anyone had ever heard of Cirque du Soleil.”  Polunin hopes at least that a Russian animal trainers’ association could establish an honor code and a system for human-animal relationships.

“There is no control now – anyone can become an animal trainer,” said Zapashni of the Moscow circus. “If someone is caught being cruel to an animal, then he or she is fired – but nothing stops him or her from being hired at the next circus. The easiest thing would be to create a license.”

“Of course, everyone in the circus is interested in getting rid of cruelty,” Zapashni adds. “The circus has gotten to the point where one trainer works with seventeen tigers while holding a meter-long stick – it’s hard to punish a tiger with a stick like that. Seventeen tigers could rip the trainer to pieces. We risk our lives to entertain the audience.”

It’s hard to imagine a compromise between the trainers and the activists. In the plan for the development of circus arts through 2020 that was recently released by the Ministry of Culture, there is no mention of a ban on animal training – only talk of “humane training.”

The emotional reaction of circus performers to this animal-rights campaign is understandable, especially because the circus has only just started to be successful again.

The Russian Circus, which includes thirty-nine separate city circuses from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, 2,000 artists and as many animals, is expected to make a profit in 2013 for the first time in many years.

The current general director of the Russian Circus is Farzana Khalilova, who took over in April 2012. She says that the previous leadership was corrupt, and since taking over 14 local directors have been fired and 10 criminal investigations opened. The circus’s expected profits do take in government subsidies, which represent a substantial amount of the annual budget.

The question of whether or not the traditional Russian circus can live by the laws of the market remains. The circus buildings are aging and in need of repair. Zapashni says that the circus works to improve Russia’s image abroad, and government help is absolutely necessary. Otherwise they’d never have a chance next to the likes of Cirque du Soleil.