Feature Article Vol. VI, No. 5

For Canada’s National Circus School

a New Director and New Directions

Éric Langlois

Ecole Nationale de Cirque, the Canadian National Circus School, is in the business of not just preparing professional circus artists for outstanding careers; it is also enriching the circus culture and nourishing the circus community. These initiatives were revealed in a conversation with Eric Langlois, the new executive director of the school in Montreal, Canada. After studying arts administration, Langlois joined the school in 2009, and before becoming its new director upon the departure of Marc Lalonde, he had been the finance manager.

The school itself has been turning out world-class performers since its founding in 1981. In time it next turned its attention to training trainers who are essential to developing the milieu and in turn the training of even more artists in centers other than its own.  Most recently the school has been focused on another aspect of circus production, recognizing the changes taking place in its very form: training dramaturgs and directors.

In its strategic planning the school is developing a pilot program in circus direction and circus writing. An American student from Boulder Colorado, Isaac Endo, is the first student accepted into this innovation.  “A program we created offers him numerous opportunities to be involved in circus creation,” Langlois says.  He will be mentored by someone with experience in circus directing, as he explores the many new ways for the circus to be creative, for instance with collaborating with symphony orchestras.  Ultimately the goal is to develop a master’s degree in circus writing, direction and production in conjunction with En Piste, the organization of Quebec circuses.

Another trend in the circus world is the increased interest by graduates of circus schools around the world in creating their own independent companies. “We are finding students now more individualized than ever,” Langlois says.  “They want to create their own companies.  We see it in recent grads.  It is particularly the case of grads from the school in Quebec City.  I hear from people in Europe as well.  Pascal Jacob says the same thing from Brussels.”  Thus the school is in the process of moving its curriculum towards helping grads create a collective or an independent company of one sort or another.  That means a new business model has to be developed and learned. These students also need to learn how to write funding applications.

One of the biggest problems for this proliferation of new, small companies is finding venues in which they can show their wares.    On a certain level there are few venues that present circus.  So a new business model needs to be developed to help these venues understand what it means to bring in a circus because they are not now ready to do so.  There is a lack of understanding of circus and therefore it is a risk for them.  So the new circuses must learn how to convince these venues that it is not a risk.

The social media is a great help to start up companies, Langlois believes. It gives them the power to market themselves, so they can produce themselves and get to the public.  He provides an example of three young men in Quebec who have been very successful in this.  They found a way of getting into that network of presenters.  They started in Europe and then came back to North America.  The school has helped them expand.  Their size gives them a flexibility that larger companies don’t have.

Insofar as nourishing the circus community, since arriving in its current home, across the street from Cirque du Soleil’s world headquarters, the school has tried to maintain contact between students and professionals. As a center where people meet to exchange ideas it has always tried to help grow the community, the circus community.  This has been made possible because the circus community in Montreal is small and concentrated.  The school also contributes to the world-wide circus community as its students go out into the world.  “Our students are very well prepared in all areas of circus,” Langlois points out, having had reports from professionals around the world.  “They know how to handle problems that occur backstage as well as on during a performance.  This contributes to the community, as there is a network between graduates.”

As soon as the school moved into its current home, the school dedicated one of its studios for use by any company that wishes to use the facilities for their creation. This, too, puts the students in contact with practicing professionals.

Unfortunately, Langlois agrees, this sort of communication and cross fertilization does not exist in the States and the reason is a lack of a professional school. He is hopeful that the new school in Philadelphia, which is about to welcome its first class this fall will succeed.  As he sees it, the first problem for any school is attracting qualified trainers and coaches in order to build the program.

In order to attract students who are willing to relocate to a new city and leave all their support systems, a professional school must offer a quality program with a reputation strong enough to motivate students to move. Potential students must see the value of such training, value which has to be built through the years.  The students have to be serious about the work, believe in the advantages of a circus career and believe in circus in general.

In the States, Langlois observes, the students have a different profile from those who look to Montreal. “Here most are dreaming of Cirque du Soleil.  It helps us to draw students since we are across the street from Cirque du Soleil.  When they visit the school they can see what is there.  It’s real.  It is a combination of all that.  They can see where our graduates are working.  So getting the first candidates will be difficult for the first five years.”  That means the school must find the finances to survive that long while building a reputation.

In the province of Quebec where Montreal is located circus is designated an art form and therefore eligible for public funding. Dealing with the national government is another story.  “We are not getting funding from national government,” Langlois says, “not because the money is not there,”  but because nationally it is not designated an art.   Nonetheless, the school was successful in getting public funding for research five years ago.  It did it by circumventing the issue of art designation altogether.  It was the first college to be involved in a program called Human Science.  So the funding is intended to support science rather than art.  The school enlisted some industrial partners to provide matching funds and morale.  For instance in the research being undertaken regarding writing for circus and stage production, the partners are from industry that provides the technology for such creation.

There is also a strictly scientific aspect to the program as well. The school’s students have been undergoing physical testing and measuring for three years, four times a year.  “This has given us a lot of information about work load, tailoring training programs and classes, especially  in specific areas like aerial, measuring such things as  tension and propulsion.  The results have been marvelous,” Langlois says.  “This tells us what is happening to our students and suggests what we can do to design our programs more effectively.  It is helpful in tailoring the way we do things.  This work is also related to what the Cirque du Soleil medical team is doing.  This is empowering and providing leverage in recruiting and attracting other support.  There is lots of interest in this.  It nourishes the teachers.  It challenges us to find ways to use the results and the knowledge we have gathered.”

Langlois also spoke about recreational circus, which he says is not well structured in Canada. In Canada the hierarchal structure is top down, the opposite of America, where it is bottom up. To remedy this, a few years ago the school added a prep school , which is different than its high school program.  This is intended to help interested parties prepare for the audition which everyone must pass to gain admittance to the three year professional program.

Ironically, Langlois says, he sometimes encounters a skeptical attitude about the benefits of circus and its standing as an art form in Montreal. To combat this he feels the circus needs to be reviewed by better informed critics who have seen enough shows to understand what is happening in the world of circus.  Unfortunately there are no touring circuses in Canada, so it is difficult for critics to appreciate  and be aware of what is out there.  “We are better appreciated abroad,” he says with some chagrin, “We receive many international visitors who want to observe and learn from our programs, and we want to be a model of community involvement.”  But the reception at home sometimes proves the old adage, “You’re never a hero in your own backyard.”   Although when we in the States look at Ecole Nationale de Cirque from south of the border it tends to look like paradise.