One of Québec’s most popular exports, alongside Bombardier aircraft and the famous, highly-caloric dish “poutine”, is the magic of the Cirque du Soleil.
What started as a mere band of street jugglers has become, in a matter of decades, a global entertainment business with several simultaneous shows running all over the World.
The Cirque du Soleil, however, remains firmly rooted in the city of Montréal, where it has its HQ.
After having been able to enjoy, a few months ago, “Sonor”, one of the Cirque’s latest shows, onboard the cruise ship MSC Meraviglia, I accepted an invitation by MSC Cruises to come to Montréal and see the backstage where these shows are conceived and readied for launch.
During this trip, I not only had the chance to learn about this very unique company that is the Cirque du Soleil, and get acquainted with the modus operandi that lies at the base of its success, but also, and despite the cold December weather, to explore on foot some of the most interesting bits of Québec’s largest city.
A city of creativity
The Cirque du Soleil HQ is located in one of Montreal’s northern suburbs.
It is a rather special place, that combines the cold, modern functionality of a corporate headquarters with the vibe of a creative environment, the healthy discipline of a high performance sports training center and the buzz of an artisan workshop.
Because the Cirque du Soleil is all of these things at the same time.
To give you an idea of the orders of magnitude we are talking about, some 4,000 people work for the Cirque du Soleil globally, and of these around 1,500 are based in Montréal.
But, how does the Cirque find the rather exceptional artistic talent that is needed to staff all those shows?
Well, it sources it from, literally, everywhere.
It has what is, arguably, the largest professional database in this segment, with over 55,000 artists. So, the Cirque’s recruiters are quite sure to find whatever skill they need, whether it’s former gymnasts or whole families of acrobats (something not unusual in some parts of the World).
Whenever there is a new show in the making, the selected performers gather in Montréal and practice together for a few months at the Cirque’s facilities. We had a chance to observe some of them in action, training and it was hard to keep the attention at any one place, since there was so much going on at the same time at the large, factory-sized training facility.
The Cirque du Soleil at Sea
If its performances are usually an artistic tour-de-force, the Cirque du Soleil has taken things one step further by developing a new generation of shows specifically designed to fit in the constrained spaces of cruise ships.
The partnership with cruise operator MSC Cruises has produced already four of such shows, “Sonor” and “Viaggio” on MSC Meraviglia and “Varélia” and Syma” on the recently launched (it had its maiden voyage on 4th March) MSC Bellissima. Four additional shows are being prepared for the upcoming new ships MSC Grandiosa and MSC Virtuosa, that will be launched in late 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Syma is the story of a young sailor that is stranded on an island full of fantastic and mysterious creatures.
Varélia is about a princess with violet skin and its admirer-hero, who happens to be blind. Then there is a villain, that kidnaps the princess because he has an obsession for all things violet. The hero will embark on a quest to liberate her, with the help of some other friendly characters…
At the time of this visit, the Cirque and MSC were readying the launch of these two shows.
Thus, we were shown a preview under conditions of strict confidentiality and learned about the challenges of performing on a moving ship.
The shows themselves are of a smaller, shorter format than the ones on land.
There are several factor that need to be taken into account, one is the fact that the ship is not static. In the evening, when the performances take place, the ship is usually moving and, although we are talking about some of the largest ships in the World, some swell is inevitable.
Another factor has to do with space, as it is obviously at a premium onboard a ship. For this venture, MSC built dedicated theatres at the stern of the ships. These have a special, custom-made design at a cost of over $20M each.
Last but not least, the logistics are also constrained. If a show on land can typically employ some 50 performes and another 170 as support crew, the sea-going troupes are usually 15-16, with a similar number as support staff.
While they are at sea, the artists have to rely on themselves, this includes make up. Here they train them, so that they are able to apply their own make up before the shows as well.
Another highlight of the tour was a pre-view of different scenes of the two new shows designed for MSC Bellissima. These are now, more or less in the open, but not at the time of the visit. One of the things that truly amazed me is the effortless look of those practicing these amazing stunts. I am sure there is a lot of work behind them, but, the appearance of ease and naturality is simply awesome.
The show’s are expected to be visually stunning, this is one of the hallmarks of the Cirque.
One of the essential functions of the Montréal HQ is to act as a supply center for all the Cirque’s branches around the World, whether in Las Vegas, China or a cruise ship somewhere in the Mediterranean.
in addition to its administrative and training functions, a third and rather large section of the Cirque’s facilities is occupied by a super-sized workshop. Here all sort of costumes and atrezzo are designed and manufactured to match the demands of each of the shows.
Everything is done in-house and even the clothes and shoes are made to measure.
Technology plays a role in Cirque’s du Soleil shows, of course, but it is very subtle, a support rather than the main theme. The artists remain the protagonists at all times.
And this is also true behind the scenes. A large amount of processes and work is done by hand. It’s artisan work. But different technologies are also leveraged, for example a broad range of innovative materials are used for lightness and comfort, even if sometimes are made to look like another sort of material. It is a constant process of experimentation, that gets feedback from the performers all the time.
Also, 3D printing (below), for example, is finding its uses in this environment that requires a high degree of customization.
The result of all this…you will need to book a cruise on either MSC Meraviglia or Bellissima to find out!
BONUS: A walk through Montréal
It was a short trip, but there was also some time to visit Montréal’s downtown and its historial center, one of the oldest and in North America, and allegedly one of the most charming too…although it was rather cold and deserted at the time of my walk!
Montréal is built on an island on the St. Lawrence river and the old town, the Vieux-Port area, occupies its Eastern shore. The stone houses and 18 and 19th C. architecture gives to this district a rather harmonious, “old-world” vibe, although the historical area, properly speaking is quite small, at least for European standards.
One of the details I found interesting is that of these two statues below, located on the Places des Armes, the historical heart of the old city. They, apparently represent the British (him) and French (her) powers, the tension between the two cultural and political spheres that have shaped the history of Montréal and the rest of Québec.
Moving away from the Vieux Port and into the modern downtown, I found this other statue, perhaps with less political undertones, but undoubtedly very representative of the times we live in.
Where to stay in Montréal
The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth
900 René-Lévesque Blvd W
Montreal, QC H3B 4A5
The embodiment of a landmark hotel.
A big, granitic, building in the very center of the city. It is even possible to access the metro directly from its premises.
Nice views from the upper floors. Rooms with a contemporary, warm design and large bathroom.
One of the pluses of this hotel is the executive lounge on the top floor.
Here there is a cozy atmosphere and it is possible to enjoy either breakfast or a selection of tasty snacks, sushi, cold cuts and drinks during the day.
…and did I tell you that the views are also great?
Places to eat in Montréal
Tasty food and nice, joyful atmosphere
343 St Paul St E, Montreal, QC H2Y 1H3
Aside from the food, La Champagnerie has some other pluses:
Its location on one of the most picturesque streets of Montréal’s old town and the cozy atmosphere inside (the two go well together)
As a curiosity, it seems that one of the traditions of the place is that they show guests how to uncork a bottle of champagne with a sabre!
Upmarket Italian food
1504 Sherbrooke St W
Montreal, QC H3G 1L3
Le Balsam Inn
International food - young atmosphere
1237 Metcalfe St, Montreal, QC H3B 2V5