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Will Cirque du Soleil rise again?
The empty Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, May 10, 2020. The coronavirus has pulverized the famed circus, forcing it to shut down dozens of shows and grounding its small army of circus artists. Nasuna Stuart-Ulin/The New York Times.

by Dan Bilefsky

MONTREAL (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Mongolian contortionist Uranbileg Angarag wowed spectators nightly at Cirque du Soleil shows on a cruise ship, contorting her body into a ball and balancing on a vertical stick held in her mouth.

For the past 50 days, however, the 26-year-old has been stuck in a cramped cabin off the Italian coast, doing a handstand and splits while conducting WhatsApp video calls and wondering when the storied circus will perform again.

“Luckily, I’m used to contorting my body into small spaces,” she said from the ship where she has been grounded since her show shut down in March. “I can’t wait to get back to Cirque, but we have no idea when the world will be ready to go see live shows again.”

From Broadway to sporting arenas, the pandemic has paralyzed the world of live entertainment, including Cirque du Soleil, the famed Quebec circus behemoth.

In the space of weeks, it was forced to shutter 44 shows in dozens of cities, from Las Vegas to Hangzhou, China, and has temporarily laid off nearly 5,000 employees — 95% of its workforce — and stopped payments to dozens of show creators.

Even before the pandemic, the company was struggling with bloat and creative fatigue after a consortium led by an U.S. private equity firm acquired it in 2015 and accelerated a debt-fueled global expansion spree.

Now, with no certainty on the timing of a coronavirus vaccine or when cities will allow large public gatherings again, some are asking whether Cirque can survive.

“No one had ever modeled what we would do if we lost 100% of our revenue,” said Mitch Garber, Cirque’s chairman, comparing the pandemic to the Great Depression for the live entertainment industry. “We can’t function without fans.”

It is hard to overstate the hold that Cirque du Soleil has on the Canadian and global imagination.

The Montreal-based circus originated in the 1980s when a group of Quebec performers, stilt-walkers and fire-breathers, including the Cirque’s accordion-playing co-founder Guy Laliberté, delighted local residents on the shores of the St. Lawrence river.

Born in 1984, its animal-free mix of awe-inspiring acrobatics, dance, lavish costumes, live music, high-technology stagecraft and narrative whimsy created a new vision of what a circus could be.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, its seven shows in Las Vegas alone — including the critically acclaimed “Ka,” featuring battle scenes 70 feet in the air, and the water-themed extravaganza “O” — drew some 10,000 people nightly. The Cirque had more than $1 billion in revenues last year — although now it also has nearly $1 billion in debt.

Today, the circus’s normally frenetic costume-making atelier in Montreal, which occupies the length of a city block and produces 18,000 painstakingly tailored costume parts each year, sits eerily empty. Half-sewn wigs and unfinished masks are scattered on workstations, along with half-drunk cups of tea.

Gabriel Dubé-Dupuis, the creative director of two recent Cirque shows — “Cosmos” and “Exentricks” — has worked 23 years for the circus, where his father was a famous clown. He said he was owed tens of thousands of dollars.

“This is a business where circus artists risk their necks each night, and if people aren’t paid, it creates a crisis of confidence,” he said.

On March 18, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Cirque’s credit rating to near junk status, citing a “high risk” that it would default on its debt. Québecor, a Quebec telecommunications giant, recently expressed interest in buying Cirque but was coolly received.

Laliberté, Cirque’s poker-loving billionaire co-founder, also floated the possibility that he would get into a “wrestling match” to rescue Cirque. But people familiar with talks over Cirque’s future said he had sold his shares in the company and was unlikely to buy it back.

Daniel Lamarre, Cirque’s chief executive, said he initially thought the health crisis would be contained to China, where Cirque was forced in late January to close its recently opened show “The Land of Fantasy” in Hangzhou, a keystone of its vaunted China expansion.

But he recalled that, at the beginning of March, just minutes after a crisis meeting in Montreal, one city after another across the world began to shut down. As borders closed, Cirque had to race to load big-top equipment onto giant cargo planes and repatriate 2,000 employees.

“Our world changed overnight,” he said. “When I got the call on March 14 that we would have to close all seven shows in Las Vegas, the reality sunk in.”

Lamarre said Cirque was considering all options, including seeking bankruptcy protection. A recent injection of $50 million from its shareholders had bought some time.

He said he was optimistic the company would bounce back, buoyed by its glittering brand and a public zeal for live entertainment after months of confinement. Cirque was already in talks with its Korean and Chinese partners about reopening shows.

Meanwhile, he has new reading matter: studies about coronavirus vaccines.

“We’re probably talking about a year from now before going back to normal,” he said.

But for all his bullishness, some critics say that Cirque’s problems predate the pandemic and that its groundbreaking artistry has given way to facile storylines and kitsch spectacle, like acrobats in frog costumes.

In 2015, Laliberté, who became Canada’s first tourist to space in 2009, sold his majority stake to investors led by TPG Capital, the U.S. private equity firm, for $1.5 billion. Cirque’s other shareholders are Chinese investment company Fosun and a Quebec pension fund.

The company has since spent $550 million on acquisitions, creating new shows and refreshing existing productions.

But while triumphs like the revival of the Cirque classic “Alegria” have enchanted, there have also been big stumbles, including an ill-fated foray into New York.

Its live-action Las Vegas show “R.U.N,” which cost $60 million to develop, closed in March after just five months, weighed down by banal stunts and fight scenes.

“Over the last few years, there has been a shift toward profits at the expense of creativity,” said Dubé-Dupuis, the Cirque veteran.

Now retrenchment seems inevitable.

“We don’t know how Cirque can make money or not lose too much money if 1 of every 4 seats in a theater is empty,” Garber said.

The pandemic has also challenged Cirque’s small army of superhuman circus artists.

“There aren’t a lot of LinkedIn listings for unemployed contortionists,” Garber observed.

A group of Cirque artists recently produced a poignant video about life under confinement, showing a dancer screaming at bad news blasting from his television and a mime desperately trying to escape from home.

Angarag, 26, the contortionist, had been performing in two Cirque du Soleil shows on the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship for four months before the shutting of borders confined her to a cabin. She passes the time reading self-help books, doing yoga and training up to three hours a day.

Confinement presents other hurdles.

Olivier Sylvestre, 29, spent a decade mastering the “German wheel,” two conjoined giant hoops in which he rolls with balletic athleticism. But his wheel, too cumbersome to use in his apartment, has been in his closet for months.

“We’re desperate to perform again,” he said. “Cirque makes people dream, and people need that more than ever.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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