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Cirque city

Home to a fabled company, Montreal seeks to become the Hollywood of circus arts -- a form that's risen from street act to performance spectacle.

September 21, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Montreal — If you amuse yourself by tracing the Latin roots of words, you'll recognize how apt the word "circus" is to describe that form of entertainment. "Circus" means "circle" -- and describes the ring of townsfolk that would inevitably gather around any street performer who chose to juggle, swallow fire or leap through space without a net.

The French word for circus is "cirque" -- but the word seems to have taken on a meaning all its own since Montreal's Cirque du Soleil entered the scene in 1984. Cirque du Soleil has evolved from a traveling show created by French Canadian street performers into a global entertainment conglomerate. At first, the Cirque du Soleil style was called "cirque nouveau," or "new circus" -- but now all it takes is the word "cirque" to imply the type of glossy, animal-free gymnastic spectacle Cirque du Soleil presents.

Because Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil as well as the prestigious National Circus School, founded in 1981, it's a place where the circus is always in town, what one observer envisions as "a sort of Silicon Valley of the circus arts."

At 19, Cirque du Soleil's "cirque nouveau" style is old enough to vote, and the company has the enviable challenge of being a fat cat trying to maintain the quirky creativity that comes from staying lean and hungry. The same challenge faces Montreal's defiantly individualistic population of circus folk as they move into an even newer wave of circus activity called "cirque contemporain," or contemporary circus.

Advocates of cirque contemporain call it a more intimate, more human form of circus than Cirque. Some of the newer, smaller companies are headed by veterans of Cirque du Soleil or the National Circus School, hoping to preserve the "street" quality that may be lost in the Cirque "machine."

A cosmopolitan city of 1.8 million, Montreal doesn't have the masses of tourists needed to support a permanent Cirque show, but that should not interfere with its goal of becoming identified as a producer of circus arts the way Los Angeles is identified with the movies, says Helen Fotopolous, the city's chief of culture.

Fotopolous says that this international city is already an arts center with its annual jazz festival and the Just for Laughs comedy festival and is willing to invest government dollars to see to it that the city becomes a circus center as well. "Not all our creative spirits can be commercial," she says. "We want to be known as a city of culture and knowledge, and because we invest so much in all of these things, we want more bang for our buck."


Another word for your circus vocabulary: Tohu-bohu, a French expression that comes from Hebrew, means something akin to the cosmic chaos that must have ensued before the Big Bang.

And the first part of the word, TOHU, has been borrowed as the name of a massive new public-private development that should have a Big Bang effect on a depressed neighborhood of Montreal that project leaders plan to turn into a "circus city."

The Saint-Michel area, a multicultural stewpot situated between a highway and the second-largest urban landfill in North America, is already home to Cirque du Soleil's expansive international headquarters, a magic shop of more than 100,000 square feet including a training room whose ceiling rises more than 75 feet and another training area containing a pit filled with 25,000 plastic foam cubes in lieu of a safety net.

The company's latest touring show, "Varekai," is playing at Staples Center, and its latest permanent show, the R-rated "Zumanity," opened Saturday in Las Vegas, joining "Mystere" and the water show "O." And a new untitled show -- with a budget even higher than the $100 million spent on "O" -- is being developed for the MGM Grand.

The TOHU project -- a joint venture of Montreal's National Circus School, Cirque du Soleil and En Piste, a national network of circus professionals founded by the National Circus School -- puts forth a grand mission statement: "To establish in one location one of the largest concentrations of circus activities in the world."

With substantial government support from both the city and the province of Quebec, the new "Circus City" development will spend about $45 million -- in addition to the money already invested in building Cirque du Soleil's $60-million headquarters -- to add a new home for the National Circus School, artists' residences, a multidisciplinary performance hall called Le Chapiteau des Arts and a public park for outdoor performances and strolling artists.

Paulo Teixiera, a co-owner of the Portuguese grill Cantinho in Saint-Michel, says a new "circus city" can only improve business in the area -- even if the clientele is "a bunch of clowns."

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