Not so long ago, suggesting someone should run off and join the circus constituted a pejorative one-liner.
How times have changed. Now, people associated with the highest of art - Robert Lepage is the most obvious example - are routinely working in the circus form. This is nothing short of revolutionary, given that a quarter of a century ago the circus was at best an anachronism, at worst a couple of hours of low-rent kitsch that parents were obliged to tolerate. And the recuperation, rehabilitation and reinvention of the circus has happened in large part due to innovations that were Quebec-born.
The province is now showcasing a broad range of international circus talent in the inaugural edition of Montreal's latest summer festival, Montréal complètement cirque (MCC). Created by the Montreal-based circus umbrella group TOHU, the festival runs to July 25 and features the work of over 100 circus performance artists from across North America and Europe.
One of MCC's organizers and an executive from Cirque du Soleil, Gaetan Morency, says the establishment of such a festival was inevitable, given Quebec's high profile in the international circus milieu.
"The Cirque du Soleil tours a great deal," he says. "This is a way of turning that around. We wanted to show other circus companies and the public just how diverse the circus acts have become. This is a good way to develop the art - through synergy."
Morency says that Quebec has become intricately connected to the international nouveau-cirque movement - a new breed of circus acts that have pushed the art in novel directions: "The absence of traditional circuses here has meant that people felt freer to innovate and experiment. There were no traditionalists - there was no one to tell anyone what to do or what not to do."
Jeannot Painchaud, founder and general manager of Cirque Éloize, points as well to Quebec's broad penchant for cultural innovation. He suggests that a turning point in Quebec's commitment to circus arts came in 1981, when the National Circus School opened in Montreal.
"With the work that the school did, that allowed many people to recognize the circus as an art," says Painchaud, who is himself a graduate. "The circus isn't really just about entertainment," he adds. "Circuses can be a way of revitalizing a community. The circus is halfway between sports and art, so if children are having trouble choosing, they don't have to.
"The circus is an easy way for kids to express themselves. If they learn to juggle a few balls, for example, that can be good for their confidence. It's easy and fun to put a routine together. … When I was a teenager, I lived in a small community. I wasn't into hockey. I wasn't into dance, either. The circus was something in between that I could enjoy working at."
And of course, Quebec's circuses have moved beyond the fusion of art and entertainment: They have also become big business.
Famously started by a group of street performers who managed to receive a small government grant in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has morphed into a world-famous franchise that reigns over Vegas, where it has seven shows. It has even inspired a Simpsons parody (in which Homer complains about the absence of animals at Cirque's circuses).
It is a bigger cultural export than Celine Dion, with 21 permanent and touring shows performing simultaneously, attracting 15 million spectators a year, and generating $800-million in sales (and approximately $100-million in tax revenue). All in all, a potent argument for the value and potential of government funding to the arts.
"Montreal has become a capital for the contemporary circus, or the nouveau cirque," says Painchaud. "This is a good time to show the public circuses from abroad, and to bring tourists to Montreal to see what our circuses are doing. Eighty per cent of the shows the Cirque Éloize does are touring outside of Canada. It makes sense to have some reciprocity."
Painchaud points out that international delegations are frequently sent to Quebec to see how the rise in popularity of circus arts has changed the local economy and culture. "People seem to arrive every couple of weeks from various governments, all of them curious about how things are done here," he says.
"In Buenos Aires, they are converting some abandoned factories into a circus space. They are doing this based on our model. It is a very good way of helping poor communities reinvent themselves."
Special to The Globe and Mail