As Cirque du Soleil celebrates the 30th anniversary of Alegría at the Royal Albert Hall, Cirque touring show division president Duncan Fisher speaks to Access about the challenges of managing a worldwide slate of shows, along with a touring village with employees from 25 countries speaking 14 languages.
Cirque du Soleil has bounced back strong since the pandemic when the Montreal-based entertainment company had to lay off 95% of its workforce and file for bankruptcy protection in Canada.
“When Covid happened I had 1,500 people in my division that I had to lay off. It was the worst day of my life,” says Fisher.
“We didn’t know if we were going to continue, but just because of the strength of the brand we had investors lining up to bring us back after Covid.
“Now we have amazing new owners who support everything that we do. They gave us the backing to relaunch all the shows in 2021 and 2022, both in Las Vegas and touring around the world.
“It was such an incredible learning experience to go through that crisis and then to essentially become a startup company trying to relaunch everything,” adds Fisher. “The advantage we have is this incredible global brand to back us. It was really tough but it was the best project that I’ve ever been involved with. Every time we launched a new show it was like reopening again, with tears of joy, it was fantastic.”
Fisher was an acrobat and performer in the circus in his younger years before moving into show management and founding his own production company. He eventually moved to Montreal and joined Cirque, where he now manages the operations of its worldwide portfolio of touring shows, having replaced Mike Newquist last year.
On the challenges of managing the worldwide slate of shows, Fisher says, “We’re struggling a bit with the logistics of things – the supply chain and shipping is not back to where it was. Labour shortages still exist to a certain extent. Those are the biggest things from an operational perspective.
“For instance, last year we moved one of our arena shows, Crystal, from Europe to New Zealand. Halfway on its journey to New Zealand we got told it wasn’t travelling there anymore. We ended up having to organise transshipments to get it to the place. The team is incredible and still managed to get the show on time, but the shipping lines are not back to where they were which makes it difficult from an international transit point of view.”
Cirque is very much back to full business now with the revival of Alegría, one of the company’s most iconic shows. It has also launched a new show, Echo, which is currently touring in North America.
“We do a good job of communicating with our tours. We move people from one show to another when they need help or they’re transferring from one city to another, we’re always shuffling people around.
“Alegría is not one show by itself, it’s part of a portfolio of nine shows that all work together to make sure that everybody can do the best show every night wherever they are in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s your show or somebody else’s show, that’s how we’re all in it together.”
From 1994 until the end of its 19-year world tour in 2013, Alegría played to more than 14 million spectators around the world, performing in 255 cities across 40 countries globally. In its original incarnation, Alegria performed five successful engagements in London from 1998, including four residencies at the Royal Albert Hall, making London the city the show has visited the most in the world.
In 2019, Alegría (now known as Alegría: In a New Light) was revived to ensure that all its components – stage direction, music, acrobatics, sets, costumes, lighting and makeup designs – would be suited to today’s audience using modern technology. The show was re-energised by an international cast of 62 acrobats, clowns, musicians, and singers.
“Alegría is so important to Cirque du Soleil on the global map. Typically our shows run from 10-15 years because once we’ve gone around the world a couple of times that’s it.”
As part of a renewed agreement, Cirque du Soleil touring shows will be presented in the winter yearly at the Royal Albert Hall through 2028. The company started its annual residency at the Hall in 1996.
Cirque du Soleil is a brand steeped in history, but how else does the company ensure existing and new audiences are engaged each year?
“London is a bit different because we’re essentially there every year, so when we finish one show we’re already launching the next one,” says Fisher. “A lot of cities aren’t big enough for this. We have that short window before we arrive when we do a sales campaign. But then we might have a year and a half before we launch our next sales campaign, so that’s where we have to work on staying relevant in that city where we try to build our fanbase.
“We have a digital platform called Cirque Club that provides people with content all the time, as well as on social media and YouTube. We’re always trying to reach out to people to keep that brand relevant.
“As far as new products and innovation to keep ourselves relevant as a creative brand, our new show Echo has a more contemporary feel to it. It’s still Cirque, it’s still got acrobatics, but the set design and some of the movements have got a more contemporary feel. We’re moving with the times as far as the performance goes.”
Cirque is also branching out into other genres of touring. It recently launched a Christmas show in North America, ‘Twas the Night Before.., as well as looking at doing other forms of live entertainment in the theatre space.
Looking forward to Alegría, Fisher says, “A discussion that we had during Covid was that we don’t have any flying trapeze acts anywhere in our portfolio of travelling touring shows – that’s something I always wanted to introduce. When we had the break for Covid it allowed us to do it. Now we have the most incredible double flying trapeze act which is so energetic and full of life.”
Fishers says there will be several other new acts at the show which Cirque has developed in house, including ‘acro poles’ – a large troop of a dozen people using flexible poles to bounce around the stage; a hand-to-hand balance act; and the world champion fire knife spinner.
“I couldn’t be more excited about bringing the show to London. The premiere at the Albert Hall is always my favourite day of the year because I get to have my mum come and see what I do.
“Hopefully we don’t light up the Albert Hall, but we will light it up in a good way.”
Alegría: In a New Light will take place at the Royal Albert Hall until 3 March 2024