Cirque du Soleil and Its Roots in Illegitimate Circus




illegitimate, circus, hybridity

How to Cite

Lavers, K. (2014). Cirque du Soleil and Its Roots in Illegitimate Circus. M/C Journal, 17(5).
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-25


Cirque du Soleil, the largest live entertainment company in the world, has eight standing shows in Las Vegas alone, KÀ, Love, Mystère, Zumanity, Believe, Michael Jackson ONE, Zarkana and O. Close to 150 million spectators have seen Cirque du Soleil shows since the company’s beginnings in 1984 and it is estimated that over 15 million spectators will see a Cirque du Soleil show in 2014 (Cirque du Soleil). The Cirque du Soleil concept of circus as a form of theatre, with simple, often archetypal, narrative arcs conveyed without words, virtuoso physicality with the circus artists presented as characters in a fictional world, cutting-edge lighting and visuals, extraordinary innovative staging, and the uptake of new technology for special effects can all be linked back to an early form of circus which is sometimes termed illegitimate circus.

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, in the age of Romanticism, only two theatres in London, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, plus the summer theatre in the Haymarket, had royal patents allowing them to produce plays or text-based productions, and these were considered legitimate theatres. (These theatres retained this monopoly until the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843; Saxon 301.) Other circuses and theatres such as Astley’s Amphitheatre, which were precluded from performing text-based works by the terms of their licenses, have been termed illegitimate (Moody 1).

Perversely, the effect of licensing venues in this way, instead of having the desired effect of enshrining some particular forms of expression and “casting all others beyond the cultural pale,” served instead to help to cultivate a different kind of theatrical landscape, “a theatrical terrain with a new, rich and varied dramatic ecology” (Reed 255).  A fundamental change to the theatrical culture of London took place, and pivotal to “that transformation was the emergence of an illegitimate theatrical culture” (Moody 1) with circus at its heart. An innovative and different form of performance, a theatre of the body, featuring spectacle and athleticism emerged, with “a sensuous, spectacular aesthetic largely wordless except for the lyrics of songs” (Bratton 117).

This writing sets out to explore some of the strong parallels between the aesthetic that emerged in this early illegitimate circus and the aesthetic of the Montreal-based, multi-billion dollar entertainment empire of Cirque du Soleil. Although it is not fighting against legal restrictions and can in no way be considered illegitimate, the circus of Cirque du Soleil can be seen to be the descendant of the early circus entrepreneurs and their illegitimate aesthetic which arose out of the desire to find ways to continue to attract audiences to their shows in spite of the restrictions of the licenses granted to them.


Circus has served as an inspiration for many innovatory theatre productions including Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers  (1972) as well as the earlier experiments of Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Mayakovsky and other Soviet directors of the 1920’s (Saxon 299). A. H. Saxon points out, however, that the relationship between circus and theatre is a long-standing one that begins in the late 18th century and the early 19th century, when circus itself was theatre (Saxon 299).

Modern circus was founded in London in 1768 by an ex-cavalryman and his wife, Philip and Patty Astley, and consisted of spectacular stunt horse riding taking place in a ring, with acts from traditional fairs such as juggling, acrobatics, clowning and wire-walking inserted to cover the changeovers between riding acts. From the very first shows entry was by paid ticket only and the early history of circus was driven by innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs such as Philip Astley, who indeed built so many new amphitheatres for his productions that he became known as Amphi-Philip (Jando). After years of legal tussles with the authorities concerning the legal status of this new entertainment, a limited license was finally granted in 1783 for Astley’s Amphitheatre. This license precluded the performing of plays, anything text-based, or anything which had a script that resembled a play. Instead the annual license granted allowed only for “public dancing and music” and “other public entertainments of like kind” (St. Leon 9).

Corporeal Dramaturgy and Text

In the face of the ban on scripted text, illegitimate circus turned to the human body and privileged it as a means of dramatic expression. A resultant dramaturgy focusing on the expressive capabilities of the performers’ bodies emerged. “The primacy of rhetoric and the spoken word in legitimate drama gave way […] to a corporeal dramaturgy which privileged the galvanic, affective capacity of the human body as a vehicle of dramatic expression” (Moody 83). Moody proposes that the “iconography of illegitimacy participated in a broader cultural and scientific transformation in which the human body began to be understood as an eloquent compendium of visible signs” (83). Even though the company has the use of text and dramatic dialogue freely available to it, Cirque du Soleil, shares this investment in the bodies of the performers and their “galvanic, affective capacity” (83) to communicate with the audience directly without the use of a scripted text, and this remains a constant between the two forms of circus. Robert Lepage, the director of two Cirque du Soleil shows, (2004) and more recently Totem (2010), speaking about in 2004, said, “We wanted it to be an epic story told not with the use of words, but with the universal language of body movement” (Lepage cited in Fink).

In accordance with David Graver’s system of classifying performers’ bodies, Cirque du Soleil’s productions most usually  present performers’ ‘character bodies’ in which  the performers are understood by spectators to be playing fictional roles or characters (Hurley n/p) and this was also the case with illegitimate circus which right from its very beginnings presented its performers within narratives in which the performers are understood to be playing characters. In Cirque du Soleil’s shows, as with illegitimate circus, this presentation of the performers’ character bodies is interspersed with acts “that emphasize the extraordinary training and physical skill of the performers, that is which draw attention to the ‘performer body’ but always within the context of an overall narrative” (Fricker n.p.).

Insertion of Vital Text

After audience feedback, text was eventually added into KÀ (2004) in the form of a pre-recorded prologue inserted to enable people to follow the narrative arc, and in the show Wintuk (2007) there are tales that are sung by Jim Comcoran (Leroux 126).

Interestingly early illegitimate circus creators, in their efforts to circumvent the ban on using dramatic dialogue, often inserted text into their performances in similar ways to the methods Cirque du Soleil chose for KÀ and Wintuk. Illegitimate circus included dramatic recitatives accompanied by music to facilitate the following of the storyline (Moody 28) in the same way that Cirque du Soleil inserted a pre-recorded prologue to KÀ to enable audience members to understand the narrative. Performers in illegitimate circus often conveyed essential information to the audience as lyrics of songs (Bratton 117) in the same way that Jim Comcoran does in Wintuk.

Dramaturgical Structures

Astley from his very first circus show in 1768 began to set his equestrian stunts within a narrative. Billy Button’s Ride to Brentford (1768), showed a tailor, a novice rider, mounting backwards, losing his belongings and being thrown off the horse when it bucks. The act ends with the tailor being chased around the ring by his horse (Schlicke 161). Early circus innovators, searching for dramaturgy for their shows drew on contemporary warfare, creating vivid physical enactments of contemporary battles. They also created a new dramatic form known as Hippodramas (literally ‘horse dramas’ from hippos the Attic Greek for Horse), a hybridization of melodrama and circus featuring the trick riding skills of the early circus pioneers. The narrative arcs chosen were often archetypal or sourced from well-known contemporary books or poems. As Moody writes, at the heart of many of these shows “lay an archetypal narrative of the villainous usurper finally defeated” (Moody 30).

One of the first hippodramas, The Blood Red Knight, opened at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1810.

Presented in dumbshow, and interspersed with grand chivalric processions, the show featured Alphonso’s rescue of his wife Isabella from her imprisonment and forced marriage to the evil knight Sir Rowland and concluded with the spectacular, fiery destruction of the castle and Sir Rowland’s death. (Moody 69)

Another later hippodrama, The Spectre Monarch and his Phantom Steed, or the Genii Horseman of the Air (1830) was set in China where the rightful prince was ousted by a Tartar usurper who entered into a pact with the Spectre Monarch and received,

a magic ring, by aid of which his unlawful desires were instantly gratified. Virtue, predictably won out in the end, and the discomforted villain, in a final settling of accounts with his dread master was borne off through the air in a car of fire pursued by Daemon Horsemen above THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA. (Saxon 303)

Karen Fricker writes of early Cirque du Soleil shows that “while plot is doubtless too strong a word, each of Cirque’s recent shows has a distinct concept or theme, that is urbanity for Saltimbanco; nomadism in Varekai (2002) and humanity’s clownish spirit for Corteo (2005), and tend to follow the same very basic storyline, which is not narrated in words but suggested by the staging that connects the individual acts” (Fricker n/p). Leroux describes the early Cirque du Soleil shows as following a “proverbial and well-worn ‘collective transformation trope’” (Leroux 122) whilst Peta Tait points out that the narrative arc of Cirque du Soleil “ might be summarized as an innocent protagonist, often female, helped by an older identity, seemingly male, to face a challenging journey or search for identity; more generally, old versus young” (Tait 128).

However Leroux discerns an increasing interest in narrative devices such as action and plot in Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas productions (Leroux 122). Fricker points out that “with KÀ, what Cirque sought – and indeed found in Lepage’s staging – was to push this storytelling tendency further into full-fledged plot and character” (Fricker n/p). Telling a story without words, apart from the inserted prologue, means that the narrative arc of is, however, very simple.  

A young prince and princess, twins in a mythical Far Eastern kingdom, are separated when a ceremonial occasion is interrupted by an attack by a tribe of enemy warriors. A variety of adventures follow, most involving perilous escapes from bad guys with flaming arrows and fierce-looking body tattoos. After many trials, a happy reunion arrives. (Isherwood)

This increasing emphasis on developing a plot and a narrative arc positions Cirque as moving closer in dramaturgical aesthetic to illegitimate circus.

Visual Technologies

To increase the visual excitement of its shows and compensate for the absence of spoken dialogue, illegitimate circus in the late 18th and early 19th century drew on contemporaneous and emerging visual technologies. Some of the new visual technologies that Astley’s used have been termed pre-cinematic, including the panorama (or diorama as it is sometimes called) and “the phantasmagoria and other visual machines… [which] expanded the means through which an audience could be addressed” (O’Quinn, Governance 312). The panorama or diorama ran in the same way that a film runs in an analogue camera, rolling between vertical rollers on either side of the stage. In Astley’s production The Siege and Storming of Seringapatam (1800) he used another effect almost equivalent to a modern day camera zoom-in by showing scenic back drops which, as they moved through time, progressively moved geographically closer to the battle. This meant that “the increasing enlargement of scale-each successive scene has a smaller geographic space-has a telescopic event. Although the size of the performance space remains constant, the spatial parameters of the spectacle become increasingly magnified” (O’Quinn, Governance 345).

In , Robert Lepage experiments with “cinematographic stage storytelling on a very grand scale” (Fricker n.p.). A press release (2005) from Cirque du Soleil describes the show “as a cinematic journey of aerial adventure” (Cirque du Soleil). Cirque du Soleil worked with ground-breaking visual technologies in KÀ, developing an interactive projected set. This involves the performers controlling what happens to the projected environment in real time, with the projected scenery responding to their movements. The performers’ movements are tracked by an infra-red sensitive camera above the stage, and by computer software written by Interactive Production Designer Olger Förterer. “In essence, what we have is an intelligent set,” says Förterer. “And everything the audience sees is created by the computer” (Cirque du Soleil).

Contemporary Technology

Cutting edge technologies, many of which came directly from contemporaneous warfare, were introduced into the illegitimate circus performance space by Astley and his competitors. These included explosions using redfire, a new military explosive that combined “strontia, shellac and chlorate of potash, [which] produced […] spectacular flame effects” (Moody 28). Redfire was used for ‘blow-ups,’ the spectacular explosions often occurring at the end of the performance when the villain’s castle or hideout was destroyed.

Cirque du Soleil is also drawing on contemporary military technology for performance projects. Sparked: A Live interaction between Humans and Quadcopters (2014) is a recent short film released by Cirque du Soleil, which features the theatrical use of drones. The new collaboration between Cirque du Soleil, ETH Zurich and Verity Studios uses 10 quadcopters disguised as animated lampshades which take to the air, “carrying out the kinds of complex synchronized dance manoeuvres we usually see from the circus' famed acrobats” (Huffington Post). This shows, as with early illegitimate circus, the quick theatrical uptake of contemporary technology originally developed for use in warfare.

Innovative Staging

Arrighi writes that the performance space that Astley developed was a “completely new theatrical configuration that had not been seen in Western culture before… [and] included a circular ring (primarily for equestrian performance) and a raised theatre stage (for pantomime and burletta)” (177) joined together by ramps that were large enough and strong enough to allow horses to be ridden over them during performances. The stage at Astley’s Amphitheatre was said to be the largest in Europe measuring over 130 feet across. A proscenium arch was installed in 1818 which could be adjusted in full view of the audience with the stage opening changing anywhere in size from forty to sixty feet (Saxon 300). The staging evolved so that it had the capacity to be multi-level, involving “immense [moveable] platforms or floors, rising above each other, and extending the whole width of the stage” (Meisel 214). The ability to transform the stage by the use of draped and masked platforms which could be moved mechanically, proved central to the creation of the “new hybrid genre of swashbuckling melodramas on horseback, or ‘hippodramas’” (Kwint, Leisure 46). Foot soldiers and mounted cavalry would fight their way across the elaborate sets and the production would culminate with a big finale that usually featured a burning castle (Kwint, Legitimization 95). 

Cirque du Soleil’s investment in high-tech staging can be clearly seen in . Mark Swed writes that is, “the most lavish production in the history of Western theatre. It is surely the most technologically advanced” (Swed). With a production budget of $165 million (Swed), theatre designer Michael Fisher has replaced the conventional stage floor with two huge moveable performance platforms and five smaller platforms that appear to float above a gigantic pit descending 51 feet below floor level. One of the larger platforms is a tatami floor that moves backwards and forwards, the other platform is described by the New York Times as being the most thrilling performer in the show.

The most consistently thrilling performer, perhaps appropriately, isn't even human: It's the giant slab of machinery that serves as one of the two stages designed by Mark Fisher. Here Mr. Lepage's ability to use a single emblem or image for a variety of dramatic purposes is magnified to epic proportions. Rising and falling with amazing speed and ease, spinning and tilting to a full vertical position, this huge, hydraulically powered game board is a sandy beach in one segment, a sheer cliff wall in another and a battleground, viewed from above, for the evening's exuberantly cinematic climax. (Isherwood)

In the climax a vertical battle is fought by aerialists fighting up and down the surface of the sand stone cliff with defeated fighters portrayed as tumbling down the surface of the cliff into the depths of the pit below.

Cirque du Soleil’s production entitled O, which phonetically is the French word eau meaning water, is a collaboration with director Franco Dragone that has been running at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel since 1998. O has grossed over a billion dollars since it opened in 1998 (Sylt and Reid). It is an aquatic circus or an aquadrama. In 1804, Charles Dibdin, one of Astley’s rivals, taking advantage of the nearby New River, “added to the accoutrements of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre a tank three feet deep, ninety feet long and as wide as twenty-four feet which could be filled with water from the New River” (Hays and Nickolopoulou 171) Sadler’s Wells presented aquadramas depicting many reconstructions of famous naval battles. One of the first of these was The Siege of Gibraltar (1804) that used “117 ships designed by the Woolwich Dockyard shipwrights and capable of firing their guns” (Hays and Nickolopoulou 5). To represent the drowning Spanish sailors saved by the British, “Dibdin used children, ‘who were seen swimming and affecting to struggle with the waves’”(5).

O (1998) is the first Cirque production to be performed in a proscenium arch theatre, with the pool installed behind the proscenium arch. “To light the water in the pool, a majority of the front lighting comes from a subterranean light tunnel (at the same level as the pool) which has eleven 4" thick Plexiglas windows that open along the downstage perimeter of the pool” (Lampert-Greaux). Accompanied by a live orchestra, performers dive into the 53 x 90 foot pool from on high, they swim underwater lit by lights installed in the subterranean light tunnel and they also perform on perforated platforms that rise up out of the water and turn the pool into a solid stage floor.

In many respects, Cirque du Soleil can be seen to be the inheritors of the spectacular illegitimate circus of the 18th and 19th Century. The inheritance can be seen in Cirque du Soleil’s entrepreneurial daring, the corporeal dramaturgy privileging the affective power of the body over the use of words, in the performers presented primarily as character bodies, and in the delivering of essential text either as a prologue or as lyrics to songs. It can also be seen in Cirque du Soleil’s innovative staging design, the uptake of military based technology and the experimentation with cutting edge visual effects.

Although re-invigorating the tradition and creating spectacular shows that in many respects are entirely of the moment, Cirque du Soleil’s aesthetic roots can be clearly seen to draw deeply on the inheritance of illegitimate circus.


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Author Biography

Katie Lavers, Edith Cowan University

Katie Lavers is a multimedia circus director and producer and has recently submitted her PhD on Bodies in Circus through the Western Australian Academy of Performing at Edith Cowan University.