(photo above: shoes atelier at the Cirque du Soleil HQ)
The Cirque HQ is a unique laboratory of creation worldwide where the best creators on the planet meet to collaborate in creative projects. It is only natural that in order to service the army of performers the shows require, the Cirque du Soleil house its own shoe, costume and wig factories. Around 400 artisans are dedicated to working in the various ateliers and I had the privilege of visiting each of these ateliers. To say that I was amazed at the craftsmanship of the workers is an understatement. These people are the artists we never see and without whom the magic would never happen. They work as hard as any athlete, except theirs is the uncommon sport of creation and they are true acrobats in molding reality into dream. In fact, when I walked into the costumes department I found a full team up on their feet stretching their arms before getting back to a hard day’s work.
Around 400 artisans work in the ateliers in the making of 20 000 props for the shows. This people’s job is to make everything seem like magic. Yet “seem” is key here, since every piece of magic is thought of to the T. I asked my tour guide what comes first, the idea, the design, what? She started explaining the creative process, looking for the right words, her eyes up into her head, until finally she concluded: “they all work together.”
Think of the costume designer, for instance, who sketches a vive according to some direction from the show creators, then the technician that has to make it happen must work hand in hand with the head coach because in flying from one trapeze to the other certain materials may not be appropriate.
Then comes the building process at the ateliers. Before beginning to sew, artisans take 30 minutes to gather about 100 measurements. Nearly 150km of fabric are used per year in the construction of costumes and 80% of these are died and treated in situ. Cirque shows are like master paintings, they remain oblivious to the passage of time and so it is necessary for the troop to provide its own raw materials. Fabric is dyed at the HQ’s ateliers following color recipes that are conceived and noted specifically for every show. Color dyes can be re-cooked at anytime in the future in a mad scientists’ lab with test tubes and pots so big they need to be stirred a pale. Fabric is also printed in situ –and often by hand!- in a landing strip of a screen printing pad.
Then there’s hair, an atelier on its own. The wig makers that work at the cirque are anything but ordinary. They are masters of one of the most impossible and intricate techniques: “ventilation,” explained very literally true to its process as “hair by hair.” The most complex wig can take up to 4 weeks to be built (including double shifts).
(Photo above: Jonathan Guy Lewis and Lucie Pépin, wig makers)
Surely performers need footwear to complete their look and this is where the shoe makers, or rather crafts men, come in. They make approximately 3000 shoes per year. Some are bought pieces they refurbish while some others are made from scratch.
(Photo above: Abdella Zaamoum, shoe craftsman)
To support is fabulous madness the Cirque du Soleil also counts with a center for research (CRIP). Its challenge is to continue offering creators freedom to imagine the craziest dreams and realize them. CRIP supports the creation ambitions of the company, keeps up to date with latest materials and products and works with specialists in design, textiles, dyes, and anything else the Cirque might need.
The original dream from the creators of the Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix and their accomplices was the crazy dream of “creating a cirque quebecois that would travel around the globe.” I dare say they have exceeded their expectations. Over 100 million spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since its beginning in 1984.
“We still dream of enriching the lives of those who cross our path through our deeds and our creativity. Our goal is to put the inspiration and energy behind our shows in the service of pursuing our dream of improving the quality of life of human beings all across the planet.” Cirque du Soleil