MONTREAL/HANGZHOU, China — As the coronavirus pandemic ripped around the globe, Cirque du Soleil, a circus troupe formed by Quebec street performers that become a global powerhouse, saw most of its operations grind to a halt in barely 48 hours.
The company, which gained international renown for extravagant shows featuring acrobats, jugglers, firebreathers and musicians, was forced to shut down productions in China, Italy and the United States, among other countries. This month, it filed for bankruptcy protection and is close to reaching a restructuring deal..
“I never thought in my life that I would wake up one day and basically in 48 hours we end up with no shows, no revenues,” CEO Daniel Lamarre told Reuters.
“It was very tough because from hour to hour I was learning that one country was shut down and then the other country was shut down.”
Lamarre, who joined Cirque in 2001 as an executive scouting for new opportunities for its high-flying acts, was left scrambling to help performers get home from closed productions abroad and find warehouses to store its 50 trucks of equipment per show.
Before the pandemic, the entertainment company had 44 performances running worldwide and generated about $1 billion in annual revenues from shows that featured underwater performances and others based on Michael Jackson, Lionel Messi and The Beatles.
Show cancellations led the company to permanently or temporarily lay off 95% of workers.
“My whole Facebook feed was just sadness,” said Chris Gatti, a former high-bar performer and consultant for the company.
Privately held Cirque declined to divulge ticket sales but court documents show the company had nearly $1.5 billion in liabilities.
He Guowei, a performer at the company’s Land of Fantasy show in China, practiced his human body juggling specialty at home after the show shuttered in January due to the pandemic.
“We feel frustrated when we know the show is suspended,” he recalled while training in Hangzhou. “And we also have fears because we have no idea how bad the epidemic is.”
The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest threat to face Cirque du Soleil, which was created in the early 1980s as “The Stiltwalkers of Baie-Saint-Paul” in Quebec, before becoming a global entertainment company thanks to sold out Las Vegas shows, touring productions and acquisitions.
The shows, which have no animals or star performers, helped some key troupe members become wealthy. Guy Laliberté, a performer and co-founder of the company, is on Forbes list of Canadian billionaires.
While Cirque sees a potential reopening in the fall for its resident productions in Las Vegas and Orlando, Lamarre only expects the company to get back to where it was in terms of the number of shows, revenues and profits in 2023.
“We think that it will take a year to 18 months before we’re back to normality which means having a vaccine or a cure that makes people feel safe in a theater. And then from there we think that within a couple of years we’ll be able to bring back the company where it was.”
The Cirque is seeing some green shoots of recovery with the reopening of the Chinese production last month, and another show opening in early July in Mexico.
In Hangzhou, China, He Guowei said he thinks attendance is higher than before the pandemic, except the audience now wears masks. Cirque du Soleil did not immediately respond to questions about ticket sales.
“When we stepped on the stage again, we felt almost the same (as) when we made our debut in last August,” he said. “The effort we made during this time was not in vain.”