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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Cirque Du Soleil, ‘Born Of Quebec Culture,’ Being Sold To Foreign Investors

Acrobats throw confetti as they give a 2006 performance of "Love," a Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. The Canadian circus company has recently been sold to foreign investors from the U.S. and China.

Cirque du Soleil is the dreamlike, traveling human circus that got its start more than 30 years ago in Québec. It’s been headquartered in Montreal for a long time and is considered a cultural treasure. But just recently, it was sold to a group of investors from the U.S. and China.

What does this mean for Montreal, a city that houses Cirque du Soleil's headquarters, providing jobs for more than 1,500 Québecois? Pat Donnelly, former theater critic for the Montreal Gazette, joined Vermont Edition to talk about the sale of the company and how it could affect Montreal.

Donnelly says that as she understands, 80 percent of Cirque du Soleil has been sold to foreign investors, with Guy Laliberté, one of the co-founders, and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, a Canadian pension fund, each retaining 10 percent of the company.

So why sell such an iconic company? Donnelly says when she interviewed Laliberté in December of 2014, he gave her several reasons. “At that time he was only talking about 30 percent being sold,” she says. “So he obviously changed his thinking, but he said to me at that time that he did not wish to burden his children with the huge enterprise.”

Donnelly says she thinks Laliberté was ready to move on from the company, and that its financial troubles offered another reason to sell. “As he pointed out, when they began back in 1984, they were the only fish in the sea. And, partly because of their success, partly because of the huge number of artists they brought to the fore, there are many — even in Québec — successful circuses based here … that’s just the local competition,” she says.

"This is a solid company. I would invest if I had the money." - Pat Donnelly, retired Montreal Gazette theater critic

Despite 2012 being the first year Cirque du Soleil didn’t report a profit, Donnelly says the big companies purchasing the traveling circus, including TPG and China’s Fosun Capital Group, aren’t investing just to throw their money away. “This is a solid company. I would invest if I had the money,” says Donnelly.

"To this day, Montreal cannot afford a permanent Cirque du Soleil show. We do not have the public, we do not have the ticket buyers here. [It] has always been a traveling company."

The theater critic says there was an attempt to make “political football” out of the company’s sale, but she thinks it's important to look at the deal objectively. “You’d have to have the expertise to run the company. There is just no real viable Canadian suitor at the moment. But quite beyond that, who does the Cirque du Soleil belong to? We love it, we are proud of it … It began here, the headquarters are here and it shall remain here because it would be really silly to move anywhere else, given where it’s situated,” she says.

Cirque du Soleil headquarters are located in North Montreal, across from the National Circus School and next to Tohu, a circular theater which Donnelly says was built especially for circus performances. “So the idea of any company moving its headquarters out of Québec is rather far-fetched,” she says.

Donnelly says it’s also important to look at who has financed Cirque du Soleil over the years. “To this day, Montreal cannot afford a permanent Cirque du Soleil show,” she says. “We do not have the public, we do not have the ticket buyers here. [It] has always been a traveling company.” She points out that Las Vegas has made a significant financial contribution to the company. “They have eight permanent shows there, so that is really where the money is pouring in, and has been, for many years,” says Donnelly.

"It's very much born of Quebec culture. And again, another reason why you want to keep it there, is we have some of the world's best theatrical designers here."

Even though the company travels around the world, Donnelly says Cirque du Soleil has definite roots in Canada. “It’s very much born of Québec culture,” she says. “And again, another reason why you want to keep it there, is we have some of the world’s best theatrical designers here … we have a situation where the artistic life of Québec is very intimately connected to the Cirque du Soleil.”

Donnelly does admit she has somewhat of a bias, as she’s a big fan of Cirque du Soleil. She jokes that if she knew her days were numbered, she'd spend her remaining time at the circus. “The thing is, to this day, I still enjoy their shows,” she says. “Having been a theater critic for 26 years, I sat through many shows that I did not enjoy. So, I would say, if I’m going to be on my way out, I would like to see shows that I actually enjoy."

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Amanda Shepard was a digital producer for VPR.
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