If you want to see a show in Las Vegas today, it seems like there are dozens of options as long as you want to see Cirque du Soleil. Of course there are other options, but Cirque has become synonymous with a certain type of entertainment, universally enjoyable and understandable to all who see it. Cirque du Soleil broke down language barriers and brought a European theatricality to American circus. In doing so, it created a whole new, entirely distinct genre of entertainment that continues to captivate and amaze audiences after over three decades.

It was the mid 1980’s and the old circus acts were beginning their death rattles. Besides increasingly challenging logistics, concerns increased about the treatment of animals and their living conditions on the road. The elements that seemed to have the most resonance and staying power with audiences were the clowns and acrobats. So, two Montreal street performers formed Cirque du Soleil and began to tour Canada. They combined elements of circus with a theatricality that had not previously been a part of the genre.

Cirque du Soleil derives its theatricality from several wellsprings. The first is that every Cirque show has a plot-driven storyline. There are clown and acrobatic acts interspersed across the action, but the audience is regularly reconnected to those stories, which are enacted without words. These stories circle around universal themes, Jungian archetypes, and fairytale structures.

Music also plays an integral part in Cirque productions. Every show features musical elements, but some are centered on specific artists’ works. Shows like Viva Elvis, The Beatles Love, and Michael Jackson: One are explicitly built around an artist’s catalogue with acts and story created to complement their well-known music. In their other shows, Cirque uses original music to enhance and further the plot as well as to provide the audience with context and cues for understanding characters.

What may not come as a surprise is that these techniques are anything but new. Cirque is calling on the traditions of European Clownwork and Commedia dell’Arte to tell its stories. These techniques were incredibly useful for uniting audiences across language and cultural barriers. In the Renaissance, when Commedia first came into being, traveling troupes of actors would perform sitcom-like scenarios with very little dialogue. Going from village to village, these actors were able to connect with common themes through simple, mostly comedic plots. Though the driving action was almost always very straightforward, multiple diversions and detours were taken through comedic “bits” known as lazzi. These lazzi would be very familiar to anyone who watches sitcoms or classic cartoons as they are the modern descendants of Commedia.

European Clownwork was popularized in the last century by Jacques Lecoq. His work was distinct from the Ringling Brothers American Clown School, which emphasized a singular type of broad, slapstick humor modeled on versions of the stereotypical hobo. Lecoq’s clowns are much more personal, based upon the individual performer’s life, psychology, and physicality. Whereas American clowns are designed to move an audience to laughter, a European clown will often break an audience’s heart.

The genius of Cirque du Soleil is in its integration of seemingly disparate elements to create a cohesive whole.  They truly created and continue to lead the vanguard of a distinct genre of performance that has shaped the way a generation understands circus and performance. Cirque has spawned a renewed interest in “circus” and actually inspired Broadway to take notice, not only as Cirque performances have moved into theatrical venues and out of the big top in cities like New York and Las Vegas, but in Broadway productions like the latest revival of Pippin and NBC’s telecast of The Wiz which both integrated circus elements into traditional musical theater.

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