The Montreal Working Group on Cirque/Circus began in 2010 as an informal gathering of academics interested in the aesthetics, economics, and ethics of Cirque du Soleil as both a force in renewing circus arts in Québec and as a major cultural force promoting Québécois creativity and commercial innovation. Louis Patrick Leroux, Erin Hurley, and Karen Fricker, after having worked on a special issue on Le Québec à Las Vegas for the scholarly journal L'Annuaire théâtral, combined forces with economic geographers Norma Rantisi and Deborah Leslie who were already engaged in Cirque-related research. Colleagues from National Circus School were soon invited to participate in the ongoing discussion. The first year's activities were focused around a model of seminar presentations of ongoing research where colleagues were encouraged to openly discuss issues, challenges, and outcomes.

By the end of the first year, and into the second year, the Working Group began to widen its scope onto circus practices in Québec and abroad.


The Working Group’s presence at Concordia University

Its activities have been focused at Concordia University and National Circus School in Montreal, though the group includes individual members from other institutions.

The first year, the Working Group was hosted by Concordia’s Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Society and Culture which offered us some funds to invite a guest speaker and hire a student research assistant to establish the common bibliography. This year, we will be housed in a shared laboratory space at Concordia’s Hexagram Institute for Research/Creation in Media Arts and Technology, while formalizing our partnership with National Circus School.


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Call for Papers

This session seeks to take stock of scholarly, performance-critical, and creative activity around circus across Canada, and to bring Québec circus researchers into dialogue with their Canadian counterparts. The co-conveners will offer position papers followed by dialogue and exchange. We welcome colleagues working on and interested in the aesthetics, ethics, business practices, pedagogical implications, and discursive significations of contemporary circus. While particularly interested in information and exchange about Canadian circus outside of Québec, colleagues working on Québécois and international circus practices are also welcome. The panel will focus on articulating and exploring the particularities of circus research, and its relationship to theatre and performance studies; it will ask how we as performance scholars can best use our skills and experience in approaching, analyzing, and writing about contemporary circus.

Please send a 200-250 word statement of interest in the session along with a 250-word biographical note to Karen Fricker and Louis Patrick Leroux by 13 January 2014.

Dr. Karen Fricker is assistant professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University and a co-founder of the Montréal Working Group on Circus Research. Her research interests include the Québec director Robert Lepage, the Eurovision Song Contest, and the changing nature of performing arts criticism in the digital age. She is a professional theatre critic and has reviewed and broadcast for The Guardian, Variety, The Irish Times, The New York Times, the BBC, RTÉ, and the CBC, amongst other outlets.

Events 2013-14

Winter and Spring 2013 — Ongoing Research and Responses

View schedule

After an intensive Fall with our SSHRC-funded two-day international workshop on the State of Québec Circus Research held at Concordia University, National Circus School, and TOHU in Montreal, we’ve decided to program three shorter events this winter and spring, in addition to the ongoing project of the preparation of the Québec Circus Reader including articles taken from working papers stemming from the group’s last three years of exchanges.

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Partnership between Concordia and National Circus School

Both Concordia University and National Circus School, through the Working Group, are currently forming a research partnership following three objectives:

  1. Specialized knowledge retention in circus arts training and practice for performers and pedagogues;
  2. The dissemination of circus-related knowledge through academic and industry channels;
  3. Widening the scope and encouraging dynamic academic approaches to studying the circus arts (through research-creation, experiential practices, economic geography, sociology, and other complementary disciplines).

In order to address these objectives, over the next five years, the Working Group will focus its activities along three thematic axes which correspond to its ongoing work and anticipated fields of investigation:

  1. circus pedagogy
  2. historical traditions and current stakes of circus practices, including discourse, aesthetics, ethics, and economics
  3. circus dramaturgy, including a series of hands-on experiential explorations between academics and circus artists.

While Concordia and National Circus School have not requested joint funding under a partnership grant program, individual researchers are encouraged to contribute to the Working Group in sharing their current, independently-funded, circus-related research. Members currently hold grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Québec’s Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture. The Working Group is an ideal venue for testing out hypotheses, for exchanging ideas with scholars from a wide range of expertises and with circus practitioners and teachers.

The Working Group seeks to establish a multidirectional flow of research knowledge encouraging scholars, teachers, practitioners, policy-makers, and industry to engage in a ongoing dialogue through networking opportunities, hands-on experiences and knowledge retention and dissemination.


Research activity and dissemination

Members’ research is regularly presented at academic conferences in Canada, the USA, and Europe, and published in peer-reviewed and industry journals, including Theatre Journal, L’Annuaire théâtral, Urban Studies, Globe, Spirale, Québec Studies, Revista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses.

A common open bibliography of circus-related sources has been compiled for consultation. We encourage readers to contribute any missing documents and sources.

Every year, the Working Group holds six regular seminar-style meetings and a more extensive study day/conference.

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Members of the group are regular collaborators engaged in an ongoing conversation. They regularly attend Working Group meetings in Montreal or elsewhere and are expected to give at least one talk a year or to act as respondents to colleagues’ papers.


Graduate Students

Regular participants, working with Working Group members or working on circus-related scholarly topics:

  • Joanna Donehower
    doctoral candidate, PhD in Humanities, Concordia; supervisor: Louis Patrick Leroux
  • Lyn Charland
    doctoral candidate, PhD in Humanities, Concordia; supervisor: Louis Patrick Leroux
  • Sue Proctor
    MA in SIP, Concordia; supervisor: Louis Patrick Leroux
  • Johanna Tzountouris
    MA, Laval University
  • Katie Lavers
    PhD Candidate through WAAPA (Edith Cowan University, Australia)


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Research Activities

 Year 3 (2012-13)  View detailed schedule

Anticipated activities include a Study Day/Workshop on the Current State of Circus Research in Québec (September 2012, Montreal), two curated panels on Québec circus at the American Council for Québec Studies biannual conference at Sarasota, Florida (November 2012), and a series of regular talks at Concordia and National Circus School.

Circus Dramaturgy:

  1. Aesthetics workshop with theatre, dance and circus scholars and practitioners (what are the different types of circus dramaturgy, how is contemporary circus challenging these.

Circus Pedagogy and Circus Dramaturgy:

  1. Research-creation: how distinct is the circus artist's creative process from other performing arts? An experiential workshop at National Circus School.
  2. Ongoing pedagogical processes research.

Historical Traditions and Current Stakes:

  1. Anticipated activities include panel presentations on the influence of Québec at the American Council of Québec Studies biannual conference in Sarasota, Florida in November 2012, and a group visit to the Barnum & Bailie Circus Museum. Call for papers forthcoming.
  2. Ongoing circus bibliography and archives: which system, how to disseminate collections most effectively?
  3. Ongoing research on urban economics and circus labour practices.


 Year 2 (2011-12)  Québec cirque and circulations

After having entered into the world of circus through Cirque du Soleil during the first year and having concluded with a study day opening up onto questions of circus training outside the traditional athletic or family-based models, and the larger question of circus generativity (training as well as the next generation of circus companies, such as Les 7 doigts de la main), the second year's activities will allow for three research themes: circus pedagogy, historical traditions and current stakes of circus practices, and circus dramaturgy.

July 2011

During the Montréal Complètement Cirque festival, meeting at Concordia with colleagues from Circostrada, a European consortium of circus advocacy and networking.

Monday 17 October, 2 p.m.

Nathalie Claude on being an unexpected clown coach with Cirque du Soleil. Concordia, EV 11-705 (Hexagram Resource Centre)

Wednesday 16 November, 1:30 p.m.

Dr. DonWilmeth (Professor Emeritus, Brown University), A discussion of Mud Show and traditional travelling circus history. (Please note that copies of Mud Show will be made available at EV 10-755 for consultation before the talk/discussion.) Concordia, EV 11-705 (Hexagram)

Thursday 9 December 2011, 9:30a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Study day on circus geographic economics and labor practices with Dr. Norma Rantisi (Concordia) and Dr. Deborah Leslie (CRC, Toronto) "Creativity and urban regeneration: the role of La Tohu and the Cirque du Soleil in the Saint-Michel neighbourhood in Montréal,"

Dr. Tracy Zhang (post-doctoral fellow, Concordia) "A Preliminary Study: International Recruitment and Chinese Artists at Cirque du Soleil." Concordia, EV 11-705 (Hexagram)

Friday 13 January, 11 am.

Nassib El-Husseini, general manager of Les 7 doigts de la main, for discussion on managing growth and a diversifying offer. The talk will be held at 7 doigts de la main offices.

Working lunch with Charles Batson "Reporting on the Montpellier Circus Conference" and possible European links/leads.

Friday 3 February, 10 am.

Katie Lavers, "The Political Body - embodied protest in contemporary circus; Archaos, Circus Oz, Sept Doigts de la Main," École nationale de cirque de Montréal, conference room.

Thursday 1 March, 10 am.

Howard Richard "La dimension artistique dans la création d'un numéro de cirque"

Camille Pilawa « Le Nouveau cirque, entre ressources propres et autres arts » École nationale de cirque de Montréal, conference room.


 Year 1 (2010-11)  Performance, Ethos, and Issues of Discourse with the Cirque du Soleil

Rationale for its Interdisciplinary Character:

The working group will consist of Concordia faculty members in the fields of theatre studies, film studies, and cultural and economic geography, as well as other colleagues from McGill, University of Toronto, and the University of London. On the one hand, the interdisciplinary character of the group reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the Cirque du Soleil itself.  The company presents a new brand of circus arts by incorporating acrobats, aerialists, world beat music and elaborate costumes, lighting and sets.  Collectively, our proposed working group has expertise in a number of these cultural fields. One of the members, Patrick Leroux, in recent articles and conferences has approached the Cirque through a combination of performance analysis and discourse theory, a second member, Sylvain Duguay, while a scholar in intermediality in theatre and film performance, has also been on staff at Cirque du Soleil as a researcher and dramaturg, and a third member, Norma Rantisi, has been researching the geography of fashion design and cultural industries policy in Montreal.
On the other hand, an interdisciplinary team can also bring multiple academic literatures and approaches to bear in analyzing some critical research themes that the case of the Cirque du Soleil raises in terms of national identity and the geography of creativity, as well as the identities and practices of individual performers (see more on this in the section below). We believe that each member can benefit greatly from exposure to, and conversations about, different disciplinary approaches relating to these shared interests.  Regular meetings, workshops and reading group discussions can help to identify possible areas in which members can collaborate and establish synergies across disciplinary lines of thinking. We are also very keen on opening up our discussions to other colleagues’ concerns and perspectives.

Description of the Issues in Scholarship, Research or Creation that the Group will address:

Rarely does a day go by without a mention of the Cirque du Soleil’s activities in Québec media. The Cirque has become a symbol of Québec’s cultural success and post-national maturity. The Cirque has become an extremely profitable multinational entity which maintains its essential ties to Québec. For instance, it has consistently and uncannily hired Québécois theater artists in key positions for most of its productions since the departure of Franco Dragone. This integration of « legitimate » theatre practitioners is affecting the nature and scope of Cirque productions to the same degree which theatre artists are gaining unexpected experience with large-scale and large budget shows and applying this to their own practices. This cross-fertilization has concrete, artistic, implications as it does cultural and discursive ones.

An interdisciplinary working group on the Cirque du Soleil can advance scholarship relating to the themes of identity (both at the national and individual scales) and the geographies of discourse analysis (creative, individual, societal), and creativity. The Cirque du Soleil provides a fascinating case in which to explore these themes for several reasons.  While the company recruits performers internationally, it has its origins in Québec and most creative direction still comes from Québec, with its headquarter based in Montreal.  What are the implications of this for the identity and character of the shows?  Are they Québecois? Canadian? International?  How does it shape the actual performance – how do the performances in Montreal compare with those in Las Vegas or Shanghai?  To what can differences and/or similarities be attributed? How does the hybrid nature of a show, which fuses different cultural fields, shape the identity and practices of the performers themselves, many of whom come from different cultural settings?


To share our research and thinking on the Cirque; to use this venue as an incubator for new directions in our own research while allowing it to brush against unexpected fields of inquiry. To work towards a study day and/or eventual publication.



Friday 10 September 2010

Room EV 11-705, 10 a.m.
Opening discussion: current Cirque research; group objectives

Friday 22 October 2010

École nationale de cirque de Montréal
9:30 a.m. Visiting École nationale de cirque de Montréal du Canada
10:30 a.m., “The Promises of Cirque du Soleil” Erin Hurley (McGill)

Monday 13 December 2010

Room EV 11-705, 10 a.m.
“‘Somewhere between science and legend’: Images of indigeneity in Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM”, Karen Fricker (Royal Holloway, London). A revised version of this paper was later given in London, England, at a colloquium on Lepage and Cirque du Soleil.

Friday 14 January 2011

Room EV 11-705, 10 a.m.
“Cirque du Soleil and Laliberté’s ‘Social and Poetic Mission into Space’: the Ethos of Staging the Individual of Exception,” Louis Patrick Leroux (Concordia) A revised version of this paper was later given in London, England, at a colloquium on Lepage and Cirque du Soleil.
Guest speaker: Catherine Graham (McMaster) on One Drop Foundation and cross-pollination with Cirque.

Friday 25 March 2011

Room EV 11-705, 10 a.m.
“In-house research & research on/for Cirque.” Guest speakers, Dr. Ian Schrier and Lyn Charland each spoke of their experiences of doing research on the Cirque and, in some instances, for the Cirque, within the Cirque structure and confidentiality agreements. None of the confidential research was disclosed. The discussion rather focused on the particular circumstances and occasional challenges that are posed to academic researchers by working within a corporate culture very much aware of its branding and protective of its practices.

Monday 13 June 2011

National Circus School (7th floor meeting room)
“Les 7 doigts de la main and their Cirque : origins and resistances” Charles Batson (Union College, USA). Respondant : Erin Hurley (McGill).
“Into circus training pedagogy: a PhD research project collaboration between the National Circus School and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Australia,” Jon Burtt (PhD candidate, WAAPA). Respondant: Patrice Aubertin (National Circus School).
“De la scène à la piste: genèse de la création du spectacle annuel Pomme Grenade de l’École nationale de cirque de Montréal ”, Marie-Josée Gauthier (NCS). Respondant : Anna-Karyna Barlati (NCS).


Summaries of talks held in 2010-11 prepared by Erin Hurley

Erin Hurley (McGill University, Montreal): “The Promises of the Cirque du Soleil”

Building on her published work on the Cirque du Soleil, its aesthetics, and the ideology of its organisational practices, Erin turned her attention to how the Cirque du Soleil might be received by audiences.  More particularly, she queried the attractions of circus, in particular the Cirque du Soleil -- especially since, despite a global recession and financial crisis, the Cirque du Soleil continues to (almost) fill tents.  Indeed, it is expanding. What imaginary do audiences carry with them about the circus? And how does the Cirque du Soleil fulfil those desires? She speculated that Cirque du Soleil performances offer a kind of balm to the alienating effects of globalisation and the economic precarity it can engender. In catching us up in the spectacle, the circus offers a sensation of “flow”, of total, pleasurable immersion in an experience.


Karen Fricker (Royal Holloway, London): “'Somewhere between science and legend': Images of indigeneity in Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM”

Karen, a specialist on the work of Robert Lepage, brought her expertise in the politics of representation -- by which I mean the history and meaning of certain strong or fraught visual images, like, for instance, a “noble savage” or a Zulu warrior --  and theatre dramaturgy to bear on a reading of Lepage’s second project with the Cirque du Soleil -- 2010’s tent show, Totem.  Taking us through the show’s dramatic structure, Karen revealed a story about human development embedded in the numbers and the transitions between them.  She expressed concern over the place of First Nations (indigenous) peoples in that story, as they were associated with the natural (as vs. the cultural) and the ancient (as vs. the modern).


Louis Patrick Leroux (Concordia University): “Cirque du Soleil and Laliberté’s “Social and Poetic Mission into Space”: the Ethos of Staging the Individual of Exception”

From this consideration of the ethics and politics of an individual show in the Cirque du Soleil’s repertoire, Patrick Leroux presented his thoughts on the ethos of the Cirque du Soleil as a company, a brand.  He enlarged the group’s purview beyond the circus performances themselves to include the public performances of the Cirque’s founder and “guide”, Guy Laliberté. He understands Laliberté’s space mission and the show that resulted to benefit his One Drop foundation as continuous with an ethos of individual exceptionalism that runs throughout the shows as well.  In short, he defined a brand-identity that promotes the possibility of being or becoming extra-ordinary.


Catherine Graham (McMaster University) on One Drop Foundation and cross-pollination with Cirque

Catherine Graham then informed the group more amply about the One Drop Foundation and, in particular, its use of in-house intellectuals to, in effect, dramaturge their outreach activities. At two international meetings of ONE DROP staff and their artistic, social and technical partners working on local access-to-water and clean-water projects in Central America and Africa, she has helped to synthesize and contextualize observations and analysis by local partners in order to help them think about how to evaluate the quality of artistic interventions in local projects in the Global South.  Much of this thinking now turns around the role that circus-based performances can have in allowing local people to imagine that way may now seem impossible can be made possible by learning new skills.


Dr. Ian Schrier (McGill University) and Lyn Charland (Concordia University):
“In-house research & research on/for Cirque.”

Both Ian and Lyn spoke of their experiences of doing research on the Cirque and, in some instances, for the Cirque, within the Cirque structure and confidentiality agreements. Ian’s research in sports medicine centres on injury rates and training best practices when working with the Cirque du Soleil; Lyn’s concerns social group formation and emotional bonds on touring shows. None of the confidential research was disclosed. The discussion rather focused on the particular circumstances and occasional challenges that are posed to academic researchers by working within a corporate culture very much aware of its branding and protective of its practices.


Charles Batson (Union College, USA): “Les 7 doigts de la main and their Cirque: origins and resistances”. Respondant : Erin Hurley (McGill University).

Charles brought his expertise in dance and movement to the table with his presentation on a “second-generation” Québecois nouveau cirque, Les Sept doigts de la main.  He contrasted their more intimate and autobiographical take on circus narrative with the more abstract and mythical “fable” that tends to undergird Cirque du Soleil shows. In addition, Charles drew our attention to different movement styles used in Les Sept doigts productions -- one the one hand, their links with everyday movements (walking) and, on the other, their links with le nouveau bouger montréalais as practiced in the work of Édouard Locke and LaLaLa Human Steps.

Jon Burtt (PhD candidate, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts)): “Into circus training pedagogy: a PhD research project collaboration between the National Circus School and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Australia.”. Respondant: Patrice Aubertin (National Circus School).

Jon introduced the group to a new international research partnership between the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and the National Circus School. The project into coaching practices at the National Circus School that he is undertaking as part of his PhD studies with Patrice Aubertin and Dr Sylvain Lafortune will be the first such research partnership at the school.  Beginning this fall, certain incoming students will be coached according to a model used in sports coaching called decision training practice, developed by Dr Joan Vickers, professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and founder the Neuro-Motor Psychology Lab.  It encourages teachers to use particular strategies to prompt students to develop their own intrinsic learning skills thereby taking responsibility for their learning and their skills development in such a way that they can function more autonomously in their personal training and careers after leaving the school. The study will investigate the effects of decision training practice in the contemporary circus arts training environment over a one-year period. This will be the first long term study of this practice in the circus arts.


Marie-Josée Gauthier (National Circus School, Montréal) “De la scène à la piste: genèse de la création du spectacle annuel Pomme Grenade de l’École nationale de cirque de Montréal ». Respondant : Anna-Karyna Barlati (NCS).

Marie-Josée walked us through her creative process in directing one group of the 2010 ENC’s graduating class in Pomme Grenade, a 60-minute circus performance whose theme was war and liberation.  Her presentation, during which she also distributed the scenario she worked with in developing the show -- the narrative spine, if you will -- , lead to a fascinating and animated discussion of circus dramaturgy, of how circuses tell stories and of how circus shows are structured and developed.

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Prof. Louis Patrick Leroux