Jamie Skidmore

Crossing Borders: The Multimodal Language of Cirque du Soleil


Hamburg, Copenhagen, Zurich, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Toronto, Montreal.  Seven cities, seven cultures, a plethora of languages.  One common bond, which exists between them, is that they have all welcomed the Cirque du Soleil big top to perform within their boundaries.  As Cirque du Soleil has crossed the borders from country to country, continent to continent, the construction of their circus has changed imperceptibly, if at all.  Yet, culturally competent spectators attending a Cirque du Soleil performance anywhere in the world are assumed to be capable of deciphering the morphological symbols found within the circus ring.  This is because the "language" of this New Circus has not been based on a spoken word model, but rather on a multimodal construct, which relates to the audience through visual and aural signs.  The root of the language being created is often in the very origins of the circus acts being performed, many of which find their ancestry in Asian acrobatic or European circus traditions.  This act based sub-structure has been enhanced through a conscious fashioning of the mise en scène, which has allowed Cirque du Soleil to relate themes and stories which have consisted of several modes of communication.  Specifically, these acts are decodable through the reading of the lighting, costumes, make-up, props, and set design in conjunction with the soundscape of sound effects, garbled language, music and song.  This paper will examine the multimodular construction of a Cirque du Soleil act, and how it communicates to the international spectator.