Crossing Borders: The Multimodal Language of Cirque du Soleil

James Skidmore

Cirque du Soleil was created by a small group of street performers in Baie St. Paul, Quebec in 1982.  Modelling themselves after a form of European circus known as New Circus, Cirque du Soleil fashioned a circus without animals or death-defying acts.  In lieu of elephants, camels, and perilous routines they built productions dependant on themes and motifs, which tell a story or convey an idea.

The concepts portrayed within a Cirque du Soleil performance are not complex, typically the topics have been about releasing emotions or freeing the imagination. What is complicated, however, is the multimodal performance language created by Cirque du Soleil.  Spectators exiting their circuses have been overheard saying “it was a wonderful show, but I don’t understand what it meant.”  This statement infers that the circus performance they witnessed held meaning, but as audience members they were unable to interpret the message or theme presented within the circus ring.  Therefore, these spectators did not possess the necessary tools needed to comprehend the signs and conventions they had witnessed in the show.

The language of a Cirque du Soleil performance has rarely been based on a spoken word model, but rather as a multimodal construct, which relates to the audience through visual and aural signs and conventions.  Through a conscious fashioning of their mise en scène, Cirque du Soleil has been able to relate themes to their spectators by employing various morphological elements found within a modern circus ring.  This includes the lighting, costuming, make-up, props, set design, soundscape, sound track, fanciful language, choreography, and style of performance. As with any verbal mode of communication, the multimodal language of Cirque du Soleil is only comprehensible to an audience that has been provided with a model to apply in the interpretation of their performance text.  The version being presented in this paper examines the use of signs or conventions within specific performances, acts, and shows, and explains how signs and use of conventions inform the spectator as to what theme or motif is presented within the circus ring.  It utilizes a basic semiotic model, which begins with the assumption that the circus performance has a message to convey.  Logically it follows that it is the responsibility of the circus artist to communicate meaning to the spectator, whose task it is to decode or interpret the performance. The model of semiotic analysis utilized is one defined by Fernando de Toro in his book Theatre Semiotics.  This paper will focus on two aspects of his paradigm: the use of conventions and the types of signs, which operate within a performance space.

Toro defines three types of conventions: general, particular, and unique (Toro  55-56).  General conventions assume the spectator realizes that he or she is situated within a performance arena, watching an artifice, which is distinct from the outside or real world.  It asks the spectator accept certain parameters delineated by the circus artist and ring as  relevant to this fictional construct.  A circus takes place within a tent, under stage lighting – these are general conventions that an audience must believe in order to accept what takes place in the performance.  General conventions ask an audience to suspend their disbelief, they are put in place to distinguish a circus or theatrical event from an occurrence in the exterior world.

Particular codes, in the case of the circus, include the circus ring, the ringmaster, and the clown.  These are signs of the circus style and there is either an expectation for them to exist in this genre, or a prior knowledge of their association in this specific artistic forum.  The circus spectator is not surprised to see characters wearing red noses, for example, and identifies them as clowns.

Unique conventions arise out of specific performances and are only understood through their context.  Therefore, they rely on other signs surrounding them to build meaning and may even be in the form of other unique conventions.  In one Cirque du Soleil production, Alegría, the lighting and costuming were combined in order to allow for an interpretation of a series of unique conventions displayed in the trapeze routine.  Gobos (metal patterns that create lighting patterns) were placed in lighting instruments, which projected the image of bars over the trapeze display.  This was both appropriate and informative, as it suggested to the spectator that the acrobats were caged.  This metaphoric lighting motif was additionally supported by the other morphological component mentioned, the costumes, which further marked the acrobats as birds.  This was accomplished through the use of feathers, costume pieces shaped as wings, and aviator caps worn on the head.  The aviator cap served as an index (see below), which was easily identifiable to the spectator.  It was literally the key object, which identified this collection of otherwise unique conventions.  The spectator related to the caps as headwear worn by pilots from the age of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, or World War I aces.  The trapeze artists, therefore, were identified as flying things or acrobats that flew.  Upon making this connection, the other less familiar signs became identifiable as other icons and symbols of flight.  The crocheted costume piece flung over the shoulders, for instance, was recognizable as a symbolic representation of wings.  The combination of the performers dressed as birds and the juxtaposition of lighting in the form of a coop, coupled with an aerial act, allowed the spectator to read the trapeze artists as birds in a cage.  Thus, a unique convention cannot be understood in and of itself, but only through its relationship with other signs, which surround it in the circus ring.

            Signs on stage (or in the circus ring) are broken down into three categories by Toro: the icon, the index and the symbol (Toro  73-77).  The easiest way to understand these three terms is through a simple example employing the clown nose (Toro 70).  The red nose is an icon that substitutes for a real nose, though in a representative fashion.  The clown's nose, therefore, is recognizable as the facial feature that it stands in for on the face of the clown.  Concurrently, it acts as an index revealing that the character wearing the red nose is a clown.  Spectators are familiar with the convention that a clown wears a red nose and so when they see a red nose on a performer they are able to identify this character as a clown.  Red noses can also be read as symbols of humour since a clown is considered to be a comedian who provokes and illicit laughter from the circus audience.  The red nose, which identifies a performer as being a clown, also indicates that the entertainer is to be laughed at by the audience. Icons can be either indexes or symbols, though a symbol or an index cannot be an icon.  Symbols can also be indexes, though the reverse is not true.

The interpretation of icons, indexes, or symbols in the circus, as in other performing arts, demands an active engagement between the observed sign, the object to which it relates, and the interpreter of the sign.  A relationship must exist, or be created, between the spectator and the sign on stage in order for it to be understood.  Thus, ongoing and active decodification of symbols within the Cirque du Soleil circus ring, as well as of the theme or message presented is necessary for comprehension of the sign.  A context or framework within which to place the various morphological objects viewed on stage is necessary in the deciphering of symbols illustrated within this paper.  A structure can be provided for the spectator by studying the relationship of one sign to another within a performance.  Alternatively, it may be obtained through prior experience of specific information, which allows interpreters or spectators to read and decode the performance they are viewing on stage.  Cultural baggage or amassed knowledge that is acquired through education and social upbringing is one tool that the spectator can utilize in the interpretation of signs.

To fully understand the icons, indexes, and symbols found within a New Circus such as Cirque du Soleil, the spectator needs to be familiar with the archetypes of the traditional circus, such as the ringmaster and the clown.   Many of the characters found within the Cirque du Soleil sphere have evolved out of archetypes or stereotypes found in the traditional circus.  One first needs to understand the significance of the original ringmaster found in a circus such as Ringling Brother's and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth in order to understand the construction of the evolved ringmaster, such as Monsieur Fleur (Rénald Laurin), from Alegría.  Original, in this context, means the Ringling ringmaster is modelled after an archetype that the average spectator would be familiar with from excursions to the circus.

The lighting, costuming, props, setting, and other morphological elements that surrounded Monsieur Fleur on stage provided a context to assist in the interpretation of his character.  These morphological characteristics were woven together into a harmonious mise en scène, which aided the spectator in their reading of Monsieur Fleur.  His staff, which had a light on its tip, informed the audience that he possessed an elevated status within the hierarchy of the ring.  In fact, the illuminated end was used to focus attention on his character.  When the lights dimmed, for example, the eyes of the viewer were drawn to the one remaining light on stage, on the top of his staff.  The traditional ringmaster uses either a whistle or a whip in order to draw the attention of the audience.  By blowing on the whistle or snapping the whip all eyes are drawn to this character.  They are examples of indexes that represent tools operated by a person of authority.  They also represent the power held by the ringmaster over acrobats and clowns.  The staff held by Monsieur Fleur was a symbol of authority, not unlike a sceptre held by a king.  The ringmasters of Cirque du Soleil, however, combine aspects of both a traditional ringmaster and a clown.  The rod held by Fleur can be read as both a sceptre and a bauble, the instrument of the jester or fool.  When it would light up, or when Fleur stamped it on the ground, he would draw the attention to himself.  As well, by stamping the staff Fleur indicated to the performers on stage to follow his directions.

Monsieur Fleurs’ scarlet red tailcoat was also similar to the costume worn by the archetypal ringmaster, as it was of a similar cut as that of his predecessor’s outfit.  His clothing concurrently identified him as a rooster as he had feathery fringes around his cuffs, his chest was puffed-out, and characters who dressed and moved like chickens were subservient to Monsieur Fleur throughout the performance.  Clearly, the construction of the various signs upon the stage also worked at a metaphoric level, with the circus ring representing Monsieur Fleur's roost.

In both the circus and theatre, the interpretation of signs takes on an added significance.  Toro states that, "in theatre the theatre object refers to itself simply because it is on-stage, but it also refers to a real object ... (de Toro  87)".  In other words, the theatre or circus sign has a double meaning because it is found in an artificial world.  This is why context becomes so important in the interpretation of symbols, indexes, and icons found within the circus.  The sign may have one meaning outside of the circus tent, but takes on a new signification as a general, particular, or unique convention within the circus ring.  Again using Monsieur Fleur as an example, out of the context of a circus performance, he was still a rooster, identified by his costume, but he was not a ringmaster.  Within the confines of the mise en scène constructed for Alegría, the audience was forced to accept Monsieur Fleur in the role of ringmaster.  By placing him within this environment and displaying him as the figure of authority within the circus ring, the spectator was compelled to further interpret his objectified character, that of rooster, as ringmaster.  Thus, a solidly constructed sign on the stage leads the viewer to an even deeper and more exact meaning of an adjoining index. 

The clown act created by Slava Polunin known as the Snowshow, also performed as a number in Alegría, provides another example of how the spectator can interpret a Cirque du Soleil performance through a reading of the signs and conventions on the stage.  At the beginning of this routine, the Russian clown Serguei Chachelev pulled a rope ladder, used for ascending to the trapeze, across the surface of the stage in a semi-circular pattern.  The rope ladder can be read as a climbing device used by acrobats, but when another Russian clown, Yuri Medvedev (playing the role originated by Slava) later walked along it with his suitcase in hand it was then identifiable as an icon, which represented a train track.  This idea was further supported by the sound of a train's whistle blowing and by Medvedev who was wearing a top hat, which blew smoke out of its top as he ran along the tracks thus constructing himself as the train.  The rope ladder was a unique convention, only identifiable by a series of other unique and particular conventions that surrounded it in the circus ring.  The train whistle sound effect, for example, was a particular convention, which aided in the interpretation of the ladder as track.

Medvedev, stopping to rest along the rails, lay down his suitcase.  When he opened it, out flew two white balloons with red ribbons tied around them.  The balloons signified moths and signified that this was a memory play and that time had passed and eaten away at the fabric of this story.  The red ribbons attached to the white balloons presented a mystery to anyone who had not seen Slava perform this act himself.  As the creator of the interlude, Slava had instilled the scene with meaning, which pertained to his personal clown character.  While the red ribbons retained no significance in the Alegría production, in his Snowshow (which Slava also tours around the world) it was obvious the ribbons were actually threads from the red scarf that Slava wears around his neck.  Medvedev’s valise, therefore, was not simply a suitcase, but the baggage or memories that he carried through life.

Medvedev pulled out a black jacket from the case and a vibrating, red tuft of material fell from it and moved around in a frenzied pattern.  Once again, the meaning was lost without reference to Slava himself, for this was one of his fuzzy red slippers (Medvedev wore black leather shoes), which having fermented, took on a life of its own.  Medvedev hung the jacket on a rung of the vertical section of the rope ladder, held in place by a hanger and returned to his case.  He pulled out a hat, which was covered in dust, and brushed it off.  Similar to the way one recalls memories, these actions were all part of the thought process, and a further clarification that this story originally took place long ago.  Medvedev placed the hat above the jacket, on another hanger shaped like a human head.  He then dusted the hat and slipped his arm through one of the jacket’s sleeves.  Magically, the jacket came to life and Medvedev was as surprised as the audience to see this transformation take place.  Next, the coat dusted him and stroked his face, displaying to the audience that this was the spectre of his lost love come back to life.  To clarify, the coat became animated only as an extension of Medvedev’s body.  Again, it was his own arm that stroked his face in this scene, however, he made it appear that the arm belonged to the owner of the jacket, and thus, to his lover.  Through simple gestures and a few rudimentary props, the clown was able to stir this jacket to life, such that the spectator saw a clown embrace a woman.   While the clown's lover held him, she secretly slipped a note, on a piece of simple white paper into his pocket.

The sound effect of the train’s whistle was heard again off in the distance and Medvedev re-packed his bag and exited the stage.  When he returned, he had become the physical manifestation of the train.  He wore a top hat that spouted smoke out of its top, as did the rear of his suitcase.  Medvedev also had an air horn on his case, which when blown simulated the sound of the train.  He raced along the track until he reached his destination, where he sat down -- exhausted.

Sitting upon his case, Medvedev extracted his handkerchief, at which point the letter fell out of his pocket.  As he read the note, the audience determined from his expressions that it was obviously a Dear John letter and could see he was devastated by the words that he read.  He ripped the letter up into tiny little squares of paper and threw them into the air.  As they flitted to the ground, thousands of similar scraps of white paper fell from the ceiling above, interweaving with those he had thrown into the air -- together, they fell like (iconographic) snow around him.  Time seemed frozen, an effect accentuated with a strobe light, which slowed all of Medvedev’s motions down to a crawl.  The backdrops, which revealed the night sky, were turned to display mountains covered in snow.   Medvedev tried to negotiate through the snow (the flakes symbolized his lover's words and his life) but he was not capable of going any further.  The audience heard the sound of ice cracking, representative of the breaking of his heart.  Medvedev turned (upstage) to face his misery and was hit by a barrage of snow (white scraps of paper blown by huge fans) in a dramatic, theatrical effect.  The audience was also bombarded with incredibly bright, blinding lights and snow whipping in their faces.  The spectators became literally immersed in his misery, as the snow and wind enveloped them.  Medvedev ran towards (or into) the light, an obvious metaphor for the end of his life, but he was able to weather the storm -- black out. 

Medvedev sat frozen on the edge of the stage, the season was now summer.  When the lights came up again he saw a butterfly flying near the brim of his hat, an effect that was achieved by attaching the insect to a wire on his bowler so that it fluttered as he moved.  Like the butterfly, having survived his tragedy Medvedev was reborn a fuller, more beautiful being. 

A simple allegory, the story warned against despair and the power of words on an individual.  Nevertheless, it counselled that suicide was not the answer.  If one found the strength to survive the most horrible circumstances, they would be able to find beauty in their lives.  This was understood through a reading of the various signs and conventions employed in its construction by Slava.  The scraps of paper, for example, took on new meaning when they fell like snow with the soundscape of wind playing in the background, and the backdrop rotated to look like snow covered mountains. The audience was able to comprehend the meaning of the “snow” paper by the signs that surrounded these objects floating through the air.

Quidam, another circus created by Cirque du Soleil, contained the most cohesive mise en scène of any of their productions.  This was because the show's central motif, the freeing of emotions, possessed a strong through-line the audience could follow throughout the production (the spectator literally followed a red ball or balloon through the show).  The performance also played with many visual signs, such as imagery from The Wizard of Oz, children’s playgrounds, and the surreal art of René Magritte, but in the end, these themes always supported the central idea of setting emotions free.

            The art of René Magritte played a central role in the mise en scène, in particular his 1964 painting The Son of Man. This picture contains a suited man wearing a bowler hat, but his face is blocked by a large green apple.  This obstruction forces the viewer to imagine what is behind the fruit, making the invisible visible (Paquet  77).  Quidam played with this well-known image in its construction of a headless character wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella.  At the beginning of the show, this headless man entered the home of a young girl (played by Audrey Brisson-Jutras) and left her his bowler hat. The ringmaster (John Gilkey) placed the hat on the young child’s head, metaphorically transporting her into a world of imagination.  In this context, the bowler became emblematic of the brain, specifically, a brain filled with ideas.  Therefore, the headless man was a call for creativity and wildness, for imagination. 

            Other bowler hats appeared on the heads of various characters at other points in the show as well, most poignantly during the German wheel performance of Chris Lashua.  Each time the bowler surfaced, it was used to further strengthen the metaphor of the hat as a symbol of the brain.   By having Lashua wear a bowler hat, it was suggested that his German wheel signified the inner workings of the mind.  The act immediately followed the placement of the bowler on Brisson-Jutras’ head, thus the obvious connection was the hat represented her brain in motion. 

            The hat of the headless man was not his only significant symbol.  The umbrella, which he also carried, was ripe with meaning.  The umbrella was used to protect the headless man’s head from rain, only he did not have a head.  The umbrella, present in every Cirque du Soleil show, has taken on the status of trademark, a symbol the audience has come to expect when watching this circus.  It has served many purposes: as a juggling device in Nouvelle Expérience, as a balancing mechanism and a place to hide a microphone in Saltimbanco, and as a parachute in Dralion.  Ultimately, the umbrella is reminiscent of a miniature circus tent exemplifying the portability and itinerant nature of the circus.  The headless man, so full of imagination, was emblematic of Cirque du Soleil as a whole.  It is ironic that he was headless, yet his head was filled with so much imagination.

Quidam also contained an homage or two to The Wizard of Oz within its production.  The ringmaster, John Gilkey, put on a pair of sparkling, silver shoes right after he gave Brisson-Jutras the hat.  The colour of the shoes was reminiscent of the costume worn by the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, and they designated Gilkey as the guide for “Dorothy”, or rather Audrey.  The fact that it was a little girl’s journey (who also sang) also drew parallels between this show and The Wizard of Oz.  The most obvious link between the two shows was the presence of "Tin Men", in the guise of the diabolo artists, solidifying the idea that these two worlds were interwoven. The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was in search of a heart, an obvious symbol for emotion, something that Brisson-Jutras was also searching for in Quidam.

            The diabolos, which the Tin Men played with, were integrated into the production’s playground theme.  If the acts were not centred directly on the emotions, they were based around games found in a schoolyard.  Hence, they were games typically filled or created with a child’s imagination.  The diabolo is a less obvious illustration of a playground toy, since it is not familiar to most modern audiences.  However, it is a toy played with by many Chinese children in the East, and was a game commonly played by European children in the last century.  Modern Western audiences related to it as a child’s toy through its resemblance to the yo-yo.  It was an apt game to choose for this show as an illustration of the imagination of children.  This is true because diabolo tricks are filled with complex throws and catches, spins, and cat’s cradle manoeuvres.  Other children's games incorporated into the show at various points included skateboarding, playing with dolls, skipping, and swinging on the cloud swing.

            All of these concepts (playground games, The Wizard of Oz, and the work of Magritte) were subordinate to the central theme of releasing emotions.  This idea was linked to the previous Cirque du Soleil show Alegría through the use of a birdcage.  Emotions were symbolized in this production primarily as a red ball or balloon, although at times feeling appeared simply as the colour red.  The families' feelings were enclosed in a domestic birdcage at the top of the show.  It was obvious from the image it was the parent’s emotions trapped in their own worlds, as the father disappeared into his newspaper, and the mother into her radio.  Both were unable to communicate or express themselves to each other, or to their child.  When the bowler hat was placed on Brisson-Jutras’ head, it served as a means to open the channels within not only the family, but within its individual members, as well.

            There were two major categories of acts within this show, routines displaying internal emotions, and numbers revolving around children playing.  The sand lot games were the latter, while acts such as the Spanish web, German wheel, aerial hoops, and statue examined the inner feelings of the family.  In each of these acts, the inner workings of a particular character were revealed to the audience.  The German wheel portrayed the thought process of Brisson-Jutras’ mind; the Spanish web (performed by Isabelle Chassé) bared the mother’s soul; the statue or Vis Versa act revealed the parents finally dealing with their raw emotions; and the aerial hoops act included costumes with the hearts ripped out. 

            Throughout the show, the audience was constantly faced with the parents' struggle to grasp and display emotions.  This idea was revisited all through the evening. With the imagination and playfulness of their child, they were able to change from a dysfunctional family to one full of love and courage.  One of the most powerful images in the production was that of the father, harnessed high above the stage onto one of the grid sections, which pulled him out towards the audience.  He appeared to be walking on air, oblivious to the world around him.  Although he appeared to be reading his newspaper, in fact, his head was literally surrounded by the paper.  His head actually poked through the front page, with his face sticking out towards the audience.  The paper had become such a crutch; he was actually entrapped and did not know how to escape.  By the end of the production, his character had shredded his paper and was able to share his love and emotions with the rest of his family.

            In their various productions, Cirque du Soleil present straightforward ideas constructed with a complex series of signs and conventions. The reading and comprehension of a circus performance, in general, is an active process demanding participation by both the performer and the spectator.  In the final analysis, however, it is always up to the audience members to assemble the various signs they have witnessed during a performance (whether in the form of sound, lighting, costuming, performance style, etc.) to find both coherence and completeness within the performance text (De Marinis  59-60).  This is key when viewing and reading a Cirque du Soleil production in order to understand the underlying themes presented.

            This paper has established that the spectator begins by seeking out familiar and recognizable signs.  These signs must be reassembled in an orderly fashion by the spectator in order to grasp the theme or message conveyed.  By identifying and assembling the various pieces of the thematic puzzle(s), the spectators are empowered with the ability to complete the performance text, providing a coherent summary of the action within the ring.  As Marco De Marinis states in his book The Semiotics of Performance, "the performance text is a performance unit which the analyst's intention (or the intention of the ordinary audience member) designates as semiotically complete (59)."  Although, it is not solely the responsibility of the performer(s) to explain what is shown, the onus is on the spectator to read, analyze, or re-write the performance text in such a way that it takes on a comprehensible meaning and wholeness.