Behind the magic of Cirque du Soleil

Dreaming up spectacles that dazzle the world

By Sarah Pratt for Thought Box on September 25, 2015

The inspiration for a Cirque du Soleil show can begin in a farmer’s field. While it may seem difficult to connect the hypnotic, multi-layered performances for which the company is famed with the simplicity of a swath of grain, Krista Monson, ’91 BA, can do it.

As a Cirque du Soleil “conceptor,” Monson develops creative concepts for shows much like a writer. She draws inspiration from everything around her to create a concept, beginning with book research — scouring through library material to nourish her ideas — then embarking on an immersive journey of the senses.

“When I was working on a pitch for Expo Milano 2015 in Italy, themed on feeding the planet, I found myself at one point lying in a farmer’s field looking at the clouds, then talking to people and learning their stories,” says Monson, one of 28 UAlberta 2015 Alumni Award recipients. “It’s the sensory experience of smelling, touching, trying to find the flow of ideas and come up with concepts that will move people.”

Cirque, as insiders affectionately refer to it, has a repertoire of dozens of shows that have been performed around the world for more than 155 million spectators. Based in Montreal, the company’s 4,000 employees run resident shows in locations including Las Vegas and the Mexican Riviera. Monson, who lives in Las Vegas, came to the company as an artistic director after years of choreographing and directing.

As both writer and director, Monson is involved throughout the entire creative process. “I really value the connection between the initial idea and the directing that is the realization of that.”

After Monson develops the initial concept for a show, she works with a team that includes designers, choreographers and composers to brainstorm and talk through ideas. Performing artists come from many different disciplines and backgrounds, and everyone is encouraged to bring their own ideas to the table throughout the creative process, even after the concept gets to the stage. “You can’t treat the story as precious, boxed and done,” she says.

Depending on the show, anywhere from 20 to 200 artists, designers and technicians can be involved, both onstage and behind the scenes. Every person on the team is constantly striving to create something unique, powerful and memorable, she says.

Cirque du Soleil Allavita

‘We want to transport the audience,’ Monson says. [Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil]

“These are human beings who go beyond our expectations and push themselves to new heights, literally and figuratively. The collective expertise is so important and the sum is always greater than the parts.”

When a show goes live, Monson watches from different perspectives around the theatre, listening for the audience’s reactions to ensure the show has the intended rhythm. (For example, it’s important to avoid two high-energy acts back-to-back because the audience doesn’t get a rest.) The psychology of the audience is crucial to the performance.

“The audience is the final collaborator of any show,” Monson says. “We work in our own artistic laboratory, and you never know what the reaction will be until the public is in the equation.”

After travelling the world and living the Cirque du Soleil experience since 2004, what gets Monson’s heart pounding?

“It’s the contrast between huge moments of spectacle — an act that is fantastic and big and interdisciplinary — and the small, intimate, poetic moments,” she says. “It makes my heart sing when we can appreciate the emotion of both of those types of experiences. We want to transport the audience and have them leave feeling simple, yet powerful, emotions. That’s what it’s about.”

Feeling an audience’s awe never gets stale for Monson. She feels privileged to work with a diverse, passionate group of people to create that experience.

She gives the example of one team of performers that includes a Colombian who grew up on the street, one from an elite circus school in England and one from a travelling circus in France. It’s a diverse group that has come together because of a shared passion.

“It’s very high risk what our performers do,” says Monson. “They don’t speak the same spoken language — but they do from a trust point of view.

“The peril is there to flutter people’s hearts, but the artists must trust each other.”

Monson’s job is unique and wonderful, and she knows it.

“I’m away from my family quite a bit, which is a drawback, but I learn so much from the people I work with,” she says. “They are inspiring.”