Cirque Got Back In The Air In China

Many have probably heard about the Broadway productions in South Korea which only experienced a brief shutdown thanks to the swift and fairly comprehensive measures the government and productions put in place to combat Covid-19. Come to find out, there is a Cirque du Soleil production in Hangzhou, China which managed to get back into production in May despite China being an early epicenter of the disease. The China show didn’t start performing again until July, however.  It was one of two Cirque productions performing at the time of the article was written. (I am not sure what the other production is. I see Mystere is running in Vegas, but the other Vegas productions don’t start until October.)

During the shutdown period, many of acrobats cobbled together practice routines to maintain their strength and flexibility since their normal training faculties were unavailable. One of the biggest challenges the production faced was that many of their foreign performers had left the country and couldn’t re-enter in order to rejoin the show.  They ended up having to basically revamp the performances and supporting technology to integrate all the changes into the overarching narrative concept.

Over a manic three-week period, “X” hired over a dozen replacement actors and acrobats from troupes across China, who had to be trained and taught the show in its entirety.

Scenes containing foreign stars were replaced and re-choreographed. A duo of figure-skating Russians was swapped out for a group of Cyr wheel performers, who roll around the stage inside giant metal hoops. The high-flying bungee rope artists were substituted for a “water meteor” juggling act. Local trampoline specialists created a simplified version of the show’s original “trampowall” segment, in which the experienced foreign artists would flip and spin off of a high vertical wall.

Changing or cutting acts is routine during Cirque shows, but making so many changes while remaining faithful to the “X” storyline was a huge challenge, according to Chouinard.


The hardest-working crewmembers were the technical team, who had to adjust the music, graphics, lighting, and animations to fit with the altered show. Each change, meanwhile, had to be discussed and approved by Cirque’s headquarters back in Canada.

What was most surprising to learn was that the Chinese producers, Xintiandi,  were able to continue paying the bills for their idled production even as Cirque du Soleil was filing for bankruptcy protection. Still, despite Xintiandi’s substantial cash reserves, they have been renting out their performance facility to other events in an attempt to offset the reduced income resulting from a mandatory 50% seating capacity and weakened tourism outlook for Hangzhou.

Between February and June, Xintiandi continued to pay staff wages, venue bills, financial payments, and maintenance costs, without earning 1 yuan in income.

The Chinese firm, meanwhile, still has to pay Cirque an annual licensing fee for the show. When Sixth Tone spoke with Xia in July, she said the company was currently negotiating this year’s payment with its Canadian partner, with a slight grimace.

The deep pockets of Xintiandi have enabled the show to absorb these losses, but the current 50% attendance limit means the show can’t run profitably.

Live From Our Fire Escape

Today Drew McManus had a post on Adaptistration titled “In the Age Of COVID, Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention.” This was pretty timely because I had my own tale of adapting to the times to tell.

This weekend at my venue, we hosted our first live event since March -an outdoor cabaret performance on our fire escape. (Not so much an invention, I suppose since the first thing people did when the pandemic started was sing from their apartment windows and fire escapes.)

As you can see from the pictures below, we have a pretty substantial fire escape with multiple levels that can be used for performance. Since this was our first time out and we didn’t want to expose more of our equipment to the summer heat and possible rain than necessary, we limited our activities to one level.

The audience sat in our parking lot. As you can see, we prepped the parking lot by chalking out seating pods. The seating was general admission and we undersold what we imagined our capacity to be in order to provide both our audience and ourselves with the flexibility to see how things developed.

We determined the size and number of pods to create by analyzing the ticket purchasing patterns. We drew out two person, four person, six person and in one case 10 person, pods based on how people purchased their tickets. The pods were spaced to allow six feet between groups of unrelated people. Then we allowed enough room on the perimeter for people who felt the need for greater distancing to set up as they wanted.

Our aim was to observe how many people chose the pods versus the open areas in order to get a sense of what our actual capacity for the space might be while ensuring good sightlines. We capped the event at 175 people, but now figure we can get up to about 250 and still ensure appropriate spacing and flexibility in seating location.

Our local mask ordinance requires that if you are anywhere outside your home within six feet of a person with whom you do not live, you must wear a mask. The example given is if you are waiting at a crosswalk alone, you don’t have to wear a mask, but if someone arrives to wait with you, you need to be wearing one.

Since people were coming with picnic set-ups or could grab food from partner restaurants and didn’t have to wear a mask while eating, our policy was you could only sit with people in your household and could remove your mask while seated in your pod with them. Since moving to and from that space requires becoming closer to others, you needed to wear a mask as you moved about everywhere else. By and large everyone heeded the rule and those that didn’t we firmly prodded to comply.

One bit of fortunate timing was about three weeks ago the local government expanded permission to have open containers on downtown streets from First Friday only to every night between 4 pm-10 pm to allow bar patrons to use sidewalk tables restaurants and the downtown association had deployed. This allowed us to serve alcohol out of our own bar which helped improve the financial situation of the event.

Overall, it was regarded as a success and we are planning to run at least one more before it gets too cool this Fall. Stay tuned.

The Man Who Decided To Raise Artists Instead of Chickens

It was with some sorrow that I learned this week that a great man who has literally been part of the grassroots effort to provide arts experiences to young people died last week. Albert Appel who, with his wife Clare, founded, or he might say floundered, into establishing an arts and music camp just turned 98 on July 5. A tribute to his life appears on the Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus website.

When I say he was literally part of a grassroots effort, it is because when he and his wife started giving music lessons to neighbor kids back around 1960, he was running a farm with 20,000 chickens, feed crops, and other animals. Gradually, the chickens began to be replaced by children. Again, literally. When I worked on the concert presenting side of the organization back in the early 2000s, two of the camp dorms were still refurbished chicken coops and were referred to as North & South Coop.

Albert, and his wife Clare, who had passed away before I started working there, are an admonishment against making assumptions about the artistic interests and capabilities of farmers. Albert trained to be a farmer, but he also played violin. He actually met Clare when friends told him they needed a violinist to fill out their string quartet.

The way Albert liked to tell it, he and Clare started the camp because kids would come over for music lessons and would never go home so he started charging their parents to let them hang around his house.

When I moved to South Jersey to take the job in winter 2000, I was told I could live in Albert’s house until I found a place of my own. I was given two room that used to be offices for the camp. As you moved through Albert’s house you could see that they had continued to add on to the house to accommodate camp activities. There were also some out buildings behind the house that got used. Finally, they moved a lot of the operations across the road–into the chicken coops, among other buildings. However, some of the original rooms continued to be used as living quarters for the camp counselors and staff during my tenure there.

The founding philosophy of the camp was that every kid has the capacity for creative expression. Come to think of it, working there may have serve to form my own views along those lines. A camper’s day was spent pursuing one major and two minors. The major was the area they identified as their core interest or area of experience and the minors were things they hadn’t really done, but wanted to explore. The subjects ranged from acting, dancing, music, ceramics, painting, photography, creative writing, video production.

Due to security concerns, folks like myself who didn’t work for the camp program weren’t generally allowed on the grounds past the administration building. However, I frequently helped distribute the mail and even without hearing them say it, it was clear that for a lot of those kids camp was a place they felt they could be themselves surrounded by people with similar interests versus who they had to be at home and at school.

But as I said, I wasn’t directly involved with the camp. My job was to run the operations for the concert series and music festival as well as to support the school outreach efforts. I count myself lucky to have lived in Albert’s house for a short time because even after I moved out, I would get invited to join him and his second wife, Peimin, when they were entertaining guests. Often it was groups like the Corigliano Quartet who were staying over in preparation for school residencies.

Albert would often pull out his violin to play or talk about his children’s music lessons on various instruments. Nearly all of Albert’s children play an instrument to some extent or another. His son Toby is a violist on the Julliard faculty. One story I recall involved inducements for him to practice piano. There are also a couple wild stories about Albert I heard from his kids.

Albert was definitely a character. Even though the livestock and poultry mostly departed the farm, all campers were required to work in the camp garden and the vegetables all made it to the kitchen for meals. Albert often gave the gardeners a hard time about how they were going about planting. A farmer can never really retire. He was just as passionate about creating an environment for people to cut loose with creative expression. At 80, he was pulling out his violin to play beside the campers. You would also hear the low drone of the instrument across the fields in the middle of the winter.

Obviously at 98, his death wasn’t unexpected but it is still saddening. Though at his 80th birthday party, he kept joking that if he had known he would live as long as he had, he would have taken better care of himself and he might have already made it to 90. Apparently someone was taking good care of him if he was so seriously pushing 100.

His legacy runs much deeper than thousands of kids attending arts camp over 60 years. As I mentioned, when I worked there the other nine months of the year were devoted to a concert series, school outreach programs and a pretty active conference calendar. Shortly after I left, Appel Farm started offering afternoon and evening arts classes to kids and adults and were the arts content provider for a local school district.

Now they have added a Families to College program that works with the whole family to provide an environment aligned with increasing the chances of success for college bound students. They are also involved with providing a charter school STEAM program. In a rural portion of southern NJ, programs like these can have big impacts.

I am sure there has been some positive impact on the economy of Elmer, NJ and Salem County that wouldn’t have existed if Appel Farm Arts and Music Center wasn’t there. But when we talk about the value of the arts, few would have the patience to wait 90 years, or smaller increment thereof, to see the result of giving 8 year old Albert music lessons. (Or his wife Clare for that matter, I am told she eclipsed him in passion for the camp’s mission.) And yet, there are thousands upon thousands of people who will attest to the immeasurable value of their experiences.

Fulfilling Mission Vs. Fulfilling Design

Drew McManus has recently rolled out a video podcast on the Adaptistration site with the goal of addressing topics facing the orchestra business. Today, he posted the second episode title, Art Has Always Been Political, with guests Jason Haaheim and Weston Sprott.

They get to discussing the familiar topic of how the non-profit model in the U.S. has tended to reinforce the values and demographic composition of those who had the money to support non-profits. Right around the 23:10 mark, Sprott approaches the fact many arts organizations reflect a very wealthy, Caucasian demographic from the point of view of mission vs. design.

He says that many arts non-profits fail to live up to their mission statements, mostly by virtue of the fact that those statements are idealized visions of reality.  From the design perspective, they are operating exactly as intended:

“…if you shift the paradigm and think, is this organization serving the group of people that it was designed to serve, then that is yes…Now that doesn’t mean that the group of people that it was designed to serve is the correct group or an inclusive group, but it is what it was designed to serve.  If you have an administration and a board and everyone that funds you fits in one, in general, to one demographic, then it’s not surprising that the people that perform and the people that attend the concerts…all fit into that demographic.  It was designed to be that way.

I don’t think that a lot of opera companies or The Met, for example, were designed with the idea that we want to make sure that people from all cultures and backgrounds, including black people and brown people and other groups who are marginalized feel like they are truly comfortable in our space. So that is a different question..Does our mission say we reach those people? Yeah it does. Was our organization designed  to reach those people and is it structured to reach those people? It’s not.

This reinforces what Nina Simon says in The Art of Relevance  about needing to create more doors through which the people you wish to serve can enter. While some of those doors may indeed be physical if you are designating space for new people, in most cases they are conceptual. But require no less effort than a construction project in order to properly revise staffing, board composition, funding, programming so that the organization is designed to serve this broader range of people.


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