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Cirque du Soleil’s return could be its most challenging feat yet

Written by Dan Bilefsky

As COVID-19 vaccinations accelerate around the world, the Cirque du Soleil announced last month that its two longest-running Las Vegas shows, “O” and “Mystère,” will return this summer. “Luzia,” a crowd-pleaser featuring acrobats jumping to and from a pair of huge swings, will open at Royal Albert Hall in London in January. And talks are underway to reopen in China, Japan, South Korea and Spain.

At a time when the pandemic is still raging and uncertainty remains about people’s willingness to return to large theaters, the attempted comeback by the Montreal-based circus is a litmus test of sorts for the live-entertainment industry.

But before Cirque shows can restart, it must put back together a company that was all but dismantled at the start of the pandemic.

During its 400-day hiatus, Cirque’s revenues plummeted to zero, and it shed nearly 4,700 people, or 95% of its workforce, leaving many of the world’s best trapeze artists and acrobats confined at home, unable to practice.

With touring on the horizon, the circus also faces the logistical challenge of navigating different health and safety rules across the globe. “It’s going to take a very long time for the Cirque to come back to what it was before the pandemic — if ever,” said Mitch Garber, who stepped down last year as Cirque’s chair.

Yasmine Khalil, who recently stepped down as Cirque’s executive producer after 25 years at the company, said the group retained a sparkling global brand, while the pandemic offered the radically scaled-down organization the opportunity to reinvent itself.

Under new rules by Clark County, in which Las Vegas sits, shows can proceed with no social distancing once 60% of the state’s eligible population has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Masks will be required. On Thursday, Nevada reported that nearly 47% had received at least one shot.

Cirque must also grapple with out-of-shape circus artists, many of whom have been forced to pursue other ways to make a living.

For Uranbileg Angarag, a Mongolian contortionist, rehearsing favorite moves from home — including putting her legs 180 degrees in front of her head while balancing on a cane in her mouth — has been difficult: The ceiling of her apartment in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, gets in the way. She has supplemented her income by offering online yoga classes.

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