Cirque du Soleil artists unhappy about tour stop in Saudi Arabia

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A performance of Toruk — The First Flight at the Bell Centre in Montreal in December 2015. The Cirque du Soleil production was inspired by the James Cameron film Avatar.

Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette

Recent international criticism focusing on Saudi Arabia has proven insufficient to convince the Cirque du Soleil to cancel shows scheduled there next month, and some artists with the world famous troupe are not happy.

After stops in Italy, Germany and Croatia, the Quebec troupe is to stop in Riyadh from Dec. 17 to 29 and present 17 performances of Toruk, The First Flight, a show inspired by the James Cameron film Avatar.

Cirque president and CEO Daniel Lamarre is to be on hand for the show.

But in light of recent events that have triggered an international political crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world, some artists are asking how the Cirque, which has been planning the Saudi tour for a year after an earlier attempt to perform there did not pan out, can keep the kingdom on its tour schedule.

“The approach is dogmatic and the message being sent by the company is: ‘We’re a business, we want to make money and we’re an apolitical business’,” said one member of the Toruk company who didn’t want to be named for fear of repercussions.

That artist and others employed on the tour have decided to publicly express their uneasiness after Cirque founder Guy Laliberté did the same on Oct. 25 in regards to a show the company performed in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23.

While that event took place before the Oct. 2 killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the performance occurred while Canada was engaged in a high-profile diplomatic dispute with the kingdom.

Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has led to international condemnation of Saudi Arabia and numerous cancellations at an economic summit organized by the kingdom.

One of the four objectives of the Cirque, according to its website, is to “behave as a responsible agent for change in communities.”

“We are no longer an agent of change,” said another Cirque employee. “We no longer think Saudi Arabia will take steps to modernize itself. It’s a commercial decision. From now on, the Cirque is nothing more than a business.”

The employee noted that, two years ago, the Cirque cancelled shows in North Carolina to protest a state law limiting protection for the LGBT community against discrimination.

“It would be a lie to say this hasn’t created a malaise,” Cirque spokesperson Marie-Hélène Lagacé said. “We’ve had discussions with our employees on this. … The reaction to these events has been quite emotional.”

Lagacé said the decision to go ahead with the tour was “very difficult to take” and added the Cirque had decided to use a “consistent” approach in its “business decisions concerning all of the markets in which it offers shows.”

“In (withdrawing) from Saudi Arabia, we would have to do so elsewhere if we wanted to be consistent,” she said, noting the Cirque performs in more than 60 countries.

“How could we justify not going to this country when, potentially, we could go to other markets where the issues are just as serious?

“We have come to the conclusion that what we do in life is perform shows, offer entertainment that can inspire people. It’s important that our presence in any market on Earth not be a political act.”

Meanwhile, the artists who spoke with the Presse Canadienne say they will accompany the tour to Saudi Arabia, pointing out that failure to do so could see their contract for Toruk cancelled. The tour runs until June and ends in London.

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