Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2022

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CIRQUE GIVES BACK TO ARTS

With five successful shows on the Strip and a lineage to this city longer than many residents, Cirque du Soleil is now burrowing itself deep into the soul of Las Vegas.

The performance company, which arrived in Las Vegas in 1993, has been teaming with local youth organizations through its Cirque du Monde program. It gave $1 million to help fund the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. It raffles off local cultural events each month to employees. Last year it collaborated with UNLV to present the college's short-film night at its Ka Theatre at the MGM Grand for employees, students and invited guests.

Earlier this month it doled out $7,000 in grants to performing artists and groups in a new program that it plans to expand.

As it is in Montreal - where the company has its headquarters - so shall it be in Las Vegas.

"We're taking in all this money; we want to give back to the community and support artists who were once like Cirque - stilt walkers and fire breathers trying to make enough money to get to the next city," says Danielle Rodenkirchen, cultural action coordinator for Cirque's resident shows division.

If anybody knows the value of a few bucks when times are tough, it's the Cirque du Soleil crew.

Sure they have plenty of cash now, but their humble beginnings as Quebec street performers have become epic lore in the performance world.

Cirque hasn't forgotten its roots. To keep the philanthropic ball rolling, it has been giving 1 percent of its net profit to social programs since 1989, a chunk of which goes to artists and programs throughout the world. Its Montreal office fields as many as 500 arts requests in a year, and it doesn't even have an official grant program. Requests are answered on a case-by-case basis and involve financial support and partnerships that help support and develop artistic companies.

Cirque built its headquarters in Saint-Michel, Montreal's poorest area and site of a large landfill. It helped found Tohu, a nonprofit organization striving to revitalize Saint-Michel culturally and environmentally, and works with Jeunesse du Monde, a Montreal-based program that works with disadvantaged youth through circus arts. Cirque also partners with Oxfam, which works worldwide to end poverty, to raise money for the group's International Youth Parliament.

Its Las Vegas grants were given last week to Project Shakespeare, Rainbow Company Youth Theatre, spoken-word artist Dayvid Figler and writer Jarrett Keene. They were distributed at the opening of an exhibition of visual works by Cirque employees.

It's Cirque's fifth exhibit at the Arts Factory, including a show of works by Canadian photographer Heidi Hollinger, known for her political photography in Russia.

But it doesn't end there. Step out the front door of the building, take a right and you'll see a Cirque du Soleil mural on the side of the S2 Arts Building that the company created with local kids for the Las Vegas Centennial.

The company's big dream would be to move its offices into the city's artistic hub.

"That really is our hope - to have an office downtown," says Karen Gay, director of public, social and cultural affairs for Cirque in Las Vegas. "We'd really like to integrate our culture down here. The arts district is always the soul of every city. We would like to be involved.

"We have our eye out, always."

Moving its local offices downtown would make the company more accessible to the community, Rodenkirchen says.

Gay adds, "We'd love to store costumes in the Arts District, which would help to understand our cultural costumes and how we do it. Maybe even have classes. We make our own shoes, hats, costumes."

But, she says, "Those are down-the-road plans and dreams."

Martin Bundock, Cirque's senior arts integration adviser in Montreal, was in downtown Las Vegas for the grant presentations. He's inspired by the area's potential.

"We want to be part of the development of an art community here," Bundock says. "There is a will, a lot of intention, but not a lot of places to express in Las Vegas. It's really a small artistic community if you think of the size of the city. It needs a lot of support. Cirque du Soleil was born because a few people believed in it and supported it. Hopefully we'll be more influential with the MGM to have some cultural development. Cirque can't be the only company to do it."

Cirque's involvement with the Arts Factory began with a "Mystere" photo exhibit, which compiled performance photos by five Cirque members. The Montreal headquarters has a gallery and exhibits works by its nearly 3,300 employees from its productions.

Jack Solomon, owner of S2 Arts, wants Cirque involved in a sculpture garden planned for Boulder Avenue that would feature work by Israeli sculptor Yaakov Agam and Cirque-inspired statues by figure sculptor Richard McDonald.

Rodenkirchen says Cirque will definitely be involved in the sculpture garden, but says it's too soon to say in what capacity.

Wes Myles, who has been in the Arts District since 1997, when he renovated and opened the Arts Factory, would love to have Cirque be part of downtown:

"It's a huge plus to an arts district to have an arts-friendly organization on that scale, and it's homegrown. They bring a great crowd. They're self-sufficient. They don't ask for any help or money. They just do it."

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