01/22/2013 02:35 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Premature Vultures Circle Cirque du Soleil

It is unfortunate that "zirkusschadenfreude" is not an actual German word, because there seemed to be a lot of it flying around last week, that is to say, "joy at the unhappiness of a circus." Many news outlets and commentators were pulling out the wordplay a bit gleefully last week on the news that Canada's famed Cirque du Soleil was laying off 400 employees after almost three decades of spectacular growth and acclaim. "Is the sun going down?" asked England's The Independent.

The layoff announcement was the latest in a string of bad news emanating from Cirque, which has of late dealt with several shows closing much earlier than expected; Iris at the one-time Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles is the most recent casualty. A couple of years ago, New York witnessed the protracted birth and rapid death cycle of Banana Shpeel (which inexplicably went on national tour); Zarkana limped through two seasons at Radio City Musical Hall before being packed off to Nevada, where an Elvis-themed show had recently underwhelmed. There have been failures internationally as well.

Needless to say, the Canadian press followed the story most closely, given that this is a major employer and national treasure downsizing. On one newscast I watched, the anchor blithely asked Globe and Mail reporter J. Kelly Nestruck whether "greed" was a factor, seemingly misunderstanding or disliking the idea of commercial success that Cirque has enjoyed in spades. To his credit, Nestruck parried by saying it was perhaps a certain lack of attention and over-accelerated growth.

Now I should say that as an audience member, I'm wildly ambivalent about Cirque. I've seen them six times as I recall: their first U.S. tour, of Nouvelle Experiénce, in Seattle in 1990; Mystère at Treasure Island in Las Vegas circa 1998; the Dralion tour in Santa Monica in 1999; O and Love in Vegas in 2010, and Zarkana at Radio City Musical Hall in 2011. You'll notice a 10 year hiatus, and that's because after my enthusiasm for Nouvelle, my second and third experiences seemed diminishing returns; only years of emphatic recommendations brought me back two years ago, to my utter delight.

Then Zarkana brought me crashing back to dismay, and their 3-D movie this winter, Worlds Away, was a particular letdown. The movie, which hasn't burned up U.S. box offices, was nothing more than a flimsy premise connecting pieces of their Vegas shows. I had been hoping that Cirque might reinvent film narrative the way they reinvented circuses, only to find myself watching a minimally conceived and eccentrically shot and edited greatest hits package.

I take no pleasure in the retrenchment of Cirque. But frankly, while I feel for those losing jobs, a company that has proven that live artistic undertakings can reach mass audiences can only be strengthened by reminders that they are not infallible, even when they're working at such astronomically budgeted scales. I would dearly love to wield phrases like, "What clown was keeping their books," but that fails to draw out what can be learned from the current troubles.

One has to applaud the entrepreneurship of co-founder and owner Guy Laliberté, who took the company from street performers to veritable rock stars, making it almost impossible for most circuses to survive unless they dropped "circus" for "cirque"; I am less sanguine about Soleil's efforts to monopolize the word. As the world has grown more sensitive to the treatment of animals at circuses, their completely human entertainment carries no whiff of exploitation or cruelty, even as we may wonder how people learn the superhuman skills on display.

My own back and forth opinions on the shows themselves may be reflective of erratic quality control and perhaps overproduction (they recently began producing several new shows annually instead of one), but O and Love were so remarkable that I'm eager to see them again, even at $150 a ticket, and I'm regretting having skipped Ka, which I hear is also incredible. I'm not the first to suggest that Cirque is most successful when they're in venues specifically built, or radically refurbished, for their sit-down shows; perhaps they have grown too big for the big top.

Producing to "fill slots" is often the bane of performing arts organizations; they have to put on something to give to their audiences, and perhaps they don't always have sufficient brilliant ideas to fill the available holes. By creating more slots, surely Cirque has created the same problem for itself. The news reports also suggest that expenses weren't carefully controlled, and that will fell any business; outside of real world arts, we can watch the same problem played out on Downton Abbey.

It's very hard, when you've come so far, so fast, to stop and take a breath and reassess. But Cirque is no different than any performing arts organization, even if it no longer relies on public subsidy. It may need to get back to its core values. It can look to the simpler, grittier and altogether wonderful Les 7 doigts de la main (known in NYC for Traces), a mini-circus at the most human level. They succeed in no small part because the performers seem like people you might meet on the street, who go out of the way to personalize the performance and ingratiate themselves with the audience, making their feats that much more awesome. There is no wailing of indeterminately ethnicized pop music, no waddling oddballs spouting gibberish, just skill.

Stopping to remember that circus is in fact a form of theatre, and never more so than when it eschews animals, I'm eager to see Cirque's Amaluna, directed by American Repertory Theatre's artistic director Diane Paulus, to see how her theatrical sensibility infuses the Cirque formula. It's interesting to note that Paulus is also coming to Broadway with a Cambridge-bred Pippin revival created in collaboration with 7 doits, further exploring theatre as circus and circus as theatre. The two may well be worthwhile case studies for Cirque (though Paulus is not the only theatre director to collaborate with them).

Despite avoiding them for 10 years, I remain hopeful for Cirque du Soleil, as performing arts wunderkind, as entrepreneurial model and, believe it or not, as "my" circus. I was never taken to a circus in my youth; my only "regular" circuses are the Big Apple Circus in 1984 when I was 22, Circus Vargas in about 1989 and Circus Flora (at the Spoleto Festival) in 2003. The only other experiences I've ever had at a circus have been with the Canadians -- that's right: no Ringling Brothers. That means that 66% of my lifetime circus-going has been with Cirque du Soleil (Traces was performed in a 499 seat theatre). Cirque has thrilled me and disappointed me, but for better or worse, it's what I've known. Unless they are overwhelmed by hubris, mismanagement or both, Cirque should to be around for a long time, and reports of their doom are not merely exaggerated but unfounded.

Yes, Cirque is a corporation now, with 14 million tickets sold a year and $1 billion in revenue; sympathy may be in short supply. It needs to ground itself before it flies again, econonomically and creatively. Cirque might look to the late 70s and early 80s, when people said Disney was on the ropes as well, and the company came back only stronger, proving that family entertainment can endure. Cirque du Soleil is not too big to fail, but the company is too inventive and successful to quickly start counting out, like so many clowns in a car.