Behind the Curtain

The Big Top: Our Home Away From Home

Some travel light with their carry-on, others travel with over 90 tons of equipment.

For many, as soon as our eponymous tents peak on the horizon, it is an unmistakable sign that something extraordinary is about to unfurl on their city and will leave awe and memories behind.  

Years of experience for our crews made it very possible for us to travel around whole continents with all we need to put on a show. From the floorboards to the four flags towering over the Big Top, we bring everything with us.  

Attending Montreal’s Push 

Artists, employees, and yours truly gathered in the Old Port of Montreal on March 1st to watch the Big Top rise from the ground for the 26th time on Jacques-Cartier Pier. Slowly but surely, Cirque du Soleil ECHO’s world premiere is growing nearer. 

One of the most crucial steps ahead of the launch was to rebuild the stage and decor, brought in from the practice studios, at the Montreal International Headquarters. This way, artists can familiarize themselves with the full set inside the freshly raised Big Top, including the backstage areas. We wouldn’t want our performers and crew getting lost on their opening night! 

It Takes a Village 

Raising the Big Top is not quite like setting up a camping tent. Though imaginative people could find similarities, the 7-days process requires the help of short–term local employees to give a hand to the crew that travels with the show – a bit more complex than planting pickets on a camping ground, right?   

All this manpower comes together to raise the Big Top in three stages:

First, after the 4 masts have been installed and outfitted with their four flags – we always fly the Quebec, the Canadian, the Cirque du Soleil, and local flags of the city we’re visiting – the roof is laid out on the ground and hooked to a system on pulleys high up on the masts. The crew uses levers simultaneously around the tent to crank the cables and bring it to its desired height. 

The second step is to solidify the suspended structure and anchor it to the ground. Going clockwise around the tent, the crew pushes hundreds of metal poles up to support the roof. It is a very dangerous and demanding task that requires collaboration and precision.  To make sure everything we’ve worked on stays in place, the Big Top is bolted into the ground by 1,000 4-feet-deep stakes.

Finally, before moving on putting the rest of the site together, the crew completes the outside of the Big Top by affixing the walls of the tent. 

All is Calculated and Nothing is Unaccounted For 

Nothing is left to chance under our Big Top. Artists need a sturdy and trustworthy structure to perform on. A single missing screw from the rig could potentially lead to a life-threatening injury, and we want to avoid this unfortunate outcome at all costs.

Since the devil is in the details, our team thought out and finetuned many elements of the Big Top to meet the different standards of multiple departments. 

For example, the white colored canvas helps counter the effects of the sun, by reducing greatly our energy consumption and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, these choices led us to enroll experts to help us achieve our goals.

The artistry of making Big Tops is a very rare trade nowadays, because fewer touring circuses around the world perform under tents. Since 1984, Cirque du Soleil canvases have been hand made by t at La Tour du Pin in France, at the Ferrari Workshops. It takes 14 artisans and between 10 and 12 weeks to craft the signature Cirque du Soleil canvas. 

It Feels Bigger on the Inside 

From ground level to the top of the highest mast, we reach an imposing height of 85 feet, giving us the possibility of raising the roof to 60 feet high. Even though it’s built with heavy-duty materials, it’s still a tent, but the way it’s constructed, and the canvas used, make it robust enough to withstand winds up to 75 miles per hour.  

From afar, you might not get how big the structure is. Once you enter the Big Top, the sheer size of the construction might strike you. Both tall and voluminous, the space of ECHO’s Big Top was designed to accommodate over 2,500 seats. A big step up from our first Big Top, used all the way back in 1984, that could only fit 800 spectators!

Visit a Big Top Near you 

Care to see the imposing structure for yourself? Many of our touring shows are making their way around the globe with their very own Big Top. Find a representation near you here.



Cover image curtesy of JF Savaria.