The slow-motion shutdown of Cirque du Soleil should have been an early warning of the disaster to come. The novel coronavirus was still considered a local problem in late January, when the world’s largest circus producer canceled performances of The Land of Fantasy, its first and only permanent offering in China. Within two months, the virus had spread to every corner of the world.
“Everything was going very well,” recalls Diane Quinn, Cirque’s chief creative officer, who had visited the show in Hangzhou, near the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, just a few weeks earlier.
The abrupt cancellation of The Land of Fantasy was a serious blow to profits, but a manageable one. Cirque still had 43 other shows around the world. COVID-19 would not have an official name for a few more weeks, and even as late as early March, the idea that it could grind the entire world to a halt seemed unimaginable.
An outbreak in Italy was an inflection point for the company. Cirque had a show set to open in Rome—its tent was already erected and tickets were being sold—when the event’s promoter called it off. The show would have gone on to Milan, but that would clearly be impossible after the Italian government locked down the entire country on March 9.
One by one, the dominos fell—more cancellations, more travel restrictions, more bad news. “As the virus spread across Europe and ultimately into North America, we realized, boy, we’re going to have a problem on our hands,” Quinn says.