Cirque du Soleil: Meet the Yorkshire man behind Cirque du Soleil's successful touring shows

Leeds-born Duncan Fisher left school and ran away to the circus.Now he is heading back to his roots as head of Cirque du Soleil's touring shows. He talks to Catherine Scott about his career.

Cirque du Soleil is famous around the world for its stunning and colourful acrobatic performances which entertain audiences across the globe. The man behind these successful touring shows is Yorkshireman Duncan Fisher.

An acrobat and performer, Leeds born Fisher joined Cirque du Soleil in 2018, moving to the business side of things, he ascended the ranks and is now President of the Touring Show Division, managing the operations of the huge worldwide portfolio of touring shows.

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He is the only performer to have gone on to reach this level of seniority in the business and is now bringing their new OVO show to Leeds next month.

A performer in OVO Picture Vlad LorenzoA performer in OVO Picture Vlad Lorenzo
A performer in OVO Picture Vlad Lorenzo

“I started gymnastics when I was about seven years old,” he tells me via Zoom from his now home in Montreal Canada – also the home of Cirque du Soleil. "My mum was a teacher at St Oswald’s in Guiseley and I went there. And so when one of the teachers started a gymnastics club I was volunteered by my mum – and it turned out I wasn’t so bad.”

A young Fisher was asked to train at what was then the Leeds Athletic Institute. He became Yorkshire champion in under 14 and under 15.

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He was in the Junior British squad and attended Leeds Grammar School. There were no professional gymnasts at that time – to be professional you had to become an acrobat and he was asked by a friend to join the knockabout comedy trampoline group the Halfwits.

Duncan FisherDuncan Fisher
Duncan Fisher

And so at 18 he left school and joined the troupe, which didn’t go down well at all with his parents who had paid for him to go through private school.

"They had very different plans for me but I went off to do pantomime with Cannon and Ball, Christopher Biggins and Bernadette Nolan.”

They were offered a nine month contract in America with the Tarzan Zerbini International Circus. "I said I’d give it a go and if it didn’t work out I’d come back and apply for university or something.” He travelled out to America for nine months in 1991 and is still there – albeit now in Canada.

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“It was a really traditional style circus, lions and tigers, sawdust – everyone did everything. Pretty much the first day Tarzan asked if we wanted to make some more money. We loaded the trucks and did everything it took to take the show from city to city. We moved sometimes twice a week so we had a lot of practice of putting up and down the big top, loading the trucks, taking down the seats.”

Duncan- Halfwits in Babes in the Wood, Birmingham Hippodrome 1989Picture Roger RobinsonDuncan- Halfwits in Babes in the Wood, Birmingham Hippodrome 1989Picture Roger Robinson
Duncan- Halfwits in Babes in the Wood, Birmingham Hippodrome 1989Picture Roger Robinson

After six months Fisher was in charge of putting up the tent. By the following year he was managing the entire transfer from one city to the next, all while still performing his trampoline and acrobatic show. He was then approached by UniverSoul Circus based in Atlanta, Georgia.

“They just wanted me to do the operations side of things – they didn’t want me to perform. It was a really big decision for me, I was only 25, I was young and capable but I took it and looking back that’s what set me on my path much quicker than my peers who were still performing. I’ve done every single job on a circus. Now that I sit in my office no one can say that I don’t know what’s going on – I’ve done it all.”

Fisher is now president of the touring arm of the world’s most famous circus, Cirque du Soleil, and will return to Leeds next month along with 23 trucks when their new show OVO sets up base at Leeds First Direct Arena.

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“When we’re doing an arena tour, we only need 23,” he says. “When it’s a Big Top show, we bring 80. OVO is set in an insect colony, and stars an intrepid voyaging insect. It features clowns, contortionists, a girl suspended by her hair – and two Olympians. Expect lots of Brazilian influences in the colours, music and dance, some incredible acrobatics and a little bit of a love story,” explains Fisher.

Duncan at Premiere in Osaka Japan.Duncan at Premiere in Osaka Japan.
Duncan at Premiere in Osaka Japan.

“At Cirque du Soleil, we don’t just create stories – we create worlds. We’re much more interested in the audience imagining their own narrative than telling them what’s happening.”Cirque du Soleil – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year - is famous for it’s innovative colourful shows and breathtaking acrobatics – but the logistics of moving ten different shows a year and 1,300 people around the globe is a challenge.

“Anything in a Big Top tent, an arena or a theatre – anything that moves is in my division. Just organising which continent the shows are in, which city they are in and where they are moving to is very challenging. We work two years ahead.”

However the biggest challenge in Cirque’s history was the Covid pandemic which hit just two years after Fisher joined as Vice President.

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“It was catastrophic for live entertainment – but it was the worst time of my life and the best time – career-wise,” he admits. “We are the biggest entertainment company in the world that produces its own shows – as a result we have the most bills. When our revenue went from $1billion a year to zero overnight we were the ones more in trouble than anyone else.

“Within weeks of the pandemic happening Cirque du Soleil went into bankruptcy. It really was the worst time of my career. But the biggest thing we had going for us was the brand. Even though we went into bankruptcy there were lines of people queuing up to buy the company – so there was really no doubt in my mind that Cirque would come back.”

By then end of 2020 they had new owners who gave Fisher The green light to start again. “From there it became the best job I have ever had. To be able to relaunch ten shows from nothing and to be able to bring everybody back to work was just amazing.

Picture by Patrick BeaudryPicture by Patrick Beaudry
Picture by Patrick Beaudry

"We’d kept in contact with the the 1,500 people we’d had to lay off. And when I organised a Zoom call to let people know we would definitely be back I thought a couple of hundred would attend – there were 1,400 people on that call. That was one of the best calls I have ever made.”

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It took a year and half to get all the shows back on the road and now they are back to full strength.

He puts his success and resilience very much down to his childhood in Leeds. “The discipline I had as a gymnast training every night after school – that work ethic and belonging of a team has definitely given me the resilience I need. I’m pleased to bring Cirque to Leeds which gives me an excuse to come home.”

OVO is at Leeds First Direct Arena from April 4-7

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