Behind the scenes of Cabaret Celeste at a vanity mirror, Matthew Richardson (AKA Jessica Bigtop) is brushing on electric blue eyeshadow preparing for the evening’s performance. In a few hours, Richardson will be commanding the stage at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, emceeing a sultry cirque-meets-cabaret show, smoothly transitioning between French and English for the mixed-language Montreal audience and also rolling around the stage at the axis of a giant Cyr wheel in a gracious and precise dance with the law of gravity.
“Everyone has their own superpower,” says Richardson, 37, a former graphic design artist who entered the world of cirque more than a decade ago. “I find in general, though, that circus artists are kind, humble people and we all admire each other.”
When the pandemic hit and large meetings were put on pause, a lobby-level conference room at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth entered its second act and began serving as the venue for the Cabaret Celeste show which brings a troupe of jugglers, acrobats, hoopers and other performers to the stage.
Now, in addition to a chic tea time at Rosélys Restaurant and immersing in the museum-like suite where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their legendary Bed-In for Peace, the cirque show provides a unique experience for guests at the historic hotel. And, in a city that’s recognized as the hub for modern-day cirque in North America, the hotel is taking things a step further and inviting guests to embrace in an element of escapism and run off to join the circus (even if just for a day).
The hotel’s Ultimate Circus Experience package includes VIP tickets for Cabaret Celeste, a 90-minute show set in a 200-seat venue that’s been transformed into a midnight blue starscape. The package also comes with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cirque Éloize creative studios (including, yes, a peek into the costume closet that’s bursting with colors and plumes of feathers) as well as an introductory circus workshop with the professionals, some of whom perform in the Cabaret Celeste.
The historic Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, which underwent a $140 million transformation in 2016, is designed to serve as a launch pad for seeing, tasting and feeling everything that the city has to offer, with views of Montreal’s skyline from the The Nacarat bar that hovers over René-Lévesque Boulevard and easy access to the famed Underground City it sits atop. When the 21-floor hotel made its debut in April 1958, it was considered a masterpiece in innovation as it was constructed above Central Station and required smart engineering to overcome the vibrations of passing trains.
Today, the innovation continues, this time with the pressure of a pandemic and reinventing spaces. Even with the cirque legacy in Montreal, The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth became the first hotel in Eastern Canada to offer entertainment within a hotel property’s walls, similar to a Las Vegas-style residency and with an immersive component for circus-curious guess.
At the workshop in the offsite Éloize creative studio, tourists can get an overview of the specialized cirque skills, and they are invited to try their hand at beginner acts while under the guidance of those who have mastered the skills. Stations include juggling lessons (think of an arc above your head and start by throwing balls side to side) and hula-hooping tutorials to get hoops swiveling around your hips and up and down your arms.
To get your adrenaline going, an aerial silk hanging in the studio invites you to cocoon yourself in the fabric, and flip upside down with your ankles hooked on the silks and arms stretched out in a “ta-da” pose. Then, monkey around on the trapeze and test your core strength on the apparatus.
Oh, and if you do end up discovering that you have a calling, it’s worth mentioning that the National Circus School is located in Montreal