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A Circus Finds a New Animal Trick: Holographic Lions, Elephants, and Whales

The French company L’Écocirque has found an ethical way to keep wild animals in its shows.

L’Écocirque features all the awe-inspiring acts that audiences have come to expect under the big top—aerialists walking a tight rope, a juggler deftly keeping multiple pins in motion, and a burly man displaying incredible feats of strength. What makes it distinct is the innovative way it includes wild animals, despite widespread bans on their use in the circus. The trick? Instead of live animals, l’Écocirque employs holograms.

The French company’s “100% Humain” show, now on tour exclusively in France, showcases projected images of a lion, elephant, and even some beluga whales alongside its human performers, who are illuminated by a massive LED light display and accompanied by a live orchestra playing rock music. In one act, an aerial hoop performer is set against a backdrop of holographic planets that disappear to make way for a moon.

We didn’t want to simply make an animal-free show, we wanted a show with an extra something, says co-founder André-Joseph Bouglione.

L’Écocirque—or the Ecocircus, in English—is the creation of a husband-wife team of animal trainers who hail from circus families. André-Joseph is the youngest grandson of Joseph Bouglione, a lion tamer who, together with his wife and seven children, took the 19th century Cirque d’Hiver in Paris from bankruptcy to national crown jewel after World War II. André-Joseph worked for 25 years as an animal trainer. His wife, Sandrine Bouglione, had a pet elephant as a child and spent a decade honing her animal-taming skills in the U.S. with her father, in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

But touring with animals has become taboo, after decades of activists’ campaigns that shed light on the suffering endured by creatures that would spend most of their lives in cages. France last year announced a ban on wild animals in circus shows, to take effect in 2023. It will join about two dozen other European countries that prohibit their use. In the U.S., Hawaii and New Jersey have banned the use of most wild animals, while California, Illinois, New York, and Rhode Island have some restrictions in place. Many U.S. cities have also imposed limitations.

Over time, André-Joseph and Sandrine Bouglione also became disturbed with the quality of life of their animal performers. Their breaking point came one night when one of their big cats was injured.

We were haunted by the way it looked at us before returning to the cage, André-Joseph says.

They decided to perform without animals and tested the concept with a small show in 2016, featuring just magicians and acrobats. The move prompted harassment from others in the circus industry and led to a rift with the rest of the Bouglione clan.

The backlash only served to spur them on. The couple spent the next three years on their 100% human concept, sourcing some outside funding to help cover the €2.5 million ($2.9 million) development expense. The holograms, created by France’s Adrenaline Studio, cost €400,000. The show’s debut was thwarted by the country’s first Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020. But after limited select performances throughout the pandemic, the 2022 calendar is filling up, with multiple French cities on the list. Still, capacity restrictions mean l’Écocirque is only allowed to sell about 30% of its target of 1,500 tickets for each show. The group would like to do at least triple its current four shows a week.

L’Écocirque is part of a new wave of technology-heavy shows that are following in the footsteps of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, which in the 1980s pioneered productions built around human physical talent, storytelling, and flamboyant visuals. Circus Roncalli, in Germany, also uses hologram animals; Brooklyn-based Hideaway Circus employs virtual-reality technology and 360-degree cameras to stream its performance for anyone with a VR headset; and Two Bit Circus, in Los Angeles, offers live carnival shows paired with VR experiences at its miniature amusement park in a game arcade.

The French company’s name is a nod to its values. The lighting for its shows is powered by renewable energy and it serves locally-sourced refreshments in plastic-free containers. The small group of performers avoids air travel, instead getting around by boat, train, or public transport. Security guards, cleaners, waiters and cashiers are hired on location.

The holograms—and sustainability focus—have real potential to resonate with audiences once capacity rules loosen, which could put l’Écocirque on a path to becoming “the next Cirque du Soleil,” says Oh Young Koo, executive institute fellow at French business school Insead.

The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation but also made people miss interactions in a physical venue, she says, and l’Écocirque offers both. It’s putting people together, but at the same time it’s giving them a virtual-like experience.

The industry is littered with examples of prominent circus companies that have failed to adapt to the times, to their own demise. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus removed elephants from its acts in 2016, bowing to pressure from animal-rights activists. It then shut down in 2017—after 146 years in operation—citing plummeting ticket sales, high operating costs, changing public tastes, and drawn-out battles with animal-rights groups. France’s Cirque Pinder folded after 164 years in 2018, blaming falling audience figures.

Sandrine Bouglione says that removing animals from circuses not only makes business sense—it’s the right thing to do.

Whatever we do, they are born and die inside a cage, just to entertain people, she says. We can’t just keep doing circus like our grandparents used to do.

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