“We’re Off and Running II, Part 1 of 4: The Company”

In “We’re Off and Running”, the 16-part series that we concluded last month, Fascination! explored some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows (from Le Cirque Réinventé through to Varekai) as they took their first steps across North America. Sometimes the coverage was just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there was a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times the article was an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. Although we narrowed our series to focus on touring shows that had hit the road before Fascination began publication (with the exception of Varekai), what of Cirque’s signature resident shows? What interesting blurbs did we uncover about Mystere, “O”, La Nouba or even the company itself in the course of our investigation? Enough, as it turns out, for “We’re Off and Running II”, a four-part sequel series to begin… right now with a double-helping of articles about Cirque du Soleil as a company.

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By: Doug Lindeman & Michael Small | People Magazine
May 2, 1988

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up to Cirque du Soleil, the greatest…well, one of the greatest shows on earth. You’ll thrill to the sight of a single circus ring that has never been marked with the hoofprint of a wild beast. You won’t see packs of pachyderms stand on their heads, but you will gape in awe at the multiple talents of performers who play clowns and then transform themselves into acrobats, trapeze artists and jugglers. You won’t see an alligator tamer wrestle with the jaws of death, but you’ll swoon as two tango dancers culminate their romance with an amazing hand-balancing act. And you’ll gasp as a tightrope walker jetés across the wire while playing a haunting theme on the oboe.

Okay, so razzmatazz-wise, Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) isn’t exactly Ringling Brothers, but that’s just the point. The 4-year-old troupe has captured the imagination of audiences across North America by replacing circus pomp with up-close, often beautiful surprises and some unusual thrills. In a comparatively tiny 1,754-seat tent, Cirque doesn’t need a pack of exotic aerialists when a lone trapeze artist can stop heartbeats by swooping just a few feet above the heads of spectators, without a net. So successful was the troupe’s scheduled three-week run at the Los Angeles Festival last September—attended by such stars as Joan Rivers, Dustin Hoffman and David Bowie—that it returned for four months, and Columbia Pictures bought film rights to the little big top’s story. The show finally closed so Cirque could begin a four-week run in San Francisco on April 8.

“Because you’re so close,” said one satisfied L.A. customer, Sandy Gillis, 31, “you can see their facial expressions, beads of sweat and their muscles tensing up. It’s more fun to watch than a bunch of spangly headdresses and froufrou costumes.” Troupe member Debra Brown sees other reasons for the show’s success: “Usually a circus has spectacle but no heart, or intellect but no risk. What’s exciting about this one is that it has a balance.”
As far back as the 1890s, Barnum & Bailey set a bigger-is-better standard for circuses with shows that included 1,200 players, 338 horses and 20 elephants. But the past two decades have brought a revival of the simpler one-ring circus popularized by British Sgt. Maj. Philip Astley in 1768. While New York’s Big Apple Circus (PEOPLE, Jan. 11) and San Francisco’s Pickle Circus perform traditional stunts in one ring, Cirque du Soleil takes advantage of the single ring’s intimacy to merge acrobatics with refined acting. “I’d rather feed three artists than one elephant,” says founder and director Guy Laliberté, 28, who hired 27 players ranging in ages from 7 to 36. Their performance follows a vague story line about a group of frumpily dressed, awkward people who are transformed by a magical queen into circus stars for a couple of hours before they revert to their lesser selves again. Dreamlike purple and gold lighting sets the mood as a five-piece band plays a romantic score on synthesizers and woodwinds. Brown, 33, a former coach for the Canadian Olympic gymnastics team, carefully plans every move in the ring. “When you think of dance, you think of people on two feet,” she says, “but my choreography explores four feet because of the way acrobats use their hands.”

Laliberté, a college dropout whose mother is a pianist and whose father is a vice president of an aluminum company, was once just another itinerant musician—fire breather—stilt walker. He honed his skills in Baie Saint Paul, an artists colony 55 miles northeast of Quebec City where street performers congregate each summer. While there, he co-founded the High-Heeled Club, an acting troupe that performed on stilts. After organizing a 1981 street-performers festival, Laliberté decided to recruit friends for a “hot-blooded French-Canadian circus.” At first he couldn’t find backers. “I had hair down to my ass, and we were all on unemployment,” he recalls. “And there I was asking bankers for millions of dollars. All the business community was laughing at me.” Finally, government grants helped Laliberté pay for most of a year’s expenses. A 1984 tour of Quebec province received good enough notices for Cirque to play across Canada.

With today’s high ticket sales, Cirque du Soleil requires very little government aid to pay the bills. In 1986 the troupe used some of its earnings to renovate an old Montreal fire station into workshops for set design and special effects. Now Laliberté can afford to recruit additional players, who undergo up to two months of rigorous training. “We make actors more agile and acrobats more theatrical,” he says. Their improvement continues on the job. One gymnast who flips to the top of a three-man human ladder has grown so sure of foot that he’s stopped using guy wires.

The whole circus is similarly unbound. Not willing to compromise Cirque’s freedom, Laliberté usually books shows just 10 days in advance so that the troupe can always strike the tent and move on like Gypsies. He doesn’t worry about where the road will lead them. “I came up with our name,” he says, “when I was looking in a dictionary of symbols and saw ‘soleil, sun.’ It means youth, power, freshness. Everything was there. I just knew at that moment that we would be a success.”

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by Jan Breslauer | The LA Times
October 7, 1992

Cirque du Soleil may still feature perky young faces in feats of derring-do, but organizationally speaking, they are babes in the big top no more. The Montreal-based circus has come a long way since it first popped up in Los Angeles in 1987, but making it big has been a tightrope walk.

“With success, there’s money and internal change,” says Cirque founding president and former fire-eater Guy Laliberte. “There are always goals that we give ourselves, but it also means new ways of doing things. Going from being street performers to being professionals has created surprises. We were no more the small family organization. We did have to adjust.”

Adjust is an understatement. The expansion of Cirque has entailed diversification and merchandising, along with an exponential increase in output. Once it was a straight shot from the gate to your seat, but today you can’t pass from the ticket-taker to the big top without being dazzled by an array of sweatshirts, jackets, CDs, badges and other Cirque paraphernalia.

Even the expansion just since 1987, when the Cirque opened the L.A. Festival, has been considerable. It’s gone from an $8-million annual operating budget in 1987 to today’s $26-million yearly nut. Five years ago, it used a big top that seated 1,700; since 1990, Cirque has been holding forth under a tarp that holds 2,500.

Most significant, Cirque is no longer just one show. Since it began touring the 1987 production to Europe, Japan and Switzerland during the past couple of years, Cirque has had two troupes going at once, plus sundry other ventures such as an HBO special last year.

In fact, shortly after Cirque du Soleil opens “Saltimbanco” Thursday in Santa Monica, the organization will open yet another show in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Vegas will also become a second home of sorts, thanks to a special theater that’s being constructed at the Mirage to house a permanent tailor-made Cirque spectacle.

All this go-go, however, has made it that much harder to keep the seat-of-your-pants aesthetic of street performance alive. “There’s a price to pay for success, which is that one has to spend more effort in trying to keep the spirit which brought us together,” admits Laliberte. “Sometimes it’s tough.”

Cirque’s origins trace to 1982 and a group of street performers who called themselves Le Club des Talon Hauts (High Heels Club). Guy Laliberte was one of the members.

Cirque du Soleil was officially launched in 1984, thanks largely to subsidy from the government of Quebec. (Government support has decreased from about 95% to about 1.8% of the budget now.) It first toured to Toronto in 1985, and to more of Canada in 1986.

It was in September, 1987, though, that L.A. and the United States first met Cirque. “The L.A. Festival gave us promotional support, but not a contract,” says Jean David, vice president of marketing and communications. “Cirque had to take all the financial risk. In exchange, we got the right to open the festival.”

The circus got not only boffo box office, but all the Tinseltown courting it could handle. The run extended again and again, as countless film and TV deal makers courted Cirque.

“It could have been a great temptation, but we decided not to enter into any deals,” says Laliberte. “That was wise, knowing that we want to control and organize our own development.”

Still, the Hollywood rush did turn their heads. Negotiations with Columbia and Walt Disney and others eventually fell through, but not before the organization was changed by the attention.

“By the end of ’88, there were a lot of people who left the company and new people were coming in,” says Laliberte. “There was planning, negotiations for movies that we didn’t get. It took six months to a year to readjust and think of how we were seeing our future.”

“The challenge was to stay ourselves,” adds David.

In 1988, Cirque toured the East Coast. Then, the following year, it brought the same show back to L.A. “We made some mistakes,” admits David. “In 1989, when we came back with the same show, the reviewers didn’t miss the opportunity to give us mixed reviews.”

Other missteps followed. In 1990, Cirque produced itself in London and Paris. “We lost some money there,” recalls David. “In London they had the hottest weather they’d had in the last 60 years, so everybody left. In France, they like more traditional circus, which has less expensive tickets.”

In 1990, Cirque also launched its second show, “Nouvelle Experience,” which toured North America while the first show played in Europe. “We learned from Europe in 1990,” says David. “The contracts that we’ve had since with Japan or Switzerland are no risk at all for us, because the producers are taking the risk.”

And while there’s little denying that Cirque has refined its business savvy over the years, the impact on the artistic product is more ambiguous. Corporate practices have inevitably transformed the familial camaraderie that was so much of Cirque’s charm in 1987.

“We have more responsibility than in ’87,” says creative director Gilles Ste-Croix, who began as a performer with Cirque in 1984. “My workload in ’87 took one secretary, whereas now I work with three assistant directors.”

The shows themselves have come to rely more on high-tech production, and less on commedia dell’arte-like theatrics. “We have been involving more different mediums in our production,” acknowledges Ste-Croix. “1987 was the first time we designed the production with costumes and a choreographer. Before that, there was not really the budget. The 1990 production was designed even more, moving even further away from circus than the 1987 show.”

“Saltimbanco,” although its name pays homage to 16th-Century Italian street performers, is less reliant on theater than previous Cirque shows. The narrative story line, for instance, figures less prominently than it did in either the 1987 or the 1990 show.

“In 1987, it was still circus,” says Ste-Croix. “Now it’s something of its own, a whole different product. But I don’t think we can turn out shows like McDonalds, with five running around the world at once. Cirque cannot be duplicated that way.”

To some extent, however, it can be cloned. Once the new specially constructed theater is built at the Mirage, Cirque will install a show that will play there for three to five years, at which time it will be replaced by yet another new production.

Meanwhile, Cirque will continue to tour North America. It already has plans, for instance, to return to Los Angeles with a new production in October, 1994. It also expects to be back in Japan with another show by 1994.

The question that remains is not so much whether Cirque can sell tickets this time, but whether all this expansion will fundamentally alter it. “We did flirt with the devil,” says Laliberte. “But today, we make a point of reminding ourselves regularly where we came from.”

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By: Richard Christiansen | Chicago Tribune
July 25, 1993

Perhaps the most amazing aspect in the amazing growth of Cirque du Soleil is that it began less than a decade ago as the brainchild of a group of long-haired street performers, stilt-walkers and fire-eaters who had the crazy idea that they wanted to start a circus of their own.

Today, these graying, balding but still youngish entrepreneurs have become proprietors of an operation that is spreading its engagements, and its influence, on a global scale.

The highest profile in this enlarging empire belongs, of course, to the newest edition of the Cirque productions. There is, for example, “Saltimbanco,” the fifth and latest presentation, which arrives in Chicago Wednesday under corporate sponsorship of AT&T. But that’s just the tip of the Cirque juggernaut.

Elements of Cirque productions were incorporated into the venerable Circus Nie in Switzerland last year; and “Nouvelle Experience,” the Cirque edition that played Chicago two years ago, went to Japan in 1992 in a tour that sparked interest in creating a permanent relationship there.

At present, a somewhat trimmed-down version of “Nouvelle Experience” is playing 12 shows a week in a traditional blue-and-yellow-striped Cirque tent set up near the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas; and late this year, as Las Vegas seeks to position itself as a center for family entertainment, work is to begin on a permanent, year-round Cirque du Soleil structure, which will be home for a specially created extravaganza outfitted with lifts, traps and facilities for scenery hanging that the tent shows could never accommodate.

Meanwhile, as the New Wave music that has become associated with Cirque catches the ear of more and more customers, RCA Victor has released CDs and cassettes containing composer Rene Dupere’s music for “Nouvelle Experience” and “Saltimbanco.”

Quick to pick up on the tie-in possibilities present in the distinctive designs and colors of the Cirque’s scenic and costume displays, the producers also are marketing a full line of T-shirts, sweat shirts, posters, balloons, dolls, umbrellas, tote bags, coffee mugs, watches, baseball caps, key chains, lapel pins, childrens’ pajamas, jigsaw puzzles and boxer shorts-available on the site or by mail order.

Little wonder that in addition to such artistic prizes as a 1993 Obie Award honoring outstanding achievement in Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway work in New York, the Cirque, which is based in Montreal, won the 1992 “business of the year” category for small and medium businesses, in a competition organized annually by the Chamber of Commerce of the province of Quebec, Canada.

Despite their expansion into a global business, the managers of Cirque du Soleil keep their productions fresh and changing.

“We’re not trying to do the (producer Cameron) Mackintosh trip (keeping a big show running indefinitely in dozens of productions around the globe),” says Gilles Ste-Croix, the Cirque’s veteran directeur de la creation. “Our success rests on fragile things; the maximum run for any of our shows is four years, which gives the artists a certain job security but doesn’t keep them tied up forever. We try to treat our people well, but it’s very hard to keep a show alive and challenging and not let down the quality over a long period.”

The maximum first-run tour for a Cirque production is now two years, beginning in Montreal, its hometown, and then touring to large cities in the United States and Canada for the rest of the run.

At first a strictly home-grown, home-based product that was born in 1984 through a one-time government grant, Cirque has grown to embrace circus artists from around the world and is now a regular visitor to such major U.S. cities as Los Angeles (where it made its acclaimed U.S. debut in 1987), New York, Washington and Chicago (where it first appeared in 1989).

While one show is making the grand tour, another show is being developed in workshops and think tanks at home. By the time “Saltimbanco” ends its travels this year, for instance, the new Cirque edition will be in preparation to premiere in April, 1994, in Montreal. And once the intial two-year tour is over, there is now a possibility for further travel abroad, such as last year’s Japan engagement.

To keep its enchanting circus environment on the road, Cirque uses a 50-truck caravan carrying 650 tons of homes, offices, scenery, dressing rooms, a classroom, the 2,500-seat big top tent and a well-equipped kitchen that regularly serves about 300 tasty meals a day to the show’s 40 performers and the support staff of 70 persons working behind them.

The title chosen for this fifth production of Cirque du Soleil, “Saltimbanco,” derives from a 16th Century Italian word meaning skilled street performers and acrobats.

The general theme for the show, however, is described as “urbanity,” or as Ste-Croix explains it, the evolution of man from a naked, newborn creature into a social being who lives and works in a complex urban environment.

In describing one aspect of the show, the program says: “In `Saltimbanco,’ the characters, like all human beings, are born nude. These are the Worms, at the very base of society. All similar in appearance, yet different one from the other, they must, with time, adapt themselves to their environment. Thus, as the show goes on, they embody various types of social characters, hoping to one day accede to the rank of Baroque, a cast of visionaries. The Baroques constitute the most important family of `Saltimbanco.’ Armed with a deeply perceptive vision of the world and sleeping under bridges, the Baroques, throughout the fable, reveal the countless contradictions of our civilization when imagination has not yet taken power.”

This is not the scenario of your usual three-ring, sawdust and spangles circus.

There are no ostrich plumes or animal acts in Cirque. The design, rather, is sleek in its spectacle, what the Cirque people call “Neo-Baroque.” The clown makeup is streamlined in its stylization; the costumes, brightly colored, are often skin tight and borrow elements from punk and street fashion.

But customers worried that all this might be too intellectual, special or rarefied should relax. The tickets, reflecting the show’s Broadway-grade production values, are more expensive than those for most circuses ($12.50 to $35.50 for adults, and $6 to $23.50 for children); but such traditional circus delicacies as popcorn and soft drinks are always on sale, and, more important, “Saltimbanco” carries a full load of thrilling and graceful circus speciality acts peopled with top-notch jugglers, acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and clowns.

But, in the Cirque style, these are circus acts done with a difference, with a definite attitude. The trapeze act this year, for example, employs the elastic straps of bungee jumping to create a unique aerial ballet. And the tightrope performance is given more excitement by having the tightrope walker hop from one tightrope to another.

Each of the circus artists, in addition to performing his or her specialty, is given a personality that will fit within the structure of the show’s environment; and all of the players, whether developed by the Cirque staff or imported from other arenas, must be able to act and dance and (new this year) sing as part of their duties within the integrated production.

Over the last nine years, the Cirque team has developed into a solid core of creative talent. In addition to Ste-Croix and founder-creator Guy Laliberte, the team includes director Franco Dragone, costumer Dominique Lemieux, scenic designer Michel Crete, composer Dupere, choreographer Debra Brown and lighting designer Luc Lafortune.

Their efforts combine to produce a special style, in which the age-old elements of circuses are mixed with the technical innovations and new age design that makes Cirque so remarkable.

This season, according to Ste-Croix, the total effect of “Saltimbanco” may be “a little more aggressive, daring, more hard-edged” than in past shows. The singing, which the producers felt could finally be tackled by the performers, adds a fresh, operatic touch that fits the already established image of balletic grace in the proceedings.

Yet, even with this addition, “Saltimbanco” remains anchored in the tradition of Cirque du Soleil performance. It is like nothing else in the circus world.

“Through the last few years,” Ste-Croix says, “we have been able to build up a good team. We function well. We understand each other. We know where we want to go. Our work is continuing, constant; it grows and develops. It’s like a painter. You have to look at all of his pictures to see the complete range of his work, but they all clearly come from the same artist.”

Then, shifting to another metaphor, he adds, “We are like good chefs in a kitchen. We know that our recipe works. But what we present to our customers is in no way a warming up of the sauce.”

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By: Diane Haithman | The LA Times
September 22, 1996

When Gilles Ste. Croix, a street performer in Montreal, became one of the founding members of Cirque du Soleil, the last thing he would have imagined was that someday he would find himself sitting in a Santa Monica hotel talking about a $100-million industry forging mega-deals with Las Vegas hotels, European real estate developers and 30,000-acre theme parks.

But that’s exactly what he’s doing–and he doesn’t want to. Ste. Croix, 46–who used to fly through the air, launched from a teeter-board, and land on stilts in Cirque’s first show–is bored with earthbound concepts like profits and box office.

“We were just trying to make a show and live off our art,” he says. Numbers? “I don’t know, I have no idea,” he says. “I would say a number, and I might be wrong. I don’t say numbers. I don’t learn them, and I don’t say them.”

Ste. Croix, the troupe’s director of creation, would rather talk about the theme of its ninth production, “Quidam,” opening Wednesday in Santa Monica. “Quidam is a Latin word meaning anonymous and unknown,” he says. “We are at the end of a millennium. We always pick a theme that is close to our lives, and everyone is concerned about what the end of the millennium will be like. . . . Through technology of the past 10 years, there is now a global community, but at the same time we have become more and more lonely, more individually separated; the community feeling has been forgotten.

“There have been many changes in the past five years, and there will be more in the next five. We talk about the individuals who are suffering the changes, but they don’t have a word to say about it. So quidam is the scream of all the quidams, to wake up and make themselves known.”

Ste. Croix doesn’t want to talk about the numbers. But in the second year of Cirque’s second decade, the numbers are too big to be ignored.

In 12 years, Cirque du Soleil–French for “Sun Circus”– has transformed from an eccentric show-biz quidam into a popular global commodity with four touring shows, one permanent show in Las Vegas and three new permanent productions slated for the near future–in Vegas, at Disney World and in Berlin.

The troupe is also looking at film and television, as well as more international shows. As Cirque continues to grow, balancing art and commerce has become as precarious an act as anything you’ll see under its blue and yellow big top at the Santa Monica Pier.

“The people who created Cirque, some of them were performers, and some of them were entrepreneurs,” marketing director Jean David says. “So we found out it was very important to marry the relationship between the arts and the business, the culture and the business–it was extremely important if we want to survive. We are the kind of people who, when we learn something, we learn it forever. And we learned that at the very beginning.”

The Cirque machine has its entrepreneurs, but it is also an organization in which a publicist is as likely to have walked the tightrope in an early show as to have studied communications in college. Although it is big business, it still contains plenty of renegades like Ste. Croix, who describes the show as “acrobatics with emotion.”

Cirque was born in 1984 when Ste. Croix, founding member Guy Laliberte and a small circle of French Canadian street players put a tent over their heads and reinvented the circus as we know it. The players had already begun performing together in local festivals in the early ’80s, calling themselves Les Echassiers.

Laliberte was the chief negotiator in bringing the troupe here for its U.S. debut at the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, an offshoot of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, in a tent at 1st and Alameda streets. Back then, festival artistic director Robert Fitzpatrick said the festival could offer Cirque only minimal financial guarantees, so its decision to venture to L.A. meant taking a substantial risk.

“Other festivals wouldn’t touch them because it wasn’t quite ‘cultural’ enough, and towns looking for a standard circus were used to dealing with horses and elephants,” says Fitzpatrick, who was first mesmerized by the troupe in Toronto on a trip with his daughter, then 12.

He decided instantly to showcase Cirque as the festival’s opening performance, though Peter Brook’s nine-hour “Mahabarata,” was the more obvious choice because it was a more serious entry with extensive artistic credentials.

Cirque sold out every night, says Fitzpatrick, former chairman of Euro Disney and now dean of the Columbia School of the Arts in New York. “If I’d been smart, and rich, I would have paid all of their costs and taken 10%,” he adds ruefully.

Even in its early days, Fitzpatrick says, the Cirque clan was hardly wide-eyed when it came to business: “That’s part of the savvy myth they have created. For all the ‘naivete’ and street smarts they are supposed to have instead of MBAs, these guys can negotiate like Michael Ovitz and still come off well.”

The exponential growth of Cirque would indicate Fitzpatrick is right. It boasts a worldwide staff of 1,250, including 266 performers from around the world. There are two main offices–in Montreal (where a $30-million headquarters is under construction) and in Amsterdam–as well as a permanent office in Las Vegas.

More than 7.5 million people have seen its shows, which include “Cirque du Soleil–Le grand tour” (1984), “La magie continue” (1986), “We Reinvent the Circus” (1987-89), “Nouvelle Experience” (1990-91), “Saltimbanco” (1992-96), “Mystere” (running since 1993 at Las Vegas’ Treasure Island hotel), “Alegria” (1994-98) and the new “Quidam,” which will tour through 2002. Tours have taken the troupe to 118 cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Vienna.

Although Cirque officials decline to spout budget figures, Alan Feldman, spokesman for Mirage Resorts, which owns Treasure Island, said $27 million was spent building the permanent theater for “Mystere” and $24 million more on creating the show. Feldman adds that “Mystere” ranks as the second most financially successful show in Vegas, topped only by the Mirage Hotel’s Siegfried & Roy show, featuring the flamboyant German magicians and their cadre of lions and white tigers.

The Siegfried & Roy act earns about $54 million in ticket sales; ” ‘Mystere’ brings in about $40 million,” Feldman says. “There’s not a Broadway show in the land that does as well.”

The cost of “Mystere” more than doubles the current budget for the touring shows, which Cirque public relations director Diane Laberge reluctantly estimates at between $10 million and $15 million. (This year Cirque will replace the big top’s bleacher seating with chairs.)

In 1998, Cirque plans to open an as-yet-unnamed show in Las Vegas at the soon-to-be-built $1.3-billion 3,000-room Bellagio Hotel and casino–the troupe’s self-described first “water production.” For it, the Bellagio complex, also a Mirage Resorts hotel, is building a $50-million 1,800-seat water theater to Cirque’s specifications. The production budget: more than $20 million. Marketing director David would reveal only that the show will take place “in the water, on the water, over the water” in an area the size of three Olympic swimming pools.

Also in 1998, Cirque is to open a new show at the 30,000-acre Disney World in Orlando, performing in a 70,000-square-foot, 1,650-seat theater that will be part of the Disney Village Marketplace entertainment district with the House of Blues, a Wolfgang Puck Cafe, Virgin Records and 24 AMC theater screens. It’s a 12-year deal for two shows a day, five days a week.

Cirque has also reached an agreement with German real estate developers Peter and Isolde Kottmair to open a new show in 2000 in a new $52-million permanent theater in the heart of Berlin. That agreement extends to 2015.

Cirque officials, as well as representatives of the new venues, agree that Treasure Island’s success with a grand-scale version of the show triggered the new deals. Feldman says Cirque came along just as Mirage Resorts and other Vegas hotels were trying to broaden their family appeal, as well as to attract a more sophisticated international clientele.

Feldman notes that Cirque, like Siegfried & Roy, appealed to Mirage because it transcends language barriers:

“It isn’t like Bill Cosby. We love Bill Cosby, but if you don’t speak English, it’s going to be a tough evening. And [someone like] Kenny Rogers, who we also love dearly–if you really don’t like country music, if Cher is your thing, then Kenny is going to be tough to spend an evening with. . . . We saw Cirque in Chicago and Los Angeles and immediately reacted to the humanity and excitement. But we wanted something bigger; there’s only so much you can do in a tent when you are traveling every six weeks.”

In order to feed an increasingly hungry appetite, Cirque officials are combing the globe for potential artists. Cirque has an affiliation with the National Circus School in Montreal and finds artists at prestigious circus schools in Russia and Europe. The organization also draws talent from Olympic competition. The Olympics may also become the talent pool, no pun intended, for the Bellagio water show.

“[Some athletes] do the Olympics, and then their career is finished,” David says. “If you are the 10th- or 12th-best diver in the world, nobody talks about you anymore. Yet they are fantastic performers, fantastic athletes. We do recruit those types of people.”

Whether drawn from the Olympics or from circus schools, most Cirque artists undergo a year of training with the troupe’s coaches.

“They are fantastic gymnasts,” David says, “but they don’t know how to dance, they don’t know how to smile on the stage, how to cry on the stage, how to sing. We teach them those things.”

Along with training its artists to think Cirque-like, observers say, the troupe has fought off all comers who would change them. About eight years ago, David says, Cirque was approached by Columbia Pictures about doing a movie. About the same time, partly because of Fitzpatrick’s ties to Disney through his former Euro Disney chairmanship, Cirque also began talking to Disney. Cirque nixed both efforts for fear of losing creative control.

“We were young and they were big,” David says now of Disney. “They are still big, but we are not as young. And then Columbia Pictures at the time also tried to do something with us, but you know, they were asking for too much, and we said, ‘No, sorry. Forget it.’ They wanted to put us in a position where we would have to change what we are, to do something we didn’t believe in. We said, ‘No, sorry. We don’t make a deal on that basis.’ ”

Although there still are no deals with Columbia, Disney World’s Weiss says Disney is more than willing to give a more mature Cirque complete creative control. Where Las Vegas wanted Cirque mostly to increase family appeal, Weiss adds, Disney World wants the troupe for the opposite reason: to expand its attractions for adult audiences.

Hollywood remains more elusive.

“We found it’s not easy to just take the Cirque production and put it on the air,” David says. “There’s a need to adapt your production to television, we understand that. So we are still talking to Hollywood, Hollywood is talking to us. . . . For each of our shows, we create 40 or 50 very original characters; each character offers a lot of possibilities for major television production.”

Along with the new productions, David says, Cirque has its eye on Tokyo, London’s theater district and Broadway. It all raises the question: When does the big top get too big?

“I don’t think any of us knows what that point is,” Fitzpatrick says. “I went to see them in Las Vegas, and I’ve seen them in other places, and I’m always a bit worried: Have they ‘gone Hollywood’ in the worst connotation of that term? And to my joy and surprise, they’ve kept the edge.”

David says Cirque is determined to walk that edge.

“There is an enormous demand for what we are doing; we could have 20 permanent productions around the world, just from the offers that we have,” he says. “But we don’t take all the business offers that we have, because we know that we cannot. We have to take time to respect the people in each of these productions. You do not rush the characters; you do not rush the designers. But we were ready for the new contracts we signed.

“We learned a lot with the experience at Treasure Island. We were used to touring, and we thought it would be very difficult to be in one city, and Las Vegas–my God, not everybody wants to live there. But, in fact, it’s not tough at all, living conditions are wonderful, people are very nice. Artists are buying their own houses, with pools. . . . People are happy.”
And Cirque will probably always have people like Ste. Croix to make sure business never overwhelms the pleasure.

“Every two years, we change 30% [of each show],” Ste. Croix says. “And we don’t have shows that are the same; we can’t. When you do a musical like ‘Cats’ or ‘Phantom,’ you can have 10 of them. The cast influences what our content is.

“I look for artists who have an open mind. . . . We don’t want stars; we want really a team spirit. Of course, there are some people who are making a big impression, but we will not put them on a billboard.

“We were 12 people; now we are 1,200. We’ve become a great success, and I think Guy Laliberte is very responsible for that; he always took great care in keeping the spirit of what Cirque was in the beginning, to see that we do things in a respectful way.

“We must not let that go. It is what we do for a living. We don’t make T-shirts; we make shows. So if we cannot do this anymore because we have too many shows? We should stop making so many shows.”

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By: Daniel Gesmer | Dance Magazine
July 1, 1998

Choreographer Debra Brown can claim that more people have seen live performances of her work than have seen that of most better-known choreographers. Brown has worked on every production of the acclaimed Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil since joining the globe-trotting troupe in 1987. Although most of the performers she works with are formally trained as acrobats rather than as dancers (she prefers to call them simply “movers”), the Cirque is almost certainly one of the world’s most widely seen touring theatrical productions that feature dance. As many as 2,500,000 people may see its ninth production, Quidam (pronounced “key-dahm”), during its current North American tour.

The rapidly growing Cirque du Soleil entertainment empire might be described as “Ballets Russes for the end of the century.” Its innovative combination of New Age-inspired theatricality, avant-garde set design and costuming, intricate lighting effects, live instrumental and vocal music, award-winning choreography, and spectacular physical display must astonish and enchant audiences in much the same way that Diaghilev’s company did at the beginning of the century. Cirque can be said to have truly invented the medium of acrobatic dance-theater.

Other individuals create the themes of the various productions and select the assortment of acts, but Brown is responsible for choreographing the awesome physical feats that are the heart of Cirque’s appeal. Currently three different shows are being presented on two continents, and by the end of 1998 six productions will be shown on three continents. Each Cirque performance bears Brown’s touch in every handstand, somersault, swing, twirl, and gesture.

Brown was born in Brantford, Ontario (near Toronto). Drawn by a compulsion to spring about on her strong legs, she began studying gymnastics at age nine, eventually becoming Brantford city champion and one of the top university-level competitors in Ontario. Her attraction to dance began at an equally tender age. She says that as a young child she choreographed dances to perform for her classmates or at small neighborhood parades. In high school she choreographed the floor exercise routines of virtually all her fellow gymnasts. (Fortuitously, floor exercise and vault were her favorite events.)

Brown’s formal dance education began in earnest with Donna Peterson at the University of Western Ontario in 1973, where she was competing as a gymnast, and continued at York University in 1976, where she majored in dance. There she studied Cunningham technique with Sandra Neels, Graham technique with Norrey Drummond, and ballet with Earl Kraul, Grant Strate, and other teachers from National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. Brown remains grateful to Neels and Drummond for spending extra time helping her body shift from gymnastics to dance.

After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from York in 1978, she moved to Vancouver, where she choreographed, continued her ballet studies with Chiat Goh, and performed with independent groups, such as Experimental Dance and Music. In 1978 she also began an eight-year association with Vancouver’s Flicka Gymnastics Club, spending twenty-five hours a week developing a unique blend of dance and gymnastics with a group of eight- to ten-year-old girls. The Flicka group gained international recognition in the world of competitive gymnastics, particularly after two of its members represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics. They also presented innovative performances of expressive gymnastics in an artistic context–good preparation for Brown’s current metier.

In 1985 some of Brown’s friends suggested that she see the fledgling Cirque du Soleil, which had been founded in Montreal the previous year by an itinerant group of misfit street performers and stilt walkers. When Cirque came to Vancouver for Expo ’86 and the Children’s Festival, Brown, in classic storybook fashion, literally sneaked under the big top at intermission to watch. Sensing a kinship with the Cirque and its approach to movement, and having learned from a chance meeting with veteran clown Michel Dallaire that the troupe was planning to add a choreographer to its creative team, Brown ventured backstage the next day to announce her availability as a choreographer. Dallaire later mentioned Brown to Guy Caron, Cirque’s artistic director at the time. Andre Simard, the Canadian men’s national gymnastics coach, who was familiar with Brown’s work, vouched for her. Previously, Cirque productions had been put together by a director using contributions from various associates, but Brown’s strong background in competitive gymnastics, combined with her proven talent for innovative dance-gymnastics, made her a natural choice to be put in complete charge. Caron hired her to choreograph its 1987 production, Le Cirque Reinvente.

New Cirque productions are now born from brainstorming among the creative team of directors Franco Dragone and Gilles Ste-Croix, set designer Michel Crete, costume designer Dominique Lemieux, and lighting designer Luc Lafortune. They decide on the theme or concept of the show, the casting of acrobats, the choice of apparatus, and the set and costume designs.

Dragone, who has been with Cirque since 1985, gives Brown tremendous freedom in her work once these decisions are made. On two occasions he simply gave her a word or phrase to guide her as she worked with the artists. For Quidam, it was simplicity. For the dance sequences in Mystere, Cirque’s permanent Las Vegas production, it was birds mating. Brown feels that her only requirement is “to come up with images that provoke. My only restrictions, really, are my own creative limitations and the constraints imposed by the set environment.”

She begins working with the performers within the first month of their arrival for a nine-month training period. As always, she is driven by the search for new, expressive, yet simple movements that are uniquely provocative on traditional acrobatic apparatus. An almost Buddhist surrender to the immediate present is at the heart of her method. She works collaboratively and spontaneously, “relying on the artists’ talents, creativity, and personal qualities” for inspiration during rehearsals. She places special emphasis on drawing out their individual creativity, since they must live with their roles for from three to six years.

Quoting singer Loreena McKennitt, she says that the creative impulse is “a visit–a thing of grace, not commanded or owned so much as awaited, prepared for. A thing, also, of mystery.” Brown adds, “During the creative process, with the direction becoming clearer along the way, the work reveals itself. If you listen, keep your eyes open, and trust your intuition, creation is all about trust.”

The title of the Cirque’s currently touring production, Quidam, means “nobody” in Latin; in French the word suggests a nameless passerby, a solitary figure on the street, a person coming and going in our anonymous society. Director Dragone says the show is a tribute to the joys and sufferings of everyday people, a casting of light on our frailties and anguish in the face of the new millennium that is fast approaching. There is as much lament and melancholy as gaiety and irreverence in the live musical accompaniment. Unlike previous Cirque productions that were thronged with such allegorical figures as angels, devils, and birds, Quidam features tramps, trollops, and strapping laborers. Their ragged outfits suggest both the wear and tear that acrobats’ bodies must endure and the suffering of the anonymous everyday person, the quidam in each of us.

Brown, who cared for her mother during a drawn-out terminal illness, has been no stranger to such suffering. Moreover, during the development of Quidam, Dragone asked all the performers to pretend that they were in great pain and facing the choice of whether to live or die. Choosing imaginatively to live, be felt, would lead the artists to experience life more fully and passionately, and to “be much more sensitive to the fluttering of butterfly wings, to a kiss that you see in the street, to the sound of the wind, to noise and music.”

Although Quidam’s story line is abstract, its music and imagery create a thematic unity that evokes the tension between happiness and sorrow; between the infinite possibilities of the dream-world and the too-frequent dreariness of everyday life, between the left-brained Western conscious mind and the right-brained creative, intuitive imagination. The show suggests, in a rather Eastern-philosophical style, that these tensions can be resolved by unearthing what is repressed–a caged red balloon is released at the beginning of the show–and by bravely plunging into the dreamy unknown of the subconscious with the open-minded innocence of a child.

The protagonist of Quidam is a young girl–double cast with Emily Duncan-Brown and Audrey Brisson-Jutras, daughter of composer Benoit Jutras–who flees her parents’ bland, mundane, closed-in existence. Her journey is a distinctly psychedelic stream-of-consciousness affair, replete with lightning strikes, physical danger, mysticism, joy, death, and awesome superhuman feats that test the skills of Cirque’s astonishing performers. The young girl returns to her parents at the show’s end with enough vision and faith to heal their pained, alienated reality.

“Just be in the moment,” Brown says, when asked about the message of Quidam. “Take it in as a gift to the soul, a gift for the eyes. I love it when audiences walk out of the show feeling transformed by what they’ve just seen. I say, yes, we have done our job when we have lifted their spirits during the performance.”

Seemingly driven to reinvent art forms, Brown has choreographed for pop artists such as Celine Dion, rhythmic gymnasts such as Lori Fung (who won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games), and Apogee, a touring fifty-minute exploration of the bed of the trampoline as a dance floor, using three to four musicians and three to five performers. She was the choreographer for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1991 world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. At the Chicago Lyric Opera, she choreographed a twenty-three-minute “bungee ballet” for the Rhine maidens in its 1992 Das Rheingold and had acrobatic spear-wielding valkyries bouncing across the stage on a row of trampolines in its 1993 Die Walkure. She is already at work on 1998 Cirque productions for Las Vegas and Disney World in Florida.

Although Canadian arts granting foundations have usually turned down her applications because they didn’t consider her work “dance,” Brown was honored last November with the Fosse Award for most innovative choreography. Performing at the awards ceremony in Las Vegas was a group of four contortionists with whom Brown has worked for the past eight years. Her widely known “quidripedal choreography” with these contortionists–in which all four limbs are exploited as means of locomotion–won her the first-ever Soviet Press Award for most outstanding choreographer at the 1990 World Circus Festival in Paris.

As childlike in her enthusiasm for her life and work as Quidam would have us all become, Brown hopes to continue working with Cirque “for as long as we’re growing together, and for as long as they’re still interested in working with me.” (She also humorously notes her ambition to continue drinking fresh juices, a passion.) She is grateful to Cirque for “a lot of wonderful experiences that I’ve had and will, hopefully, continue to have.” She would love to choreograph for dance companies, and resolves to schedule her career counter to the usual order, “starting as a choreographer and finishing as a performer. The standing joke is that one day I’m going to perform again.” Constantly buoyed by Cirque’s insistence on the power of dream, we should not be at all surprised if that comes to pass.

The dance technique of some of the acrobats in Quidam can be a bit rough around the edges, and the interludes of pure dance are mostly comic. The notable exception is Austrian-born Karl Baumann, who plays Fritz, a scampering sprite of a sidekick to the lanky, cranky Ringmaster of the American juggler John Gilkey. Baumann’s impish, fairy-like character exudes the spirit of commedia dell’arte and the red-and-blue target design on his chest (echoed several times in the show) emphasizes his role as the circus heart of the production. The numerous prickly spikes attached to his costume recall the suffering of St. Sebastian, but Baumann’s Fritz remains lighthearted and gaily acrobatic.

Born thirty-six years ago in Salzburg, Baumann received the sort of eclectic education (engineering and classical guitar, as well as ballet and modern dance at Juilliard) that makes him a natural for Cirque. His dancing credits include work with Moses Pendleton, appearances at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and tenures with the Berlin Opera, the Munich State Opera, and Momix. He was a principal dancer and choreographer for Momix from 1989 to 1993, the year he joined Cirque. Recalling the audition, he says, “Debbie and I connected right away. We spoke the same language.” He was eventually cast as a dancing lizard in Mystere and imbued the role with such personality that Dragone decided to make him a main character in Quidam Baumann seems to have run away to the circus for good and may never return to the world of concert dance. He likes the excitement and experimental nature of Cirque and enjoys the movement possibilities opened up by apparatus not commonly found on concert dance stages.

In Quidam he spends time hanging and spinning on high ropes in an act known as “Spanish Webs,” where his dancerly polish is particularly oustanding. “Being around acrobats,” he says, “you can’t avoid learning acrobatics.” In spite of the directors’ initial skepticism, Baumann diligently practiced the rope work over the course of an entire year and eventually won the opportunity to take part in the act. “It would be good training for any dancer to spend a little time upside down,” he says. “Dancers may not realize that there can be a place for them in a show like this.” Baumann confides that Brown challenges him to “go all the way” with his improvisational creativity, that her vitality and enthusiasm have a way of possessing those she works with.

During her journey, the young girl in Quidam meets characters hovering “on the border between life and ultimate foolishness.” Gilkey’s Ringmaster and Baumann’s Fritz have stepped across that border and entered what Baumann calls “the live Fellini movie” that is Cirque. For the duration of the enchanting two-and-a-half-hour journey, the audience can’t resist following them. “The whole world is yearning for more spirit and fantasy,” Baumann says. “We bring the audience into that dimension.”

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By: Brian D. Johnson | Macleans
July 27, 1998

Las Vegas is the last place you would expect to find art. The city rises from the Nevada desert like a pop-up cartoon of American consumerism. On the Vegas strip, you can get married in the morning, pawn your wedding ring in the afternoon, sell a pint of your blood at sunset and feed the proceeds into slot machines all night long. But on this same strip, Quebec’s Cirque du Soleil – an exotic hybrid of music, theatre, acrobatics and dance – has taken root like a cactus flower.

Mystère, the Cirque’s permanent show in Vegas, is located in the depths of Treasure Island, a resort easily identified on the strip by the huge skull hanging under the sign and the two pirate ships that exchange cannon fire at regular intervals. Anyone looking for the circus has to walk through the casino, past factory rows of gamblers working the slots with buckets of change. The room percolates with the cheerful din of machines, hundreds of them chiming the same calliope notes, the rat-tat-tat of coins spitting percussion. The oxygenated air carries a vaguely coconut scent, memories of Tropic Tan. But past the casino, past the Black Spot Grille and the corridor of souvenir shops, is the incongruously elegant Mystre Theatre. Plush reclining seats – twilight blue with gold stars – circle an enormous stage, where gambling of a very different kind is about to go down.

With a thunderous din, a Japanese drum the size of a car descends from the ceiling, pounded by a shirtless drummer who hangs by a harness. Fog swirls across the stage, which suddenly sinks away and turns into a staircase. The fog is sucked down the steps into a pit. A bare-chested Russian with a triangular torso soars through the air in the chrome frame of a twirling cube. A live band plays, a woman sings. The stage swarms with creatures, amphibian riddles of skin, scales and tendrils. It is a circus without animals, just people who look like them. Gecko gymnasts with masks on the backs of their heads slither up Chinese poles. Pear-shaped men in padded spandex catapult from teeter-boards and trampolines. There are leaping lizards and jumping Jacobeans – courtly acrobats in white wigs and pearl-white breeches who somersault over flaming candelabras. And high overhead, six trapeze girls trailing fringes fly through the air on bungee chords, zooming in and out of each other’s slipstreams in starburst formations.

The show doubles as a sexy Vegas extravaganza and a surreal New Age sacrament. It is an otherworldly celebration of celestial bodies. But it is also a business, a feat of corporate stunt work no less audacious – and elevating – than the one onstage. In partnership with Mirage Resorts mogul Steve Wynn, the Cirque has been packing the 1,500-seat Mystre Theatre with two shows a night since 1992. It is the hottest ticket in town. And at $100 a pop, it is the most expensive after Siegfried & Roy’s fabulously tacky magic-and-white-tigers spectacle.

Cirque du Soleil also has two shows touring under its familiar blue-and-yellow big top: Quidam, launched in 1996, is playing American cities this summer, while Alegría (1994) tours Europe. But the Vegas production – an oasis of refinement in a town built on bad taste – offers the most striking example of how the Cirque has evolved into a high-wire balancing act between art and commerce.

Founded by a ragtag band of Quebec street performers in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has grown, literally, by leaps and bounds. It is now an industrial-strength circus operating on three continents. It has won more than 70 awards, for both art and business. Its shows have sold more than 17 million tickets in over 120 cities around the world. And, with revenues of $175 million for 1997, and annual profits averaging 15 to 20 per cent, the company is expanding at a breakneck pace.

By the year 2000, the company plans to have eight shows running simultaneously. Saltimbanco will tour Asia after an October run in Ottawa. This fall, the Cirque will open a second permanent show in Las Vegas – an aquatic spectacle on a proscenium stage built as a giant water tank – in a $100-million theatre at Mirage’s lavish new Bellagio resort. Another Cirque theatre with a custom-made show will open in Orlando’s Disney World in December. Alegría, meanwhile, will find a permanent home in Beau Rivage, a Mirage casino-resort due to open next spring in Biloxi, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Two more productions are planned for Europe and Asia.

Cirque du Soleil has evolved from a street troupe of jugglers and acrobats into a circus juggernaut, an international brand complete with its own line of souvenir merchandise, clothes, CDs and videos. But as the Cirque falls into the orbit of mega-corporations such as Disney and Mirage, its autonomy remains miraculously uneclipsed. The company is still solely owned and controlled by the same daredevil entrepreneurs who created it. With offices in Vegas, Amsterdam and Singapore, they are stubbornly based in Montreal, in new, $30-million headquarters. And, for all their success, they still seem committed to a corporate culture rooted in idealism. “We never forget where we come from,” says Daniel Gauthier, the Cirque’s 39-year-old president, “and we come from the street. Our shows have no age barrier, no class barrier. When Vegas was looking for family entertainment, they called the Cirque; when Disney wanted adult entertainment in Orlando, they called the Cirque.”

Gauthier co-owns the company with 38-year-old founding director Guy Laliberté, a former performing fire-eater. Both were born and raised in St-Bruno, a half-hour drive from Montreal. And both are high-school dropouts who ran away from home in their teens, though not together. Now they are affluent family men, two bilingual cosmopolitans busy reinventing show business. Gauthier talks of their five-year plan for the Cirque like a cautious commissar trying to keep a successful revolution from going sour. “There’s always the danger of bureaucratization,” he says. “We’ve taken on size and weight – we’re conscious of that. But we do everything so that we won’t become a big machine controlled by Montreal with tentacles everywhere. Our strength has always been our ability to turn on a dime. It’s all a question of balance.”

In a seven-storey studio at Cirque’s Montreal headquarters, half a dozen acrobats are developing aerial routines for the new Bellagio show in Vegas. High above the floor, they sail back and forth on a huge double cradle, a swing made of metal tubing in the shape of a stylized galleon, hinged to the ceiling at both ends. Swinging the boat in a steady arc, the acrobats jump off and catch each other in an intricate rhythm, as if their flying bodies are being passed through the hands of an invisible juggler. Occasionally, they miss and drop dangling in mid-air from their harnesses.

Later, two trapeze artists – 23-year-old twins from Montreal named Karyne and Sarah Steben – lie side by side on mats in the gym, stretching. They have been with Cirque du Soleil from the age of 16, when they answered a newspaper ad. “We just showed up and they believed in us, I guess,” says Sarah. “They trained us for a year.” The twins talk about working together with giddy enthusiasm, completing each other’s sentences as if handing their bodies back and forth in mid-air: “We have a message with our act … something to say to the public together… yes, the trust, the complicity … the amazing relationship you can have with someone you love.”

For Saltimbanco, the twins came up with a breathtaking manoeuvre in which they catch each other using only their feet. Now, another set of twins – Elsie and Serenity Smith – is rehearsing to duplicate the routine while the Stebens work up a new act for Bellagio. They say they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. With improvisational philosophy similar to that of another Quebec visionary – stage director Robert Lepage – the Cirque forges its new material out of creative accidents. “Every show we start with a blank page,” says Cirque creative director Gilles Ste. Croix, 48, who started out as a stilt-walker with the founding troupe. “By now, we have covered all the existing acrobatics. We created this studio to explore new ones. It’s a cathedral where we can protect and develop the artists. But it shouldn’t become a shell where we just go and hide for 10 years, saying ‘I have a job.’ ”

The Montreal headquarters, where about 500 of the Cirque’s 1,300 employees work, is located in the East End – beside a city garbage dump that is being transformed into parkland. It is a gleaming white complex that looks like a vast IKEA outlet, or a high-tech fortress for a villain in a James Bond movie – a building with attitude. Inside is an open-concept rehearsal studio/office/factory where everyone can watch everyone else work. Expanses of corrugated steel. Curved metal stairs. White catwalks spanning a vertiginous atrium. Some employees have desks overlooking a rehearsal gym the size of an aircraft hangar. A publicist typing a news release can look up from her computer to see a trapeze artist fly past her window. Or, if she is enterprising, she can take trapeze lessons after work.

The building has a discernible buzz. The average age of the employees is 32. Many of them wear clothes sporting the Cirque du Soleil logo – and express a visible enthusiasm for their work, as if they are conjoined in some utopian experiment. In a sense, they are. Their benefits and working conditions are unusually progressive. The employees, who are not unionized, are paid at a competitive rate – and receive 10 per cent of company profits. At lunch they can choose from a menu of superb, inexpensive meals at a cafeteria run by François Martin, who was once Brian Mulroney’s private chef at 24 Sussex Drive. And the kitchen uses fresh vegetables grown right outside the building, where there is also a cornfield with a yield of 13,000 cobs, which are given to employees and the neighboring community.

But Cirque du Soleil is not a utopia. It is a dream factory, a profitable corporation in the business of making rainbows. Among 140 workers in a sprawling costume shop at the Montreal headquarters, a seamstress will spend her day hand-sewing 2,500 sequins on the fringes of a costume to be worn by a bungee girl in Vegas. Four floors up, their bosses run the business from a penthouse aerie.

Laliberté’s corner office is flooded with sunlight from a vast expanse of window. A wall separates him from his partner, Gauthier, but their offices open onto a common solarium. They take their soleil seriously at the Cirque. Laliberté’s desk is flanked by sleek blond cabinetry and a state-of-the-art entertainment console with a giant TV. The decor is ripe with images of fertility – African sculptures and meaty orchids that droop from huge pots suspended from the ceiling. Laliberté has the look of an affluent bohemian. Balding with a thin braid curling down his neck, he wears blue jeans and a black shirt with silver studs.

“As a kid, I always dreamed of travelling,” says Laliberté. The son of a nurse and an Alcan vice-president, he left home at 14 to become a busking accordion player. At 18, he went to Europe and fell into a romantic demi-monde of circus street performers. He learned to breathe fire. Then, working as a theatrical animator at a youth hostel in Baie St-Paul, a small town northeast of Quebec City, he hooked up with Ste. Croix. Together they formed Club des Talons Hauts (High Heels Club), a street circus designed to play festivals. Then, with Gauthier, another animator at the hostel, they started up Cirque du Soleil – it was founded, with a provincial subsidy, to mount a $1.5-million tour of Quebec in 1984 as part of the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Canada.

“In the beginning, we had no fear,” says Laliberté. “We just jumped in. In our second year we had $50,000 in the bank and we’d signed more than $1.2 million in contracts, which meant buying a lot of equipment – it was insane.” The Cirque moved from a disappointing run in Toronto to a disastrous engagement in Niagara Falls. “That’s where we established a policy that if there are less people in the audience than performing, we cancel the show.” Then, in 1987, Laliberté gambled on a make-or-break gig in California, at the Los Angeles Festival. “We went down there barely paying for the gasoline,” he recalls. “The festival had no advance money. So I said, ‘I’ll take the risk, but give me some publicity and the opening-night slot.’ It was a hit. The next day, the scalpers were making money from us. But if we had failed, we had no money to bring our equipment back to Quebec.”

In California, the Cirque started up a long-term love affair with the media and the show-business elite. Hollywood stars became regular backstage visitors. And now, although the Cirque is not the biggest show on earth – Ringling Bros. employs twice as many performers – it is the class act. It can hire the cream of acrobatic performers from around the world. Competitors have accused it of strip-mining talent. And Pierrot Bidon, founder of a more avant-garde French troupe called Archaos, has gone so far as to call Cirque du Soleil “the McDonald’s of circuses.”

“That’s bullshit,” says Laliberté, stressing that, unlike producers of such blockbusters as Phantom of the Opera or Cats, his company does not clone any of its shows. At any one time, there is only one troupe performing Saltimbanco, Alegría, Quidam or Mystère. Any backlash against the Cirque, he adds “is a jealous reaction more than anything else. We’re shaking their world. We’re getting into their European market. And we’re a big buyer of talent – if we go to a festival, acts approached by other circuses will say, ‘I’ll wait to see if Cirque du Soleil is interested first.’ ”

The Cirque scours the world for talent, auditioning gymnasts, jugglers, dancers, divers, clowns, musicians – and swimmers. For the new Vegas water show, it has recruited synchronized swimmers, including Olympic champion Sylvie Fréchette. But athletes trained for competition have to learn to become actors in a theatrical ensemble. “Here, they teach you to become an artist,” says Eligiusz Skoczylas, a Polish acrobat in Mystère. “This is not a competition. It’s a showroom. It’s like a playground. All the differences of language and tradition disappear. We’re trying to create one tradition, one spirit on stage.”

The creative process is collaborative, and often laborious, which can come as a shock to new recruits. When the Cirque hired its first Russian artists in 1990, they expected star treatment. “Once they were asked to go and take a mattress over to the stage,” recalls Ste. Croix. “They refused. And when we explained that everyone at the Cirque works collectively, they said, ‘But that’s communism.’ ” Adds Ste. Croix: “Well, maybe it’s a kind of Quebec socialism.”

Although Cirque du Soleil prides itself on being a circus without stars, some acrobats are more equal than others. Laliberté says the performers’ annual earnings can range from an apprentice rate of $30,000 (which includes free food, lodging and training) to $250,000 for a veteran who owns creative rights to his or her act. There is no danger pay.

Each night, Pierre Dubé, the drummer in Mystère’s 10-piece band, watches the action from a catwalk perched 18 metres above the stage. Standing beside his drum kit before a show, he gazes out over the railing. Far below, acrobats are busy rehearsing somersaults off teeter-boards, a nightmarish version of what children are told not to do in playgrounds. “We had a very bad accident here a year ago,” says Dubé. “On the high bar, two of our flyers met in mid-air. They were both going full speed, coming at each other head-on. We heard a big bang. It was one of their legs breaking. One flyer was in shock in the net, shaking. His leg was all crunched up. The other was completely unconscious.”

Both recovered, and the one who broke his leg is back performing on the high bar. “A lot of people here have been taking St. John’s Ambulance classes,” says Dubé. “Not very long ago, we had a high-bar catcher who fell on his head. We thought he’d broken his neck.” As it turned out, he was all right. “But the worst thing for me,” the drummer adds, “is seeing some guy getting injured, and I have to keep playing. The music doesn’t stop.”

Although serious accidents are infrequent, Laliberté admits that “we have a lot of injuries.” Any night of the week, there are always two or three Mystère artists missing in action. “I can never get over the fact that people, even with injuries, keep coming back and performing higher and better than they did before,” adds the founding director. “You can’t do that unless you have passion and pleasure in doing it. I think you have to be a little mad to be a circus performer. It’s a wild job.”

And it attracts a wild variety of personalities. The Cirque’s cast is an international playground, dominated by Eastern Europeans (35 per cent) and Canadians (33 per cent) – English and French tend to be the working languages. “You have all kinds,” says Laliberté. “There are people who are disciplined, training at 6 a.m. Then you have Russians who are doing triples in the air – guys who run the most risk of breaking their neck – and five minutes before they go on, they’re smoking a cigarette, and they’ll drink half a bottle of vodka the day after. You have vegetarians, macrobiotic types, and people who just eat junk food. It’s a total mosaic.”

And sometimes pieces come unglued. “There are fights, and depressions,” says Laliberté. “We’ve had clowns chasing after technicians with their motorcycles. One day, we had a clown arrive with such a big depression. Imagine – the guy is supposed to make people laugh and he’s crying for 20 hours. What do you do? Clowns are the most anxious people in the world. It’s the discipline that takes the longest to learn. And they’re the people who break down most easily.”

Living together for months on end, a Cirque touring company is like a big, sprawling family. But for the 160 members of the Mystère cast and crew, who drive to work each day from houses in the suburbs, the circus is a job.

Backstage at Mystère, any New Age mystique quickly falls away. The facilities are cramped, the decor spartan. Between the two evening shows, performers stroll around half out of costume, in pink spandex shorts and white greasepaint. The artists’ lounge is thick with cigarette smoke. A group huddles around a video of the show that has just ended. A pool game is in progress. And two acrobats in whiteface play a deadly serious game of table tennis; they look like a parody of a Bergman film.

Down the hall in the physiotherapy room, Lizard Girl lies on a massage table, groaning as a therapist slides a chunk of ice up and down her calf muscle. Lizard Girl is Andrea Ziegler, a pixieish dancer with lively green eyes and short orange hair. “I jammed my leg,” she says. “They don’t know what it is.” Pumped with anti-inflammatories, she will still be able to dance, but alone: Lizard Boy is out with a broken ankle.

Ziegler is new. The 25-year-old dancer was recruited to Mystère from the Toronto cast of Phantom of the Opera in December. Her job is to leap around the stage and look as much like a lizard as is humanly possible. “It’s much more carefree than Phantom,” she says. “When I came here I had one rehearsal and they just threw me in. Here everyone’s really cool. What’s so unique about this show is that backstage all the artists are watching what’s going on from the wings, or on TV monitors. They’re cheering and rooting for each other.”

As for the Vegas life, Ziegler has no complaints, aside from missing her husband, who is a student back in Toronto. “I share a really nice house in the suburbs with another dancer. A lot of the artists who have been here a long time have a lot of money. They have their houses with their pools and their four-wheel-drive vehicles.” But there is still some circus spirit, even in Vegas. In April, many of the Mystère cast gathered in a spectacular stretch of Nevada desert called the Valley of Fire for a lesbian wedding – between the stage manager and the wardrobe mistress. “We all sang,” says Zeigler. “The musicians played. And at the end, as a surprise, 10 of us stood in a circle and sang Fools Rush In – we’d secretly rehearsed it for three days backstage. They were crying. I was crying. It was beautiful.”

After a performance of Mystère, a dark-eyed Bulgarian gymnast is all aflutter after meeting Bruce Willis, who visited backstage with his three daughters after the show. Mikhail Matorin, the Russian cube artist, seems indifferent. In four years with the Cirque, he has already met Harrison Ford, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn and Robin Williams. With his sculpted torso, high cheekbones and mane of brown hair, Matorin, 33, has a noble bearing. He grew up in the Moscow Circus, where his father was the director, his mother a trapeze artist. “Mystère is like a big machine,” he says. “Touring is more fun – it’s like a gypsy thing, partying all the time. But after 15 years on the road, I don’t feel like it any more.” Matorin now lives in a big house, with two golden retrievers, and is dating the lead dancer from Splash, a showgirl revue at the Riviera casino. Reluctantly, he is teaching his act to a Cirque colleague. Another show in town has already copied it: a Russian does a cube act down the Strip at Bally’s.

Inevitably, Cirque du Soleil’s success has spawned imitators, arty circus shows with French names. “I take it as a tribute to what we’ve done,” says Laliberté. “But the public could be confused. When someone starts a show in the Lake Tahoe casino called Mystique with the same lettering as Mystére, it’s a little obvious.”

Meanwhile, as the company expands, Laliberté and his partner try to keep it agile and ahead of the game. “We study lots of other corporate models,” says Gauthier, citing a principle at Hewlett-Packard called “the double ladder,” which allows those on the creative side, as well as management, to rise to the top. Both partners stress that they have no interest in going public with their company, which has no outside investors. “We don’t even talk about it,” says Laliberté. “We’re having too much fun playing in our own sandbox.” Explains Gauthier: “We don’t want the pressure of going public. One year, we might decide not to make a profit, in order to develop a new show. Or if we decide to delay a development, we don’t want shareholders asking us why we didn’t do what we promised.”

The Cirque’s two partners are an odd couple. Both are married with one daughter each and live in St-Bruno. While both are clearly astute businessmen, Laliberté plays the dreamer while Gauthier is the money man. “It can be difficult sometimes,” says Gauthier. “We have the same basic values, but we don’t have the same lifestyles – I’m more conservative. The two sides need each other: if we want to fulfil all these dreams, it’s going to take money.”

The Cirque takes risks that do not always pay off. It entrusted its director, Franco Dragone, with making a $7-million dramatic feature called Alegría, a surreal art film that its North American distributors say has little commercial potential. Meanwhile, new windows of opportunity continue to open up. The Cirque has turned down offers to stage shows for opera companies and rock stars. To fill its expanding cast, it holds mass auditions every month in different cities around the world. And it has programs to teach disadvantaged children circus skills in Montreal, Quebec City, Amsterdam, Las Vegas – and in the urban slums of Chile and Brazil. For all its international ambitions, the Cirque retains its Quebec identity. “We’re born here,” says Laliberté. “Our head office is here. And we bring a part of Quebec around the world whenever we set up our big top.” But he stresses politics do not enter the picture. “Cirque is more universalist than nationalist. We believe in one world. It’s a philosophical thing.”

The Cirque du Soleil’s founding director still talks like a visionary whose goal lies forever beyond the horizon. “After 14 years,” he says, “we’ve done nothing. The real test will be the next 10 years.” Under the Cirque’s ever-expanding big top, the former fire-breather seems to have found his place in the sun – but he is still the boy from St-Bruno, running away to join the circus that has yet to be invented.

* * * * * *

By: Michael Point | Austin Chronicle
May 2, 2003

It started on a street corner in Quebec and now it literally spans the planet, amazing audiences worldwide with its ability to transform a simple tent into a focal point for the fantastic.

The circus of Cirque du Soleil is not lions, tigers, and stale popcorn. Instead, it’s an adventurously artistic alternate reality where sight, sound, and spectacle interact with unexpected results. As aerial acts fearlessly hurl themselves through space, seemingly just above you, gnarled figures decked out in elaborately sequined outfits and bright plumage patrol the stage. A costumed band parades through the crowd, stopping to serenade fortunate fans. A grinning hunchback in a scarlet tailcoat introduces a fire-dancer, who spins so close to you, you can hear the flames and smell the smoke. With stunning sets, outrageous costumes, modern music, and an attention to art in every aspect of the production, Cirque du Soleil conjures up an almost hallucinogenic sense of magic that is often as surreal as it is sensational. And it is sensational beyond description.

The Cirque du Soleil concept — integrating dance, music, and story to expand what circus performance is while retaining the inherent excitement of a circus — was a flight of fancy made physical, and it has spiraled upward for two decades, creating a seemingly insatiable international appetite for its enlightened upgrade of the traditional entertainment event.

For all the art and athleticism of its performers and productions, Cirque du Soleil — undoubtedly one of the most unexpected and unlikely of entertainment empires — is almost as impressive a business story. The troupe was founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberté, an accordionist, stilt walker, and fire-eater. Whatever his skills as a performer, Laliberté made his greatest contribution to the evolution of the circus as the organizer and mastermind behind Cirque du Soleil’s surprising ascent to global eminence.

Cirque du Soleil began staging its shows in Quebec in an 800-seat tent. Once fans were exposed to the troupe’s cutting-edge attitude and magical mix of artistic disciplines, the small tent became the destination of choice for those seeking a theatrical experience unlike anything else on the scene. Tours of Canada and the U.S. built the company’s audience so dramatically that in just six years Cirque du Soleil was able to premiere its Nouvelle Expérience show in Montreal in a 2,500-capacity big top, a precursor to the state-of-the-art “Grand Chapiteau” under which it now stages its traveling productions. In 1992, the troupe played Las Vegas for the first time, presenting Nouvelle Expérience in a yearlong residency at the Mirage Hotel. Its success was so overwhelming that a theatre was custom-built for the troupe, which opened Mystère at Treasure Island in 1993. As more productions have been added and tours expanded to Europe, Asia, and Australia, audiences have continued to fill the troupe’s assorted big tops in record numbers, averaging more than 60,000 fans per weekend in 2002.

In the 19 years it has taken for Cirque du Soleil to reach Austin, more than 32 million fans have personally witnessed its performances. Alegría, the production that will serve as the city’s introduction to the company in live performance, was created for its 10th anniversary and has been on the road for almost a decade. Like all the troupe’s touring productions, it is thematically unique and physically self-sufficient. With 1,000 tons of equipment and a week of site preparation, Cirque du Soleil has transformed the old Robert Mueller Airport into its current home away from home. Alegría is now a village unto itself, with its own power source, offices, kitchen, and storage facilities. While the tours are a major undertaking, the troupe has grown accustomed to them.

Cirque du Soleil currently has four touring productions in addition to Alegría. Varekai, the newest, is currently in New York City as it makes its first full-scale North American tour. Saltimbanco, which premiered in 1992, is in Geneva after a three-year tour through the South Pacific. Dralion, which set box-office records in Houston last year, is in Baltimore as it works its way back to Montreal. Quidam, the fan favorite that first brought Cirque du Soleil to Texas in 1997, is presently playing in Tokyo. And Alegría, which was in Mexico City before pitching its tent in Texas, will move on to Western Canada after departing Austin.

While the touring shows take Cirque du Soleil everywhere from Amsterdam to Atlanta, three resident productions provide stationary shrines for its ever-growing legion of devotees. La Nouba, located in the Downtown Disney entertainment district of Walt Disney World in Orlando, established a permanent East Coast base for the troupe in 1998. That same year “O,” the first Cirque du Soleil aquatic show, opened at Bellagio in Las Vegas. A new resident production, Zumanity — rumored to include a bit of R-rated sensualism — opens July 31 at New York-New York Hotel & Casino, and a fourth Vegas production will open next year.

The Cirque du Soleil empire stretches far beyond the big top, however. Films of the troupe’s performances were among the highest-rated events on the Bravo television network, leading to the 2002 reality series Fire Within, which showed the behind-the-scenes development of Varekai from the perspective of artists auditioning and rehearsing for the production. Next year Bravo will air a 13-part series of Cirque du Soleil miniproductions, each an independent realization of the type of thematic shows the company takes on the road. In 2000, the company filmed Journey of Man for IMAX, a format befitting its larger-than-life presentations. Such activities have increased its public profile to the point that Cirque du Soleil has become an icon of contemporary culture.

Cirque du Soleil, however, is a live experience, and even IMAX can’t capture the sensory saturation of the live shows. Each production has its own storyline and imagined universe, from the dreamy Quidam, with its mysterious characters, to the energetic Saltimbanco, with its whirlwind of urban life, to the jubilant Alegría, with its birdlike figures and images of flight. It is circus as theatre, a multidisciplinary creative collusion that delivers more than the traditional form ever imagined. “Our productions are much more than just a circus,” says Artistic Director Pierre Parisien. “But we always try to remember our first responsibility to the audience is to create something that evokes that special sense of awe and wonder that can only be experienced at a circus.”

Parisien is entrusted with the duty of keeping Alegría at once fresh and yet true to its original vision — a vision that includes sound at the center of things. The distinctive music of Cirque du Soleil, available on more than a dozen CDs, is a primary component of all its productions and one of the most obvious differences between the original and the assortment of “extreme circus” imitations that have sprung up in its wake. Composed by Cirque du Soleil stalwart René Dupéré, the music serves to brings harmony to the wildly disparate elements of the show, embellishing and bridging the onstage activities. The score for a production is created much like that of a motion-picture soundtrack. Broad themes expressive of the production’s storyline and sensibilities are composed and then synchronized to the action.

But it is the death-defying nature of that live action that sets the music and its creative process apart from the after-the-fact cinematic approach. With performers literally flying through the air, a misplaced beat or an out-of-time accent can be disastrous on both physical and performance levels. “It is crucial for the music to not only sound right, but to also make the right sound at the right moment,” Parisien explains. “It is a part of the show, but artists also must depend on it for their performances. Like most elements of the production, it has more than one purpose and meaning.”

In other words, the music exists to serve the circus. It is that succession of mind-boggling activities performed by incredibly agile and accomplished artists that has always been Cirque du Soleil’s primary source of awe. Everything, whether fire-dancing or a synchronized trapeze act, is done with style and a casual virtuosity that serves to disguise the difficulty of the feats. But there is simply no way to obscure the astounding athleticism of the artists and the physical poetry of their performances.

At the Houston Alegría engagement Jim Pierce watched a slender young female contortionist casually twist herself into shapes rarely seen outside comic books. “These people are just not from this planet,” he said in astonishment. But they are indeed earthlings, if admittedly, almost supernaturally talented ones drawn from across the globe. Alegría features 56 artists from 13 countries, including Mongolia, Finland, Argentina, Russia, and Poland, in addition to its American and Canadian natives. They soar, somersault, and generally defy the normal limits of human activity with a level of physical precision and graceful body control above and beyond the best and brightest of past circus stars. And they do it nightly.

In a way, Alegría tells the story of Cirque du Soleil. Its bent characters in fantasy finery represent the old and obstinate while the energetic, enthusiastic performing artists personify the young and innovative vanguard. A torch is being passed, albeit reluctantly, and the theatrical device re-creates the early clash between a group of Quebec street performers and the rigid structure of the traditional circus.

Cirque du Soleil revitalized the big top at a time when the ageless dream of running away to join the circus had become an almost archaic concept. But when a new generation saw the dream reimagined and invigorated, the circus was assured of surviving into the 21st century. And the dream continues to fuel the imagination of both fans and, more importantly, potential performers.

“We have people coming to our Montreal headquarters all the time, intent on performing in the circus,” Parisien says with pride. “Because of what we’ve accomplished they know they can achieve their dream and that is a wonderful thing to be part of.”