“We’re Off and Running II, Part 2 of 4: Mystère”

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 (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 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 or the Company itself? What interesting blurbs did we uncover about Mystère, “O”, or La Nouba? Enough, as it turns out, for “We’re Off and Running II”, a four-part sequel series to continue… right now with early articles about Mystère .

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By: Tim Grey | Variety
February 27, 1994

Acts: Manipulation by Michael Moschen, Chinese poles, aerial bungee, Main a Main hand-balancing, Korean poles & fast-track trampoline, Taiko drums, trapeze.

Aaaoooowww! The new offering from Cirque du Soleil is terrific, spectacular and all the synonyms for peachy.

For its 10th anni, the Montreal troupe got its first permanent U.S. location, in a comfy, attractive theater specially built at Vegas’ Treasure Island hotel.

Siegfried & Roy, next door at the Mirage, are understandably the reigning kings of Vegas spectaculars; with “Mystere,” Steve Wynn, chairman of both hotels , scores a double whammy.

Unlike previous Cirque productions, “Mystere” won’t tour — perhaps because it has 70 performers (nearly twice the previous amount) and features bigger-than-usual flourishes, like a giant snail that comes onstage for no apparent purpose except to wink at the audience.

These touches are fine, but Soleil really is not about the spectacle of stagecraft, but about the spectacle of physical skill and imagination. And this show, which ranks with the best of Soleil’s offerings, really delivers on both counts.

The evening kicks off with Taiko drummers being lowered onto the stage, and never lets up from there. One acrobat weirdly zooms 80 feet above the stage by climbing poles on his hands and feet, followed by acrobats similarly scrambling up 20 poles simultaneously. Six people perform an aerial ballet on bungee cords.

It’s hard to picture these things, and hard to describe them. These are amazing, dreamlike feats, performed wordlessly and in surreal costumes, accompanied by Rene Dupere’s effective, live music (which sounds like New Age on steroids).

Cirque du Soleil is a circus for those who don’t like bigtops. Its costumes, lighting and music are all non-traditional, and familiar routines are given strange, amazing variations.

Artistic director Gilles Ste-Croix and director Franco Dragone fill every inch of the big (120-by-70-feet) stage: If people are not doing acts, they’re cartwheeling, running or dancing; even the stage area under the trapeze net is filled with performers.

There are a few quibbles. There seems to be an attempt at a plot that is more murky than fascinating, and frankly you want to smack the three adult clowns dressed as infants. So it’s not a perfect show. But it’s close.

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By: Gary Dretzka | Chicago Tribune
March 5, 1995

For a troupe of one-time street performers that has spent much of its 10 years of existence on the road in tents, the hard walls and permanent stage of Cirque du Soleil’s new Treasure Island residence must seem more than a bit unfamiliar.

This city’s Strip, with its megawatt marquees and constant whirr of activity, also must appear a long way from home for the collection of international entertainers whose organizational roots stretch back to Quebec, Canada.

But a lot has happened to Cirque du Soleil since 1984.

The little circus that could, did. In a big way.

Cirque has grown from a motley collection of mimes, stilt-walkers and acrobats-who scratched for places to perform-to an internationally honored company that, in the past 12 months, has juggled three major productions on three continents. Its grand tours now involve-as did “Saltimbanco,” which visited Chicago in 1993-a 50-truck caravan, 650 tons of housing and office equipment, a 2,500-seat tent and a fully staffed kitchen that serves about 300 meals a day to its 40 performers and support staff of 70.

Its new production, “Alegria,” has embarked on a national tour (with a stop in Chicago planned for July). Next month, “Saltimbanco” moves from Japan to Europe.

But it’s here, in the neon desert, that Cirque du Soleil has staked a permanent claim, laying an unlikely foundation for its new-wave theatrics and athletic contortions.

The circus’ astonishing success story began 2,800 miles from here, in Montreal, in the early ’80s, when a group of young street artists gathered together and founded Le Club des Talons Hauts (High Heels Club). This loose collection of stilt-walkers and fire-eaters would tour the back roads of Quebec and eventually evolve into Cirque du Soleil, which, thanks to a government grant, first performed at a festival marking the 450th anniversary of the arrival of Jacques Cartier in Quebec.

The grant afforded the company the opportunity to purchase its first tent-a colorful 800-seat number-and begin touring the provinces. It became a popular attraction at Expo ’86 in Vancouver and, in 1987, opened the Los Angeles Festival, where it attracted the attention of people such as Johnny Carson, who showcased the troupe on his TV program.

The popularity of the group in L.A. encouraged them to launch several North American tours and, eventually, visits to Japan and Europe. It wasn’t long before Las Vegas beckoned.

“We wanted to grow a flower in the desert,” says Daniel Gauthier, president of Cirque du Soleil, explaining the troupe’s desire to come to Nevada.

In 1992, Cirque opened “Nouvelle Experience” in its trademark blue-and-yellow-striped tent behind the Mirage hotel-casino on the Strip.

Two years later, it moved to a new $20 million theater next door in another Steve Wynn property, the Treasure Island resort. It is the same hotel where, every 90 minutes, a pyrotechnic sea battle is staged between an 80-foot pirate ship and a British frigate.

The troupe’s founder, Guy Laliberte, always harbored a desire to come to Las Vegas but, before the ’90s, the entertainment environment wasn’t perceived as being conducive to Cirque’s surrealistic pleasures.

“This is the biggest entertainment city in North America, that’s why we wanted to be here,” Gauthier said, adding that it wasn’t until Mirage chairman Wynn evolved a climate for such acts that Cirque decided to make the leap. “We created the show and designed the space. He gave us lots of leeway and comments.”

A spacious 1,500-seat venue was built to the troupe’s specifications, designed by Michel Crete and the Montreal architects of Sceno Plus.

“Cirque cuts through all demographics, all social strata,” says Alan Feldman, vice president of public relations for Mirage Resorts. “You can be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, from Japan, a solid working-class person from Tennessee, and you can be sitting next to each other in the showroom, having a blast.

“That’s something that’s almost unheard of in the entertainment world.”

Las Vegas now is the only place where Cirque cultists will find “Mystere,” another in a series of hauntingly ethereal and hugely entertaining productions.

This may, at first, seem to be an unlikely marriage-Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas-but this city traditionally has provided homes for one-of-a-kind attractions, be they of the endangered feathered-showgirl variety or such hot-ticket entertainments as Siegfried & Roy, “Starlight Express” or the upcoming “EFX” special-effects/music extravaganza, starring “Phantom” Michael Crawford.
Las Vegas needs such dramatic attractions to confirm the city’s new image as an international, family destination. It is hoped that these types of shows will help lower the age of the average tourist-and gambler-from 46 to something closer to puberty.

“Ours is a new kind of show for a new generation,” said Gauthier, sounding like the French-Canadian wing of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

He said Cirque also is planning to participate in the creation of a show for Wynn’s new resort, Beau Rivage, which will emphasize aquatic activities and be situated on a man-made island. The non-traveling “Mystere” has an open-ended run, but portions of it will be updated later this year to keep it fresh. (Most other Cirque productions have a two-year life cycle.)

It is a bit disconcerting, at first, to watch Cirque’s whimsically costumed men and women-sorry, no animal acts-go through their paces outside a tent environment, although the magic of “Mystere” is inescapable and makes for an awe-inspiring evening away from the tables and slot machines. Seventy-two performers, including 10 musicians, ranging in age from 17 to 45, have been gathered from North and South America, Europe and Asia to showcase their many skills on the trapeze, trampoline, Korean planks, Chinese poles, bungee cords and in elaborately choreographed dance and acrobatic routines.

The theater itself provides part of the magic.

“The biggest difference is the enormity of the stage,” says Cirque spokeswoman Sally Dewhurst, who performed with the troupe as a tightrope walker in its tent tours and will occasionally fill in for sick artists in Las Vegas. “On tour, the tent is so much more intimate and you have more direct contact with the audience. Here, the movements have to be a lot bigger and everything has to be much more elaborate to be read.”

The troupe has free rein of a 120-by-70-foot performance area, which includes a 36-foot rotating platform. The stage is made up of four elevating platforms that can be lowered 20 feet into a pit or 3 feet above the floor. Some 1,200 lighting instruments are hung from the top of the performance area, 80 feet above the stage (the tent was 56 feet high).

A 60-channel, 40,000-watt sound system engulfs the theater in the otherworldly sounds of the Cirque singers and band, which performs on two separate platforms at the top of the theater. The speakers nearly deafen the audience as a bombardment of giant Japanese taiko drums descends from the rafters, ultimately taking over the stage.

This cavernous theatrical space and electronic network is used to full advantage by the energetic troupe.

While the audience is entranced by the great array of visual choices, Goodman points out that the large stage area has resulted in some unforeseen complications.

“There’s the fatigue level,” she said, “just having to run that far for every entrance-they sprint 75 feet before doing the tricks that they do. The backstage is vast.”

While not of the three-ring variety, this circus presents a daunting challenge for the eye. It is a vertical adventure, with activity often occurring simultaneously in the sunken pit, the main stage and the upper reaches of the auditorium.

“The performers even have an elevator to take them up and down,” Goodman said. “The dressing rooms are two floors up and the wardrobes are another floor up.

“Heaven help us if they get stuck in it.”

This also means that reserving a seat in the middle or upper reaches of the curved gallery might be a better bet for guests than getting one up close. What’s lost in intimacy will be gained in visual comfort.

It’s also easier to follow from above the hilarious clowning around that takes place in the aisles before the show. It’s especially amusing to watch late-arriving visitors become targets for “Mr. LeGrand,” an Einstein-ian character who poses as an usher and directs folks to unlikely seating locations.

Set under a large trapezoid ciel, or sky-which tilts, bends and serves as screen for projected video images-“Mystere,” on the surface, is a relatively plotless concoction. Its most constant thematic thread involves the occasional appearances of large-and, to some, increasingly annoying-babies who constantly toy with the audience and create diversions.

These enormous infants, are on a “quest for nourishment, and embark on an odyssey of discovery,” which takes them into various exotic locales and bizarre adventures. Their language is childish, but universal, and their sense of wonder is tripped by large balls, magical birdlike creatures and even a magnificent escargot, “born from a spring rain, carrier of the souls of the ancestors and herald of the future.”

It’s all very mystical and explained best in the back of the colorful program, where the gallery of characters is introduced. But the athleticism of the performers is what ultimately holds the attention of the audience and drives the minimalist narrative.

The acrobats, more like dancers and gymnasts than traditional circus artists, work very much in the Cirque tradition of elegant movement. There are the familiar pole climbers, teeter board artists and silky jugglers, and the mammoth stage also allows for dramatically choreographed drops by the bungee jumpers and for a brilliant six-person trapeze act.

Constant also are Cirque’s amazing costumes, which are vibrantly colorful and strikingly imaginative-and possibly not that far removed from the feathery souffles worn for generations by statuesque dancers in showrooms along the Strip.

It was the enormous success of Siegfried & Roy, whose act at the Mirage largely relies on magic and non-verbal appeal, that encouraged Wynn to take another expensive chance on a non-traditional act like Cirque.

“It tipped us off to the fact that we were being too reliant on language (in our entertainment choices),” the Mirage’s Feldman said. “In Las Vegas, where the customer mix has become so dramatically international in the last five years, we came to realize that some of the great singing and comedy acts don’t play to a foreign audience for 52 weeks a year.

“The allusions had no language. In Cirque, their language is uniquely their own.”

Audiences have been enthusiastic in their response to “Mystere”-filling the theater to an average 98 percent of capacity-as have critics. Time magazine called it one of the best theatrical shows in the U.S. in its 1994 year-end review.

Unlike other Las Vegas showrooms, the “Mystere” theater features comfortably spaced seats, there’s no two-drink minimum and guests don’t have to wait in a line flanked by tempting slot machines.

Mirage visitors can save themselves a short walk by grabbing the tram that links that resort to the Treasure Island. It drops guests off just a few yards from the theater, where the trim and bouncy performers soon will make the riders feel guilty for taking a shortcut.

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By: Larry Oppen | Amusement Business
June 5, 1995

Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil celebrated its first year at Steve Wynn’s Treasure island here in January with a yearend total attendance of 661,000.

The show, called Mystere, is playing indefinitely at the casino twice a night, five nights a week, and has a sellout ratio of 98 percent. Tickets are priced at $57.20 for adults and $28.60 for children under 12. Although “Mystere” is primarily produced as an adult show, many of the acts are of interest to the whole family.
Cirque du Soleil is a cross between a Broadway show, opera and circus. The 90-minute award-winning production uses a hard ring rather than sawdust and excludes animal acts.

Featured is a cast of 72 artists–acrobats, clowns, actors, comedians, stilt walkers, singers, dancers and a 10-piece band of musicians performing an original score by composer Rene Dupere.

The international troupe’s members are from Canada, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Russia, Portugal and the U.S.

Acts include an aerial ballet with synchronized bungee jumpers, North America’s largest trapeze act, an acrobatic precision line performance with 22 Chinese poles, a hand-balancing act with hand-to-hand equilibrists, trampoline acts, Korean plank aerialists and a display of Taiko drum-playing. The set was designed by Michael Crete.

The 1,541-seat indoor theater-in-the-round was specifically designed and installed for Mystere. It features state-of-the-art lighting, sound, backstage equipment and stage equipment.

Steve Wynn, chairman of the board of Mirage Resorts Inc., which owns Treasure Island, said Cirque du Soleil is the ideal complement to Treasure Island.

“Our international guests will find Cirque to be of a special delight with no language or cultural barriers,” he said. “People from all over the world enjoy the wonder and pleasure to be found at a Cirque performance,” said Wynn.

“Cirque has no stars,” added Sally Dewhurst, publicist for Mystere, one of three companies performing worldwide. “It’s an ensemble. We do have a few main characters, but they also put up the nets and clear off the trampoline if they have to.

“The show constantly changes through the year, and at the end of this year we’re planning to do a revamp. The intensity of the show sometimes causes injuries to the performers, so the evolution throughout the year is consistent. This is why we have a permanent artistic director who can change the acts as necessary.”

The three shows are Mystere, which is permanently playing in Las Vegas; Alegria, which completed a run in Costa Mesa, Calif., and opened in New York City in March; and Santimbanco, which will do a two-year tour of Europe. Alegria and Santimbanco touring companies move every four to six weeks.

Cirque du Soleil started as a nonprofit organization in 1984, funded with a Canadian government grant and under the guidance of the founding president, Guy Lalierte. The current president is Daniel Gauthier.

On Nov. 10, 1992, before Mystere opened at Treasure Island, Cirque du Soleil played its first permanent non-touring company in Las Vegas, the Nouvella Experience, in a tent located behind the Mirage.

“We really took a gamble when we tried to play Cirque in Las Vegas,” Dewhurst said. “Our situation was that we were behind the Mirage and people had to go through the casino to the tent, which wasn’t conducive to convenience. Visitors didn’t see its location or know the name, although the locals who did know about it loved it.

“One of the incentives to having the show in a tent prior to Mystere coming was that people became aware of the name Cirque du Soleil. But the Novella Experience didn’t have the attendance figures that we had hoped for.”

Mystere started slowly in January 1994, with attendance at only about 60 percent, while the touring show (which was then Santimbanco) was extremely successful, consistently selling out at 100 percent. It required a lot of media coverage to bring Mystere to public attention. Although it was originally slow because Cirque du Soleil is not traditional Las Vegas, it is now at the forefront of changing the face of Las Vegas entertainment. Many reservations for Mystere are made up to 90 days in advance via the 800 number.

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By: Gary Dretzka | Chicago Tribune
March 5, 1996

With “Alegria” away in Japan, “Saltimbanco” encamped in Europe and a new North American show still months away, fans of Cirque du Soleil must trek to the desert to witness the mesmerizing theatrics and sensuous athleticism of their cherished troupe. It’s a journey worth making.

After two years of performances, the lure of “Mystere” continues to attract capacity crowds (more than a million paying customers) to Cirque’s signature theater at the Treasure Island resort. Several acts have been added to the experience, freshening it up and providing some exhausted entertainers a chance to recharge their batteries.

The other-world environment of “Mystere”–a brilliantly colorful celebration of birth, flight and sensory evolution–remains essentially the same. But the addition of new material makes this edition brighter.

Moving over from “Alegria” is Mischa Matorin, master of the flying cube. The wild-maned Matorin, who would be a perfect model for the cover of a romance novel, manipulates the aluminum-frame cube with his feet in an aerial ballet staged high above the theater’s floor.

Enhancing what appears to be Matorin’s effortlessly precise dance with a seemingly weightless object are pinpoints of light that reflect off the surfaces of the cube to create a rainbow of colors. I’m told that Matorin–son of the artistic director of the Moscow Circus and a gymnast–gets to perform with fewer clothes than he did with “Alegria,” adding spice to a pretty sexy show.

Two new clowns have been added to “Mystere,” replacing fuzzy-haired Benny LeGrand, who “went home to carve ducks and grow plants in Vancouver.” James Keylon, a registered pharmacist who gave it all up to join the circus, plays a traditional mime character continually badgered into submission by bosomy and belligerant Francine Cote.

Their occasional appearances, along with those of the show’s famous fat baby, serve several purposes: lightening the occasionally heavy tone of the show, reducing the distance between the performers and the audience in the cavernous theater and providing a comic point of entry for younger viewers. Few people go to this circus to see the clowns, but Keylon and Cote manage to enchant the crowd.

A unique and dangerous high-bar act has been added at the end of the show, employing a fixed metal frame as a launching pad for a dizzying display of spins and catches. Fourteen gymnasts had trained for nine months on this routine, which incorporates a great deal of delicate choreography and trapeze artistry.