“What Ifs and If Onlys, Part 3 of 7”

“What Ifs and If Onlys, Part 3 of 7”
By: Ricky Russo – Atlanta, Georgia (USA)

You remember Google Glass, right? The brand of smart glasses – an optical head-mounted display designed in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses – that were all the rage in, oh, 2014 or so? Do you remember a report that suggested Zarkana at Aria would become the first Cirque production to use the technology to enhance the audience’s experience of the show? No? Yeah, I forgot about it too…

In a May 2014 article, Robin Leach suggested that artists would wear the Google inventions to give audiences a “bird’s-eye view” to experience the same feelings and sensations that the performers do. “It will be as if the audience is riding inside and on top of the Wheel of Death,” he proclaimed. And that “the blue sand lady [would] wear the glasses so audiences can see how she creates her amazing designs. And even British twin aerialists Andrew and Kevin Atherton would wear the glasses so that audiences could experience even more just how amazing their daredevil feats were in the spectacular!”

To say he was excited would be an understatement. Robin did go on to suggest that if the test at Zarkana was met with positive audience reaction it would be rolled out – where applicable – at other Cirque shows around the world. Since we’ve never seen Google Glass at other shows, it’s not hard to determine the outcome of the test. Zarkana did go on to help launch the Samsung Gear VR through a stereoscopic 360-degree experience that put spectators in the center of the aerial strap performance. But I digress. Here are a couple of other experiences we forgot about…


On June 24, 2014, The Montreal Gazette got wind that there was a possible Cirque du Soleil-themed restaurant in the works, as culinary giants Albert and Ferran Adrià had revealed more details about their next major restaurant venture in Ibiza, a project they claimed would be gargantuan and international in scale. In an interview with Spanish publication El Confidencial’s Vanitatis section, Albert Adrià dropped grandiose hints but few concrete details on the concept: The restaurant, he said, will be multi-disciplinary, international, with a global impact. “It won’t be just a restaurant, but something more,” he said. “And it won’t be just about dining. We’re going to surprise the world with a park of cultural and artistic attractions for adults,” he said.

Albert and Ferran Adrià, spirit and soul of restaurant elBulli, can certainly be considered the most well-known brothers in the world of gastronomy. For many, elBulli is considered a before-and-after of modern cuisine, not only for the creation of innumerable elaborations and techniques, but also for its philosophy and values such as creativity, passion, challenge, and humility, which have always defined the way Albert and Ferran work. The Adrià brothers are also known for their willingness to communicate and spread recent developments in gastronomy through their participation in conferences, projects and books. Over the years, elBulli has been an incubator for some of the foremost chefs in modern gastronomy. Rene Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Joan Roca, Grant Achatz, José Andrés and Massimo Bottura are among the most eminent of the more than 2,000 trainees that have completed an internship at elBulli over the years. Very impressive.

On February 13, 2015, Cirque du Soleil officially announced the collaboration with the Adrià Brothers: HEART Ibiza, a unique and exciting concept that explored the creative collision between food, music and art. For more than 10 years, Albert and Ferran Adrià and Guy Laliberté had been sharing ideas on the concept and this project was born from their common passion for art, gastronomy and music.

HEART Ibiza was slated to open in May of 2015 with three experiences:

• THE BARAKÀ – A hippie chic take on street food markets. This outside terrace features curated music, original contemporary art pieces, ambient live art performances and gastronomy. Inspired by traditional street food markets and various street foods of the world, the Adrià brothers have taken great care to design an astonishing gastronomic offer to create a unique and global experience.

• THE WORKSHOP – Where to experience art, music and food. The Workshop is a unique space that offers a seated food service experience combining ambient visual and performance art, curated music and signature Adrià gastronomy.

• LA BOÎTE – A live music venue, featuring live bands, live art, and a decadent food and beverage service. A space where the hottest nightlife ingredients mix in different ways to create a distinct flavor resulting from the creative genius of the Adrià Brothers and Cirque du Soleil.

And then the project dropped off of the Cirque du Soleil radar. So, what happened? The answer is both simple and complicated, so let me walk you through it:

After the successful launches of “O” and La Nouba (yep, that far back), Guy Laliberté wanted to expand Cirque du Soleil’s international business activities and take the company in brand-new directions. But he was met with some skepticism by not only his long-time director Franco Dragone, but also his long-time business partner Daniel Gauthier. Exhaustion from creating both shows at the same time was beginning to set in; Franco Dragone was worn out. He wanted to rest; Guy Laliberté did not. “One time, I talked to Guy, and I say to Guy, ‘We have already so many shows.’ And he say, ‘Oh, Franco, don’t worry. There are so many places to do a show.'” Dragone, fearful of losing creative control and uncomfortable with this direction, departed. Likewise, Daniel Gauthier was equally uncomfortable with the future vision that Guy had for the company, and thus left.

So with nothing and nobody to stop him, Laliberté announced he was pursuing plans to launch a global series of entertainment complexes dubbed “Complexes Cirque”, which would catapult Cique into the hotel-management business, featuring establishments with Cirque’s avant-garde approach. The details of said complexes were kept secret at the time however, the vision as shared included hotels anchored by various Cirque du Soleil productions (old and new alike) and would contain nightclubs and other entertainment venues, all branded by Cirque du Soleil. (We’ll get into “Complexes Cirque” next time.) Guy brought in TV executive Daniel Lamarre as President of the New Ventures business unit, with a singular mission: to expand the Cirque’s creative platform to non-live show areas.

But while the “Complexes Cirque” idea was never fully realized (after a number of attempts to get them off the ground in the early aughts), the company scaled back some of its ambitions and in 2004 opened its first hospitality concept with Celebrity Cruises dubbed “A Taste of Cirque du Soleil at The Bar at the Edge of the Earth”. This led to the 2007 opening of the REVOLUTION LOUNGE attached to Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE at The Mirage, and 2009’s GOLD Lounge for VIVA ELVIS at ARIA. But it wasn’t until 2013’s opening of LIGHT NIGHTCLUB at Mandalay Bay that Cirque du Soleil found a new sandbox to play in. In fact, the company went on to name its Hospitality Group SANDBOX and was bent on expanding its hospitality concepts with a THEME PARK in Mexico and with HEART in Ibiza.

But those expansion plans were turned upside down when the Cirque was sold to TPG, Fosun, and the Cassie in April 2015. Cirque du Soleil was out of the hospitality business within months of the sale – the new owners were simply not interested in owning lounges and night clubs. Revolution, Gold, and LIGHT would eventually shut down. The Theme Park would be lost in a quagmire of redesign (but that’s a story for another time). But what of HEART Ibiza?

HEART was transferred to Guy Laliberté’s new company – LUNE ROUGE. It opened, albeit a month late, and went on to great success. Here’s what was ultimately offered at opening:

At Heart Ibiza, inside the Ibiza Gran Hotel, there will be lights. There will be music. And there will be food. All at once. Divided into three distinct spaces — Terrace, Supper and Club — the sprawling restaurant entertainment complex accommodates up to 1,000 people and is described as a cultural, musical, artistic and gastronomic theme park for adults.

At Supper Heart, for instance, the dining experience becomes operatic, with dishes presented to their own original soundtrack that speeds up and slows down the tempo of the meal. At Heart Terrace, the all-you-can-eat buffet concept is turned into an ambient street market set across 1,500 square meters, along with bazaars and food stalls that offer international cuisines. Guests are also entertained by roving live performance art. And Club Heart is pitched as the underbelly of the resort where every night, international DJs will spin electro tracks to the choreography of light shows, video projections, and live performances. Walls and spaces will be furnished by avant-garde art from international artists such as Takashi Murakami, digital artist Miguel Chevalier, Gim Hong Sok and Rafael Lozano.

Sounds exciting, no? Who knows what Cirque du Soleil might have looked like today had it continued with HEART Ibiza, SANDBOX, and all its hospitality concepts, like…


On February 26, 2015, Roy Ofer, Founder of Sama-Sama, and Charles Joron, Chief Production Officer & Executive Producer of Cirque du Soleil Group, announced a business partnership for the production of the first Sama-Sama Live Experience. The innovative concept would be a unique multisensory entertainment experience combining elements from live shows, theme parks, and interactive events. Sama-Sama Live Experience would transform audience members into performers through the universal language of music, movement and rhythm.
“The experience will appeal to multi-generational audiences and make the most of state-of-the-art multimedia and technology,” the release said. Cirque du Soleil was to provide guidance in the development of this live experience as well as act as a business partner in the venture. “We see great potential in Sama-Sama’s new immersive concept and have decided to come on board. This innovative approach is unique and we believe it will touch audiences in a brand new way” said Charles Joron.

First you think it is a show, then you find you are in an interactive
park and suddenly realize you have undertaken a journey to a magical
place you didn’t know existed and which is inside you.

SAMA-SAMA invited the audience to immerse themselves in a parallel universe where they followed the story of a mysterious community known as the Samis. The Samis, a group of multidisciplinary artists, have built a unique space for creativity and inspiration (an abandoned power plant that reacts to human energy), bringing people together through the joy of creation in a way never experienced before. They called this place Sama-Sama, which means “together” in Filipino. Sama-Sama takes the audience on a 360-degree immersive journey to this parallel universe where a dozen large-scale interactive installations – all related to music, rhythm, movement, image and creativity – are where the audience is urged to unleash their creativity, become performers, play and have fun. Enjoy experiences like playing a laser harp, conducting a virtual orchestra, taking part in an immense video clip, learning beat box, performing a joint dance routine, or creating sounds of the world with no need for prior knowledge. Each original installation is created exclusively by the Sama-Sama team and features user-friendly interfaces and intuitive instructions designed to fully engage the audience. The Sama-Sama journey culminates in a grand finale where all audience members become part of the Sami community. The public become the performers and the performers are the public.

If you’re a little vague on the idea of the concept think of Sama-Sama being an adult version of the ImageWorks at the Imagination Pavilion at EPCOT, and I think that might bring it into focus for you.

The international launch of Sama-Sama Live Experience was to take place in Madrid, Spain, followed by a tour of other major cities in Europe, North America and South America. So what happened? The concept had its premiere in Madrid on November 19, 2015 to sold out audiences but then closed on January 24, 2016, with no reason given (although it’s possible it just wasn’t a sustainable experience). There appears to have been an attempt to take the experience to San Francisco, but that does not appear to have worked out and it’s fallen into obscurity, even among Cirque fans.

And I would not fault anyone for never having heard of the SAMA-SAMA Experience. After the initial press release, it was never mentioned by Cirque du Soleil again. That could be because Cirque was only a business partner and creative mentor to the project; it was never meant to be, labeled as, or marketed as a Cirque du Soleil concept. Or projects like this were scuttled when Cirque’s new owners decided to focus the company on its core assets rather than experiences like night clubs, theme parks, lounges, and restaurants.
That being said, Gabriel Pinkstone (Senior Director, Special Projects), Katerine De Roche (Director, Corporate Finance and Development), and Martin Boudreau (President, Theme Parks and Immersive Experiences) were credited in helping bring SAMA-SAMA to life, so there’s no escaping that Cirque du Soleil was part of the concept.


Rumors of Cirque setting up in this fantastic city are almost as old as resident shows themselves, and some of the earliest regarding London stretch back to the late 1990s. It’s no secret that following their explosive 1987 premiere in Los Angeles and subsequent conquering of North America, that Cirque du Soleil had set their sights on Australia, Japan, and Europe. But each was met with a few challenges. While it would take some time for the Cirque and Japanese interests to hammer out a deal (they would sign with Fuji in 1991 for a unique tour the following year), and a planned Australian tour of Le Cirque Réinventé for early 1988 fell apart late in the discussions (keeping the continent down-under Cirque-free until Saltimbanco’s visit in 1999), Cirque did attempt its first European Tour in 1990. London was the start of a two-year tour that was supposed to take Le Cirque Réinventé to Paris, Barcelona, and other European cities.

“We are a little bit nervous about Paris especially,” said Danny Pelchat, the circus’s general manager and international advance man, in an interview. “Actually, very nervous.” Much was riding on the success of this tour; Cirque’s successes in North America kept multiplying their operating costs. The more people they drew, the bigger they got, adding on acts and paying more for the venues where they pitched their tent. As costs increased, so did the circus’ dependence on larger markets which could sustain such a large infrastructure. Those markets were found on the international scene, prompting Cirque officials to admit bluntly that they had to succeed in Europe if the Cirque was to survive. “We’re shaking a bit in our boots — but maybe that’s good for us,” Guy Laliberté said.

Taking a distinctively North American success story to more blasé audiences in Europe was a tall order. The main reason the European trip was such a gamble was that the Cirque had to chalk up an 85-per-cent attendance rate in a 1,600-seat arena to break even. Under the 2,500-seat big-top used in North America, the break-even rate was just 65 per cent. So the Cirque had to fill a greater percentage of seats in Europe without the benefit of the recognition factor it had garnered in North America. Asked what would happen if the European stand was not a success, Pelchat replied: “That can’t happen. Period.” But if the unthinkable did happen, “there are always back doors” to save the day. One option would be to move the show to Italy or Germany, where success was more guaranteed. Why not go there first? Because playing it safe was boring, they said. Not the Cirque du Soleil way.

Unfortunately the tour was a complete disaster, cut short by a heat wave, war, and indifference. Cirque du Soleil returned to North America with their tails between their legs. Although Cirque had hoped to be successful and tour Nouvelle Expèrience there, the company would not attempt Europe again until Saltimbanco made inroads in 1995. By that time, Cirque du Soleil would have its first resident show in Las Vegas, with attempts to place them in Vancouver (1994), Toronto (1994), and Berlin (1996), and with new announcements for a second residence in Las Vegas (1996) and Walt Disney World (1996). It made perfect sense that Cirque du Soleil would want a permanent presence in London too. But unlike the other potential residences mentioned so far, London is a far more complicated story because it rears its head often, and becomes mixed into a number of different proposals over the years.

The first time we’d hear about Cirque adding London to its growing list of homes away from home was on February 3, 1997. The Montreal Gazette published a blurb that mentioned a Hong Kong-based developer said Cirque du Soleil had agreed to locate a troupe at a giant leisure and entertainment complex it was building in South London.

“The contract hasn’t been signed, but the two parties have agreed in principle,” says Andrew Dowler, a spokesman for the developer, Parkview International. Dowler said the deal is subject to Parkview getting planning permission to build extra facilities on its site, home of the abandoned Battersea Power Station. But if the deal has been all but clinched, the Cirque du Soleil isn’t saying. A company spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the deal. “Nobody here is going to tell you anything about this,” said the woman, who would not identify herself.

The article went on to state that Parkview expected to receive preliminary planning approval by March 1998 and could then begin construction by the end of the year. The projected completion date was around the turn of the millennium. The company saw Cirque du Soleil as an integral part of its plan to develop the 12-hectare site, located at Battersea, on the Thames about three kilometers from the Houses of Parliament. Parkview’s plans included a 32-screen cineplex, rides, restaurants, hotels, offices, and a train station to link the complex to London’s transportation network. The project was expected to cost about $1 billion USD.

But little was said about the project for more than three years until a May 2000 interview with Scéno Plus, the performance space design firm from Montreal, that mentioned they were working on the “huge, if slow-moving” project at Battersea. It wasn’t until December 11, 2000, when Laliberté unveiled a strategy to develop and open “Entertainment Complexes” in major entertainment capitals of the world, was the London project made official.

“Over the years, we have collaborated with creative people from around the world to conceive, devise and realize our shows. With the Cirque du Soleil Complexes, we intend to expand our platform by bringing together an ensemble of innovative ideas and talent under one roof and applying them to a physical location. We envision our Complexes as international meeting places where patrons will be inspired and entertained in the spirit of celebration and festivity. We want to surround our public with artful living,” announced Laliberté.

The complexes would be a unique fusion of drama and design, of architecture and the arts. They would be a place where technology, tourism, arts and leisure converge, and would provide a year-round base for Cirque du Soleil in the form of a permanent theater in the host city. Laliberté added, “We want to situate our patrons in the moment by creating an environment, a microcosm, where no detail is expendable in the profound belief that every detail is part of the big here and now. We believe this to be a natural extension of our mission statement: invoke the imagination, provoke the senses, and evoke the emotions of people around the world.”

Planning was underway to develop four to six of these complexes within the next ten years, the release said, with the first being planned for The Battersea Power Station site in London at a price tag of £500m. Built in 1930, Battersea Power Station is believed to be the largest brick building in Europe. Its size, its four tall chimneys, and its prime location on the south bank of the River Thames have combined to make it one of London’s most recognizable landmarks. In the 1970s, it featured on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Animals”. Despite its renown, however, the station has stood empty since 1975. And there have been plenty of revitalization projects for the site over the years, none of them working out. Guy Laliberté, called the Power Station project a “massive and truly exciting challenge.”

He continued, “to me this building continues to radiate the energy that it used to convert. It is a hugely powerful symbol. We want to reflect that energy and power in helping to create an environment and destination that will excite the imagination and stimulate the senses. The success of Cirque du Soleil is founded on radical thinking-not just the acts that appear in our shows but the whole entertainment experience. For the first time ever we have the opportunity to apply that radical thinking to a project of this size and scope.” But why London? “London is the entertainment capital of the world, so that is why we want a home here for Cirque du Soleil. We want [to build] an entertainment complex using traditional businesses–restaurants, hotels, spas–and challenging them with new creative content. Like we did with the Cirque–taking the traditional and twisting it.”

As previously stated, Cirque du Soleil formed a strategic alliance with Parkview International, owners and developers of the site, and would advise on artistic content for what became one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in Europe. The Parkview Group Holdings, controlled by the Hwang Family, originally established a construction and development business in Taiwan in 1949. Since then, the Family has specialized in major integrated developments, principally in the Far East and, most notably, their flagship Residential Development in Hong Kong. Cirque du Soleil aimed to contribute their own special brand of lateral thinking, working alongside the site’s planners, designers and architects.

Talking about the alliance, Parkview’s President, Mr. Victor Hwang, said, “Cirque du Soleil’s imagination, style and creative energy will help provide the stimulus to build what will be a truly innovative environment. We are delighted that they are going to join a select team that is driving the renaissance of this London icon and the city’s South Riverside.”

Work on the site was to begin within six months of the announcement with an opening date in 2004. The plans called the dilapidated building to be converted into a 2,000 seat auditorium, a ballroom, a cinema, and two hotels. One of the hotels would be conventional. The other, Mr. Laliberté said, would be a “Generation X” hotel that offered entertainment as part of the experience. “The butler in the morning serving you coffee might have a face that makes you crack up laughing or you might be in the elevator and someone will climb out of a little door in the lift and have a chat with you.” A spa at the complex will be inspired by the baths of ancient Rome and include festivities, music and food, although it will stop short of offering orgies, Mr. Laliberté said. One of the plant’s four chimneys would be turned into an observation tower with the others being used for technical equipment.

The redevelopment has been an on-again off-again affair for years. In 1987, the future looked bright. John Broome, then chairman of Alton Towers (a theme park in Staffordshire, England, near the village of Alton), promised to bring 7,000 visitors an hour to an Edwardian-themed amusement park there, but his vision was doomed. Broome set off with gusto, ripping the roof off and tearing out the interior, but costs for the project steadily rose as huge amounts of asbestos and sulfur damage to the brickwork were found. The costs soared past £240m (out of an initial estimate of £34m), forcing Broome to sell Alton Towers to keep his dream alive. When costs reached £300m, the contractor Sir Alfred McAlpine pulled out. The scheme finally ran out of funding in 1989 owing £75.8m and, in 1993, the receivers sold the debts to Parkview for about £10m. But still the project languished, this time because of wrangles over planning consent. Victor Hwang, president of Parkview, said: “I’ve seen three prime ministers come and go and not a single brick has been laid on this project.”

Victor Hwang first saw Battersea power station as a schoolboy. Huang said he recognized the potential of the Battersea site from the moment he saw it. His plans for it easily rival Broome’s for ambition. He says: “It was a very quick decision; we were aware of the site but we closed the transaction taking over the bank debt within 48 hours of coming to see it. We convinced ourselves that it would become a remarkable development because the position is so good. It is right across the river from Kensington and Chelsea.” He was also attracted by the iconic status of the power station, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who has visited London. Hwang remembers it from trips to London made when he was a 13-year-old Taiwanese schoolboy sent to boarding school a long way from home in north Wales.

The plans for Battersea were masterminded by Michael Lowe of Arup Associates, the architects and engineers, and Sir Philip Dowson. The project encompasses the development of 37 acres of prime riverside land on which the giant relic stands, as well as the refurbishment scheme by two firms of architects, Benoy and Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, for the power station itself. And it seemed that this proposal a better chance of success, than many others But… it never happened. By September 8, 2001, in an article highlighting the achievements of Scéno Plus, there was a small section mentioning some of the projects the company was in on that fell by the wayside. Within it mentioned the company being called upon by Cirque and Parkview International to devise a redevelopment plan for the Battersea project, only to have the partnership fall apart. What that article does not make clear is whether the partnership between Sceno and Cirque/Parkview fell apart or the partnership between Cirque and Parkview. Considering it was a piece on Scéno Plus the more likely outcome was that the partnership between Cirque and Scéno soured here.

In the end it wouldn’t matter too much. On December 3, 2002, Cirque du Soleil announced that, faced with an economic downturn in the hospitality industry, it would abandon plans to open a series of hotel complexes around the world, including in London. The Battersea project appeared off the books. Not much more was heard about residing in Europe until Cirque President and CEO Daniel Lamarre in July 2004 alluded to no less than three new permanent ventures within the next few years; Tokyo, London and New York City. “I wouldn’t want to put a calendar to the construction,” Lamarre said in an interview with The Star, “but I think it’s safe to say we will begin work on the Tokyo project very soon.”

The Tokyo project became ZED in 2008, of course, which unfortunately folded at the end of 2011. The New York City announcement ultimately became WINTUK in 2007, which also ended its run at the beginning of 2011. London had remained elusive though rumors abounded. Like this one from The Stage: On April 18, 2006, Cirque du Soleil was said to be in negotiations about a possible residency at the O2, the multi-million pound sports and entertainment complex being built on the site of the former Millennium Dome in Greenwich. Under the deal, the Canadian circus troupe would have a regular show at an 1,800-seat theater that would form part of the new venue. Illustrations showing how the finished O2 would look were announced and a completion date of July 2007 was given for the project. But while the O2 arena would eventually come together, Cirque’s involvement did not.

On November 15, 2010, an interesting blog post came up at Sky News HD, a component of BskyB in London, which suggested Cirque du Soleil was now actively looking for a permanent home in London through an advisory firm. Guy Laliberte had appointed Allen & Co, a specialist media and entertainment advisory firm, to identify prospective partners who could help establish a permanent residence for the acrobatic dance troupe-cum-circus in London. Mr Laliberté said: “We are working hard trying to find a place in London. We have been looking all over for 10 years. Eventually, we will be at the right place at the right moment with the right real-estate developer. We have looked at the O2. It has been part of the discussion.” David Campbell, the chief executive of AEG Europe, which owns the O2, confirmed the talks: “We have looked at it and it’s just a question of getting the right business model. It’s not imminent but it’s not been dismissed.”

And as of 2020 there’s still been no word, and no permanent residence in London. Just hopes.

To be Continued…