WE'RE OFF AND RUNNING
With a burning desire to return circus tradition to the esteem and quality
it knew at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Cirque du Soleil troupe
welcomed Guy Caron, head of the National Circus School, as Artistic Director.
Caron had toured the world to discover new trends in life entertainment of all
kinds and he brought that knowledge and know-how to Cirque du Soleil, which
revamps the show: he wanted strong emotional music, played from the beginning
by musicians; he wanted to emulate the Moscow Circus’ method of having the acts
tell a story; and most of all, have performers, rather than technical crew, move
equipment and props on and off the stage so as not to disrupt the momentum of the
storyline. The rationale: to draw the audience more into the performance.
Therefore, for 1985 the Cirque - armed with a $3 million budget (50% coming from
government subsidies) - presented a totally new concept: a striking,
dramatic mix of the circus arts and street entertainment, featuring wild, outrageous
costumes, staged under magical lighting and set to original music. With not a single
animal in the ring, Cirque's difference was clear from the very start. The positive
response from the audience encourages Laliberte to expand Cirque’s operations
outside Quebec. So after performing in Montreal, Sherbrook and Quebec City, Cirque
du Soleil leaves its home province for the first time to take its show to neighboring
Ontario. Performances are given under a brand new 1,500 seat big top in Ottawa,
Toronto and Niagara Falls to over 137,000 spectators. The Cirque is made for
travelling and the blue and yellow tent quickly becomes a symbol of Quebec youth
and artistic energy.
But the troupe receives lukewarm responses outside Quebec. Audiences in such centers
as Toronto and Niagara Falls didn't know what to make of a circus that was long on
synthesizers and dry ice but short on tigers and elephants. Attendance in Toronto was
about 15% of the Cirque's capacity (after not having enough money to properly market
the show. Gilles Ste-Croix dressed in a monkey suit and walked through downtown
Toronto in a desperate attempt to draw some publicity.) The stop at Niagara Falls
turned out to be equally problematic; attendance, according to the Montreal Gazette,
was just 4%. Cirque du Soleil underestimated the amount of time visitors spent in the
area: although thousands upon thousands visit, they're only there for a brief period
of time – not long enough to take in a show. As a result Cirque du Soleil found itself
in dire financial straits. The Cirque blew it by billing itself as the Sun Circus and
turned off a lot of people in Toronto and Niagara Falls who were expecting to see circus
animals, which are not part of Cirque du Soleil's act. "It was a disaster," recalled
David. "We ended up with a $750,000 deficit and realized we were in a real business
faced with real problems and had to learn how to deal with the banks."
Several factors prevented Cirque from going bankrupt at the end of 1985.
The Desjardins Group, which was Cirque du Soleil's financial institution at the time,
covered about $200,000 in debt payments. Also, a financier named Daniel Lamarre, who
worked for one of the largest public relations firms in Quebec, represented the
company for free, knowing that they didn't have the money to pay his fee. And the
Quebec government itself, realizing what they could have on their hands, came through,
and granting Laliberté enough money to stay solvent for another year.
Whipped, but not beaten, Cirque brings the 1985 tour back to Montreal before pushing on.