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    "The Los Angeles Festival will present three weeks of international theatre, dance and music next September," the Montreal Gazette wrote in late 1986. "The creme de la creme of the Hollywood showbiz community is expected to attend the opening night of the festival, which has a healthy budget of $5.5 million US. (That's about $7.7 million Cdn.) And guess who will be the headliner for opening night? None other than the popular Cirque du Soleil."

By the end of 1986, over 250,000 spectators saw La Magie Continue. The tour averaged 78% capacity, taking in about $2.2 million at the box office (against a budget of $4 million). Government subsidies were down to about a quarter of the overall budget, and with the help of an increasing number of private sponsors, Cirque du Soleil was able to retire its operating deficit (although it still had some capital debts to pay off). Everywhere they went, the scene was the same: the ticket lineup was full of happy, excited faces - and we're not just talking about the kids. Cirque was gaining some traction throughout Canada and everyone was content - except Laliberté. In order to make it without subsidies, Laliberté understood his nascent circus had to be on the road for at least seven months to break even, longer to make money. Thus he decided it was time to go where the weather stayed warmer, longer, allowing for an extension of the tour: the United States. "The money's there," Laliberté said, but he didn't want to just pop up anywhere: his eyes were on the Los Angeles Festival.


Back in 1984, as Cirque du Soleil itself was getting organized, the city of Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Arts Festival, a 2 1/2 month orgy of prestigious imports, wild and wacky offerings from the avant-garde, and even a few local groups. The festival went down in the books as a personal triumph for its adventuresome, Canadian-born director Robert Fitzpatrick, and had an energizing aftershock. It was so successful that a cry went up for a sequel, and a cultural panel decided that there should be a biennial festival to honor the arts. Thus the Los Angeles Festival was born, captained again by Fitzpatrick, and financed in part by a $2 million grant from the deep coffers of the unexpected L.A. Olympic Games surplus. Fitzpatrick's yen for anything that would provoke an audience one way or another - with a strong slant toward theatre and dance - dominated his festival plans. "Things somehow special, somehow different,” as Fitzpatrick told Times reporter Judith Michaelson; things too special, too doubtfully profitable to tour. He didn't want to play it safe like other festivals had. "They didn't risk failure, so they also didn't risk success. If you don't do that, then there is nothing that catches the audience offguard." Thus, Los Angeles would get an eyebrow-raising festival opener in Cirque du Soleil. Cirque had been spotted by Fitzpatrick and his people at Expo '86 in Vancouver, after associate director Thomas Schumacher saw a videotape of a performance, prompting the invitation.

In the documentary film "Run Before You Fly", Schumacher remembers: "I get a lot of credit for saying I saw Cirque du Soleil and told them to come to the Los Angeles Festival. It actually happened through a man at the Quebec Delegation called Michel Robitaille. I went to have lunch with him one day to say, 'I want money to bring Montreal dancer and choreographer Édouard Lock to LA, to the Festival.' I needed $50,000 to cover travel or something. And he said, 'We'll give you funding to bring Édouard Lock and La La La Human Steps, but I want you to go see a circus.' I laughed at him and said, 'We're not going to bring a circus to the LA Festival. It's an arts festival!'" Seeing Cirque du Soleil on videotable changed Schumacher's mind. "It was a Wednesday," he recalls. "I went back to Robitaille's office, I watched a videotape. I was blown away, and Friday night I was in Quebec City. Guy Laliberté picked me up at the airport and drive me to the site. I saw the second half of the show that night. I saw it twice Saturday, twice on Sunday, and we made the decision Sunday night."

Though Schumacher wanted Cirque du Soleil for his festival, he couldn't afford to pay them, foot the bill for transporting hundreds of tons of equipment, or even house the over 80 people in the troupe. "Festival officials thought that the event was too risky for their young operation," Jean David, Cirque du Soleil's marketing and communications vice-president wrote in his book Quel Cirque. "If our show failed, the consequences would have a disastrous impact on their operating budget and their reputation in the American entertainment industry." Despite this, Laliberté says the opportunity was too good to pass up: "I thought, 'I'm not going to wait twenty years to see if we can make a living off what we do. The opportunity is here, let's make a deal. I told Thomas Schumacher, 'Give us the opening slot, promotion, and one hundred percent of the gate.'" So they struck a deal: the festival didn't produce the show; it assumed no financial risk. It also meant the Festival didn't share in the bounty should the show take off.

    "But we did get some advantages," David said. "The festival included us in their programming, and its advertising campaign supported our ticket sales. Our show enjoyed the same benefits as the other shows for which the festival actually assumed production costs. And even better, we were on the front page of the festival program, a million copies of which were distributed in the Los Angeles Times. What a coup!"

But partners Latourelle and Gauthier were aghast. "Going to Los Angeles in 1987 was the most risky thing we had ever done," Latourelle remembers. First, although the L.A. Festival had committed to having the Cirque perform on opening night, it made no other obligation. After that, the troupe was on its own. Second, the company may have retired its debt, but it had virtually no money in the bank either. There was just enough to get to Los Angeles and start a $1-million advertising blitz, but not enough to come home should they fail. What convinced Cirque du Soleil the risk was worth taking was their favorable place in the schedule... the show would kick off the festival. Everyone was nervous, though, even the show's artisic director, Guy Caron. "If we make it in Los Angeles," said Caron, "the rest of California will be easy. If we get bad reviews in L.A. . . ." his handlebar moustache twitched. He doesn't even want to think about it.

The company was playing for its future in front of a star-spangled audience of show-business moguls and the world's most jaded entertainment media; they swung into action that opening night on a wing and a prayer...


According to Jean David, the announcement of the agreement between Cirque du Soleil and the Festival got a cold reception in Hollywood. Many media outlets and critics from the arts world castigated the organizers for opening the festival with a 'circus.' What was a circus doing in such a major event? Criticism was heaped on the festival. "Rumor had it on opening night that the cultural elite would be lying in wait for us under the big top in the industrial quarter of Little Tokyo. The outlook was decidedly grim. The media had no idea who we were. But they would soon find out."

Another issue brewing was an internal one - where was Guy Laliberté? Laliberté, a consummate networker, worked hard to make sure the show was a success. While colleagues slaved to put up the tent, Laliberté, the story goes, was nowhere to be found. Mutiny was on the minds of many. But that all changed on opening night. In the days and nights-especially the nights-leading up to the opening, their absentee leader had been out talking up his show with the beautiful people in L.A.'s restaurants and nightclubs. He succeeded in generating the buzz that made the virtually unknown Cirque the must-see act of the 1987 Los Angeles Festival.

The night after Le Cirque Réinventé opened, the response by the press and the public provoked a media frenzy. The critics that had been looking forward to lambasting the Cirque were so enchanted by what they saw they considered the show the only one in the festival worth seeing. "A complete reversal of the situation," David noted. "There was widespread astonishment." The next night there was a three-block lineup snaked outside the box office. Cirque du Soleil sold out in less than a week. The company even had to erect a fence and setup valet parking for all the celebrities coming to see the show again and again!


"It has been a total success for us," circus spokesman Jean Heon said. "We've created a real buzz in the city. This kind of circus has never been seen down here before and it's caught everyone off guard." The Cirque's popularity and success vaulted them onto The Tonight Show on September 28th, where they strutted their stuff for 7 and a half minutes. "It's a great recognition for us because this is the first time we've performed outside Canada," said Heon. Cirque du Soleil also appeared on the "Walt Disney World Celebrity Circus" special on November 27, 1987 from 8:00pm to 9:00pm, in which Mickey Mouse, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Lisa Bonet, Tony Randall, Kim Fields, Tim Conway and Jim "Earnest" Varney joined the world's greatest circus acts for NBC-TV. The setting for the special was the international pavilions of Epcot Center World Showcase. From Canada's Cirque du Soleil, clown / comedian Denis Lacombe performed his mad-conductor routine, and The Andrews, who performed their derring-do aerial review.

The circus had indeed arrived. While Cirque du Soleil became an overnight success -- "Within hours of the first press reviews, dozens of producers, managers, agents and sales persons of all sorts showed up. Americans, Israelis, Germans, Japanese, Arabs — they all wanted to see us to negotiate, talk, buy the company, rent our services, produce us, represent us, film us, finance us, assist us, advise us... it was almost overwhelming." -- they also catch some unwanted attention. Executives from Columbia Pictures become enthralled with the show and meet with Laliberté and Gauthier under the pretense of wanting to make a movie about Cirque du Soleil and its success. Laliberté was unhappy with the deal, claiming it gave Columbia too many rights, in attempting to secure all rights to the production. Laliberté and Gauthier pulled out before it could be concluded, keeping Cirque du Soleil independent. (Consequently, Guy Laliberté has expressed that experience stands out as a key reason why Cirque remained independent and privately owned for 30 years.)

It's rapid development in three years has amazed almost everybody except Laliberté. "Growth was one of my targets," he says calmly. "I didn't know exactly how we would do it, but I always knew it was possible. And who knows, maybe Le Cirque du Soleil will only be the seed of something else?"

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