THE CIRCUS AS A BUSINESS?
With all the fire and optimism of youth, Cirque du Soleil set out to
reinvent the art of the circus, an art hitherto almost unknown in Canada.
Back in that first year, we already had the feeling that nothing would come
between us and the realization of their cherished dream. And indeed, in
the space of four short years, the Cirque du Soleil has become a success
story, gaining recognition not only in Quebec and Canada but also
This tremendously gratifying achievement would never have been possible
without the unflagging determination creativity and willingness to go one
step further displayed out by every member of our company. This was especially
true for 1987, the year of Cirque's first appearances in the United States
and a tour of California that can only be described as a triumph. Although
Cirque's still basking in the glow, we've no intention of resting on our
This year - 1988 - is the last year of our five-year plan, and a very
important point in the evolution of the Cirque du Soleil. To consolidate
our breakthrough in the American market, we've set our sights on the Eastern
US. The challenge is colossal, but our accomplishments of the last four
years told us we can do it! – Guy Laliberté.
Far from being polar opposites, Cirque du Soleil proves that creativity
and business go together like hand and glove. When asked what makes him
tick, Guy Laliberte responds, as artist and administrator, that his goal
remains to surpass himself. "Anything is possible," he says, "if you're
prepared to do what it takes to make it worthwhile." In his case, that
means unswerving determination, the kind of honesty that inspires immediate
respect and a very rare gift of intuition, plus the many other qualities
of Guy's unique personality. All of which are inseparably bound up with
the destiny of the Cirque du Soleil, and the company's growing reputation
for fresh thinking, sharp business acumen and second-to-none standards
Not only did the Cirque forge ahead; it was able to decrease its
dependency of government grants to 50% in 1985 and 27% in 1986, by seeking
out and developing ties with private industry. In 1987, government
subsidies accounted for only 15% of the company's operating budget. A
turning point was reached when the Cirque headed south across the border
last summer after a tour of Quebec and performed the opening of the prestigious
Los Angeles Festival before embarking on a three-month tour of California.
The praise was enthusiastic and the tour got extensive media coverage.
Meanwhile, the Cirque was turning heads in the Quebec business community
for its success in exporting - of all things - a cultural event. New openings
led to an internal reorganization that included provisions for indoor
performances, the rental of the circus' costume and set production facilities
and the marketing of secondary products such as tee-shirts, coloring books,
educational toys, video-cassettes and records.
(See "Le Groupe du Soleil")
The company was also turning heads overseas. January 1988 marked Australia's
200th anniversary, which was to be celebrated with a two month "Bicentennial Festival of
Sydney". Cirque du Soleil was invited and later accepted an invitation to perform
at the festival, as well as a tour through the rest of Australia that would have
lasted through May of that year. However, citing increased travel costs and a less than
cordial welcome from some Australians, Cirque du Soleil withdrew from its scheduled
appearance at the Festival and canceled their Australian tour. The brouhaha began when
the Australian Actors Equity and the country's Circus Oz objected to Cirque's plans,
especially one week in which Cirque's appearance in Sydney would have coincided with
a Circus Oz run. "We were very vulnerable to comparison with them," said Circus Oz
administrator Susan Provan, "and we thought we just couldn't compete with their
promotional campaign." So Circus Oz asked Cirque "to revise their dates and not
appear until four to six weeks after we did in any city," said Provan. When Cirque
wouldn't budge, "we lodged a request with the immigration department to put pressure
on them to alter their dates." The Australian government finally overruled the
objections and granted Cirque du Soleil the necessary visas, but by then the air
fares had doubled in price (from what Cirque had expected to pay), said Cirque general
manager Norman Latourelle, and so the company pulled out, as they'd never signed a
formal contract to appear. Unfortunately, the Festival's programme books had already
Australia's loss was California's gain. Cirque du Soleil returned to Santa
Monica in February 1988 ("Le Cirque comes to us from Montreal, but surely via the moon
or Mars!" — The Los Angeles Times), traveled to San Francisco in April, and expanded its U.S.
appearances. The company now comprised of 150 people. With the success of
Le Cirque Réinventé on the West
Coast of the United States, Cirque boldly launched a Midwest and Eastern
itinerary. After a brief appearance at the Calgary Winter Olympics, the blue
and yellow big top popped up in the shadows of the World Trade Center in New
York City, spending several weeks dazzling Toronto, then Washington D.C.
Wherever it went the result was the same: rave reviews and sold-out performances
went hand-in-hand. 796,937 people had now seen Le Cirque Réinventé, including
patrons in Cirque's home town.
Despite the cold Canadian winter, the company
ended its 1988 tour at home in Montreal. There, as well as all over the
continent, Cirque du Soleil wins many awards for its entrepreneurship and its
innovative and creative spirit: including Emmy, Drama Desk, Bambi and Ace
awards, Gémeaux and Félix trophies, and a Rose d'Or de Montreux. Cirque du
Soleil's performers take part and win several awards at various festivals
throughout the world, including the Festival international du cirque de
Monte-Carlo, the Festival mondial du cirque de demain (France), the Festival
international de cirque de Vérone (Italy), the Festival international de
cirque de Gênes (Italy), and the Wuhan International Acrobatic Art Festival
(China). And with the proportion of government funding down to 10% and its
budget in the $10 million range, the Cirque du Soleil had met its objectives.
But not everyone is happy.