PLANTING A FLOWER IN THE DESERT
Cirque du Soleil did not start out as a company that was comfortable staying in one
place for long. As self-proclaimed "Merchants of Happiness", it was harder to
"follow the sun" and bring joy to the masses if you're standing still waiting for
them to come to you. And the nascent Cirque was not one to stand still. The most
amazing aspect in the amazing growth of Cirque du Soleil is that it began less than a
decade ago as the brainchild of a group of long-haired street performers, stilt-walkers
and fire-eaters who had the crazy idea that they wanted to start a circus of their own.
Now, these graying, balding but still youngish entrepreneurs have become proprietors of
an operation that is spreading its engagements, and its influence, on a global scale.
Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984, with a $1.7-million
budget, to tour Quebec in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the arrival in Canada
of explorer Jacques Cartier. Its roots were in street theater - specifically a group
called Club des Talons Hauts - and the circus they
presented was unlike anything seen before. There were no animals and no rings. The Cirque
du Soleil attracted critical acclaim with its reinvention of the circus as a postmodern
combination of derring-do and European-flavoured vaudeville. In the next couple of
years, the company found a new audience in English Canada, first in Vancouver and
then in Toronto, for its production Le Magie
Continue. And then, on a 1987 U.S. tour, Cirque du Soleil went to Los Angeles and dazzled
Hollywood's movers and shakers. The film and television offers poured in but they were
kept at bay as the Cirque worked to consolidate its gains and mount a second production,
"We did flirt with the devil," Laliberte said, "but the money didn't take over."
But even as it put the brakes on and kept the deal-makers at arm's length, Cirque
du Soleil continued to grow. The Cirque today is a $35-million operation. Last year
there were troupes performing in Japan
and Switzerland, but that's just the tip
of the Cirque juggernaut. The highest profile in this enlarging empire belongs, of
course, to the newest edition of the Cirque productions - Saltimbanco,
which is now touring the United States. In its first seven years, the Cirque performed
before a total of 3 million customers. This year alone, it will entertain more than 2.5
million people. Many of those in Las Vegas, where it would plant a proverbial
flower in the desert that would bloom there for decades to come...
A NOUVELLE MIRAGE
After conquering English-speaking Canada and later the United States, some within the
company considered Las Vegas as a possible place to set up the big top, but an offer
to reside permanently in the desert was just a pipe dream, until the Caesars Palace
organization approached Cirque to mount a show there. By the dawn of the 1990s, Las
Vegas was looking to reposition itself as a family-friendly destination, and Cirque du
Soleil's brand of entertainment seemed to fit that bill: they were modern, fresh, and
something that could excite every member of the family. But negotiations with Ceasers
proved difficult, and the months-long talks ended abruptly. A few hours before the deal
was sealed - at the point of signing - Caesars management walked away. According to
Jean David, Cirque du Soleil's Marketing and Communications VP, the negotiations had
been the talk of the town, so when the word out got that the Cirque was no longer under
the yoke of the Roman Empire, the phones began to ring. Steve Wynn, who headed the
Mirage Group, called to say that he was interested. A meeting was held in Toronto where
Nouvelle Expèrience was playing and
by intermission, Wynn saw all he needed to see. After a hand-shake deal, the two
companies were in business.
"In a matter of hours we mapped out a very simple arrangement. The Mirage Group would
build a hotel, the Treasure Island Hotel, scheduled to open in 1993. It would set up a
magnificent performance space that met our technical requirements," Jean David said in
his book Quel Cirque. "In return, we undertook to produce a show exclusively for
that venue. Cirque du Soleil and Mirage agreed on an investment recovery mechanism for
each party, royalty payments and profit sharing. The contract was finalized in the weeks
that followed." David said the Mirage won out because, "They offered the best deal and
they were the quickest."
Skepticism followed. The contrast between the Cirque's high-concept circus art and
the glitzy artlessness of the desert city was obvious. But Cirque du Soleil believed it
to be a natural union. "There is no contradiction," Guy Laliberte said. "I believe in
marriages of money and art. People say you have to be in pain and suffering for art but
I don't believe that." Still, Las Vegas appeared, on the surface, to be something of a
break from its tradition. The Cirque specialized in a rather restrained, cerebral
exuberance while garish Las Vegas believes wholeheartedly that too much is not enough.
"We're still the same but Las Vegas is changing," David said.
The decision to set up a permanent base in the United States was a major step
forward and highlighted its profound evolution from a group of street performers almost
wholly dependent on government grants to a profitable worldwide concern with hundreds of
employees. Company president Daniel Gauthier said he did not believe that settling into
Las Vegas would compromise the Canadian troupe's art. On the contrary, he said, a base
will allow the troupe to escape the logistical - and financial - burden of touring.
Having an anchor will allow the 43 people in the Las Vegas revue to refine their
presentations and develop artistically, he said.
But first, Wynn and Cirque would test the waters...
Cirque du Soleil was offered a guaranteed two-year contract with the Mirage, a deal that
could be extended for a decade... if everything worked out. For the first year, Cirque
would occupy a 1,250-seat yellow-and-white tent behind the hotel and present an
abbreviated version of Nouvelle Expèrience
twice nightly, six-days a week. That might have been a hard haul on the road, but in
Vegas, the tent was air-conditioned, thoroughly fire-proofed, and firmly cemented into
the ground to stand firm against harsh desert winds. There's a Broadway-style lobby
leading into the concession tent, lined with two-meter-high star-billing photos of the
performers. Inside the Cirque tent, the audience is seated on oval-backed, upholstered
chairs; gone are the bleachers of olde. Genuine washrooms, brand-new and sparkling clean,
are located beside the concession tent. Not bad for a traveling circus. (Wynn reportedly
spent $5 million bringing Cirque into Vegas; Laliberté estimated Cirque's investment in
the Mirage phase of the joint venture was about $2 million USD). The question remained
whether Cirque was flashy enough to make it in a town overflowing with topless dancers,
Elvis impersonators and slot machines.
Turned out, it was! Attendance was about 75% of capacity, "which is good," said
Gilles Ste-Croix, "for a show that was new in Vegas.". And so, on Christmas Day 1993,
Mystère premiered at the Treasure
Island hotel, setting a new standard and changing the way live entertainment was
presented there. "Mystère's message
is universal because movement, music and humor are universal. It's is so richly diverse
that it can be experienced over and over again, every performance revealing something
new and extraordinary. Be obnoxious. Be stupid. Be sweet. Be nasty. Be masculine,
feminine, and androgynous. Be amazing!" Not only was the show a sellout within 10 days
of opening, Mystère recouped its
entire investment in just six months.
Meanwhile, as the new wave music that's become associated with Cirque caught
the ear of more and more customers, Cirque du Soleil signed with BMG Musique Quebec
covering the international release of all recordings of music used in its shows. Cirque
du Soleil president Daniel Gauthier said the circus has been recording and selling its
music since 1987, but the marketing was carried out mostly under the big top. He said
the Cirque had been actively looking for a distribution partner for a a couple of years
before the deal with BMG was struck.
So far there are three Cirque albums. The first, Cirque Réinventé,
has sold more than 70,000 copies since it was released in 1987, Gauthier said. The second,
Nouvelle Expèrience, has sold about 67,000.
Saltimbanco, which was released in the
United States in October 1992 to coincide with the show's opening in Los Angeles, had
already sold about 25,000 copies before the BMG release, and has sold another 25,000
Rene Dupere, who has composed and arranged all of the Cirque's music, was all smiles
- with good reason. "I must say I'm the great winner in this," he said, explaining that
while BMG and Cirque du Soleil now have to share the spoils, his percentage of the
profits remains fixed. "Finally, it's paying off."
Quick to pick up on the tie-in possibilities present in the distinctive designs and
colors of the Cirque's scenic and costume displays, the producers also marketed a
full line of T-shirts, sweat shirts, posters, balloons, dolls, umbrellas, tote bags,
coffee mugs, watches, baseball caps, key chains, lapel pins, childrens' pajamas,
jigsaw puzzles and boxer shorts - available on the site or by mail order. Little wonder
that in addition to such artistic prizes as a 1993 Obie Award honoring outstanding
achievement in Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway work in New York, the Cirque also won
the 1992 "business of the year" category for small and medium businesses, in a
competition organized annually by the Chamber of Commerce of the province of Quebec.
Despite their expansion into a global business, the managers of Cirque du Soleil
keep their productions fresh and changing. "We're not trying to do the (producer
Cameron) Mackintosh trip (keeping a big show running indefinitely in dozens of
productions around the globe)," says Gilles Ste-Croix, the Cirque's veteran
directeur de la creation. "Our success rests on fragile things; the maximum run
for any of our shows is four years, which gives the artists a certain job security
but doesn't keep them tied up forever. We try to treat our people well, but it's
very hard to keep a show alive and challenging and not let down the quality over a
The maximum first-run tour for a Cirque production is now two years, beginning
in Montreal, and then touring to large cities in the United States and Canada for
the rest of the run. While one show is making the grand tour, another show is being
developed in workshops and think tanks at home. By the time
Saltimbanco ends its
travels this year, for instance, the new Cirque edition will be in preparation to
premiere in April 1994. And once the intial two-year tour is over, there is now a
possibility for further travel abroad, such as last year's Japan engagement.
By year's end Saltimbanco
would complete it's 19-month North American tour of a dozen cities and receive
resounding ovations from 1.4 million (1,416,359 to be exact) spectators. The beat