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  2019

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MOVING AND SHAKING

Cirque du Soleil continued to ramp up production and charge ahead with a number of projects slated for this year and next - a mind-boggling twenty-five shows a cross both 45 DEGREES and the main Cirque du Soleil brand: SYMA, VARELIA, PARAMOUR, ALEGRIA, REBEL, JOYEUX CALVARIE, X: THE LAND OF FANTASY, BOCCA, AXEL, MESSI10, R.U.N, VITORI, 'TWAS THE NIGHT, COSMOS, EXENTRICKS, DRAWN TO LIFE, UNDER THE SAME SKY, NYSA, and VIVE NOS DIVAS, plus a number of items that had not yet been named, such as: two more AT SEA shows, a third music show for Andorra, a second event in Malta, an event for Astana, and a rumored new touring show concept. But this huge list of productions wasn't the biggest news to come out of the year; Cirque du Soleil actually made a splash with it's business dealings and other behind-the- curtain machinations.

GIVING US THE WORKS

Cirque du Soleil continued its diversification strategy by announcing the acquisition of THE WORKS ENTERTAINMENT on February 6th. Established by Simon Painter and Tim Lawson, The Works Entertainment (TWE) is a world-class leader in theatrical productions and large-scale attractions. TWE's productions have consistently smashed box office records, been seen worldwide, and have included performances in prestigious venues such as the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Shaftesbury Theatre in London and the Palace Theatre on Broadway, New York. The Works' portfolo Circus 1903 - The Golden Age of Circus, cabaret-style shows, and musical theater productions, but it was THE ILLUSIONISTS, a touring magic production, that caught Cirque's eye.

    "The play for us is magic," said Daniel Lamarre. He said Cirque became interested in The Works because of the similarity in the performance and business models of the two companies. "Like us, they have no stars. The show is the star, and they're constantly using different magicians. The fact that they're not focused on stars gives you scalability." Lamarre went on to say that "this transaction is a perfect example of how our group is diversifying through acquisitions, while always investing in our core activities. The Works productions have natural affinities with our own, in that they are high-quality universal live experiences that appeal to different audiences from different cultures around the world without having to adapt the show to each market. Magic, a genre of live enertainment that The Works has successfully mastered through their hugely successful Illusionists franchise, has been performed for centuries and continues to enjoy a steadfast popularity among audiences worldwide. I'm honoured to have their creative minds and theatrical expertise join our ranks."

    "As we were reflecting on our company's future, we were looking for the next big step to fulfill our wildest dreams," said Simon Painter, creative producer and co-founder of The Works Entertainment. "Joining the team of the company that completely revolutionized circus arts and is now leading the live entertainment industry is a true honor for us. Cirque du Soleil's global touring expertise as well as large-scale production insights will undeniably fuel our desired future growth in addition to giving us access to new creative resources that we could ever wish for. When the first journalist interviewed me about the Illusionists back in 2011, I said, 'I want to do for magic what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus,' and now here we are."

The acquisition was financed using a portion of a new US$120 million unsecured credit facility made available by the Fonds de Solidarité FTQ and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. But while there was celebration in Montreal regarding the recent purchase (Lamarre has said he wants to do one acquisition a year, depending on available targets), out in Vegas about a month later, Cirque du Soleil and MGM International announced that it would shuffle staff and downsize.

A NEW BUSINESS MODEL

What the new business model meant, in short, was that Cirque shows would no longer employ a single head of department for each of its shows. Instead, multiple productions would be under the direction of one department head. Also, Cirque would continue to oversee all artistic operations (such as managers, artists and coaches), along with picking up the lighting, staging, maintenance and any mechanically related staffers, who were previously employed by MGM Resorts. The heads of department who have been let go have been offered severance packages. Several long-standing employees have lost their positions. Word of the realignment surfaced March 16th and many reportedly were caught off-guard by the news; one was reportedly so upset as to have been led by security from an MGM Resorts property. "MGM is working with Cirque du Soleil to reorganize backstage operations at Las Vegas shows to align with how Cirque du Soleil shows are structured throughout the world," MGM Resorts spokesman Brian Ahern said in a statement. "This is part of our long-standing work together to continually improve show operations and focus on creating unforgettable experiences for guests and audiences. All shows and performances will continue as usual."

Although performances did continue as usual (with some cuts and edits), at the time Cirque du Soleil was also planning to expand "O" to a seven-days-a-week production (by early 2020), so cuts to support staff were not at all welcome. Nor was the news that broke in early June that the company was making plans for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) as early as 2020.

    A possible IPO "seems like the logical next step," said Patrick Leroux, a professor at Concordia University who has written on the circus industry, adding the move will bring in new capital and ideas as the company accelerates growth. "It seems like now they're about to enter into an extremely productive period. Creating new shows, new ventures; opening up to different models of entertainment." But that growth has not come without risk. Moody's Investors Service says the company's largely debt-funded expansion strategy could be unsustainable, resulting in financial strain on its core operations. Cirque posted revenue of US$832-million for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2018, and it remains heavily leveraged, with a debt-to-EBITDA ratio (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) expected to remain above seven through 2019, the credit company said in a report published in February.

Going public would give the Cirque greater financial flexibility as it pushed ahead with its ambitious global expansion and acquisition strategy, but it would also make the company answerable to many others. It was made clear that Cirque wouldn't necessarily follow through with the IPO if market conditions were not favorable, and by year's end, conditions within Cirque du Soleil were not favorable - more layoffs had occurred. (A video from Montreal City News discussed a minor downsizing move on the part of Cirque du Soleil, citing reorganization and productivity as the main impetus for the laying off of at least 53 employees.) So, the IPO was called off.

But these troubles would pale in comparisson to what was coming in 2020, but in the meantime...

SHOWS AND SPECIAL EVENTS

With the 45 DEGREES team's elevation to Cirque du Soleil's core creation and production department the previous year, change was inevitable. On April 24th, Cirque announced a new identity for their events and special projects division. Formerly called 45 DEGREES and operated as a subsidiary, the newly named Cirque du Soleil Events + Experiences now operates within the Cirque du Soleil company proper (as it did before it became 45 DEGREES), charged with expanding the company's live entertainment offerings to an international clientele under the strength of one unified brand. "The events division has extended the Cirque du Soleil brand beyond its traditional activities." explains Yasmine Khalil. "Events + Experiences initiatives continue to be a key part of our business and we remain focused on raising the bar in the industry with creativity and innovation for new partners the world over." For nearly two decades, the company's events branch has operated successfully in both the public and private sectors. Its portfolio stretches from corporate events for Fortune 500 companies, to cultural attractions commissioned by heads of state, to live performances on some of the most-watched television broadcasts in history. To say the brand has been a success would be an understatement. This year, same as last, would be quite prolific.

 
Cirque du Soleil AT SEA would celebrate the opening of SYMA and VARELIA aboard the MSC Bellissima in March and COSMOS and EXENTRICKS aboard the MSC Grandiosa in November; open REBEL, a nocturnal ode to the rebellious spirit of rock'n'roll, in Andorra; launch the 5th chapter of the Homage Series at Amphithéâtre Cogeco in Trois-Rivières - JOYEUX CALVARIE, a show in celebration of the music of Les Cowboys Fringants (the popular and critically-acclaimed Quebec band who has rocked the French-speaking world for two decades); celebrate BOCCA, a mixture of gastronomy and high-flying acrobatics, in Monaco; helped Saudi Arabia celebrate it's 89th Saudi National Day with Amal and Fakhar (Hope and Pride); and present VITORI, a fantastic world inspired by chess pieces in celebration of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Malta.

The core company would be just as busy re-launching PARAMOUR in Hamburg, ALEGRIA: IN A NEW LIGHT in North America, X: THE LAND OF FANTASY in China, AXEL on-ice in North America, MESSI10: A tribute to Leo Messi in Barcelona, and sign a new partnership with MSG Entertainment for 'TWAS THE NIGHT, the company's first Christmas-themed show in Chicago and New York City. We'd also learn the names of shows slated for 2020, such as: DRAWN TO LIFE as LA NOUBA's replacement at Walt Disney World; UNDER THE SAME SKY, as Cirque du Soleil's newest big top touring show from Es Devlin; and NYSA, celebrating 25 years of Cirque du Soleil in Germany.

There would also be the announcement of an exciting new future gastronomic experience with Grupo Vidanta. This would ultimately replace the storied THE CELEBRATE PROJECT theme park concept Cirque du Soleil, Vidanta, and Goddard had been developing on-and-off since 2014. "With the launch of Cirque du Soleil JOYÀ, Grupo Vidanta forever changed the entertainment landscape of Mexico by creating the must-see and world's only Cirque du Soleil show and dinner experience. Now, propelling forward with our multi-year operating experience, we are certain the new theater and culinary experience currently being built in Nuevo Vallarta will be an unforgettable experience for the senses that will once again present to the world a unique and unmatched tourist attraction available only in Mexico," said Iván Chávez, Executive Vice President of Grupo Vidanta.

    The new theater will be located in an area dedicated to Cirque du Soleil in Vidanta's entertainment parks currently under construction in the Vallarta area. In addition to the theater and show, the area will feature multiple acrobatic and artistic attractions where guests can immerse themselves in the world of Cirque du Soleil, where outdoor animations will come to life. "Throughout our unique collaboration and long-standing partnership, Cirque du Soleil and Grupo Vidanta have always shared the same vision for high-quality entertainment and captivating experiences. We are thrilled to embark on this second venture; it's an opportunity to unleash our creativity within the exquisite surroundings of this new Vidanta resort," said Daniel Lamarre, President and CEO of Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group. This will be the 53rd creation of Cirque du Soleil and its 16th resident show.

But it would be the company's newest resident show - R.U.N - that would, perhaps, get the most attention... and most of it bad.

OTHER ENDEAVOURS AND NEWS

In addition to all the new and good things Cirque du Soleil was able to do, this year would mark the end of the annual "Run Away with Cirque du Soleil" event in Las Vegas. "The original idea for the event came from Cirque employees, artists and technicians from the two shows here at the time [Mystére and O] who were runners and wanted to put on a 5K that could benefit the nonprofits we were working with," says Run Away project manager Brooke Wahlquist. "It's grown to be loved and supported by all the shows, and when they get to interact with people in a way they don't get to do on a nightly basis, the photos that come back always warm my heart." Cirque is still planning an annual community event at Springs Preserve for 2020, but it will take a new form. "That will be revealed in 2020," Wahlquist says. "We really want to honor all the work that's been put into it over the years."

The 7th Annual ONE NIGHT FOR ONE DROP went off without a hitch. This splashy affair - quite literally, thanks to the aquatic flare of the O Theater - was written and directed by André Kasten and Leah Moyer, who choreographed Cirque shows such as Mystere and The Beatles LOVE. It featured a 90-minute acrobatic spectacle set to the music of Academy Award-winning, world-renowned score composer Hans Zimmer, who performed three arrangements live, including a specially adapted piece from Interstellar. Drawing inspiration from the principles of human connection, friendship, beauty, nature, love and loss, main character Everyman goes through a journey of enlightenment. The production was also broadcast on the CBS Network in the United States on March 16th.

Cirque du Soleil would evolve C:LAB, a subsidiary to organize a group of people keep to experiment with new ideas and technologies into NEXTASY - an organization aiming to push the limits of live entertainment. "Through experimentation, trend watching and unexpected collaboration, we aim to quickly test ideas we think are worth the effort. Our philosophy revolves around the concept of open innovation, because we believe the more generous you are, the more you receive in return. This is why we will showcase everything we experiment, be it a success or a failure, in the hopes that the worldwide community of creators and geniuses will learn from it and will be excited to help us on our journey to build the future of live entertainment."

And last, but certainly not least, would see Alexey Goloborodko's infamous contortion act from Luzia represent Cirque du Soleil at this year's Royal Variety Performance gala.


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