big-top, Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil has redefined one of the world's oldest art forms. Cirque's 22 current productions, including its standing Las Vegas shows and the touring big-top productions, annually sell about as many tickets as all Broadway shows combined. Don't miss some of the highlights in the company's history, read an intimate profile of its genius co-founder, Guy Laliberté and get a look behind the scenes of the show.
- The main tent of a circus.
- The circus.
Defiant Showman Demands His ‘Wow’
By JASON ZINOMAN
Published: June 3, 2011
MONTREAL — With a wolfish grin, mangled pinky and a bald head shaped like a bullet, Guy Laliberté, a co-founder and the owner of Cirque du Soleil, looks like a man with a plan for world domination. Appearances, in this case, do not deceive.
Ryan Enn Hughes for The New York Times
Under the Tent
More on Cirque du Soleil
This is the first of two articles about the global empire of Cirque du Soleil and its reclusive impresario, Guy Laliberte. Next week: the creative journey of the company's biggest gamble, "Zarkana," from Montreal to Orlando, Fla., to New York, where it opens this month at Radio City Music Hall.
“There are three capitals of entertainment in the world: Las Vegas, New York and London,” announces Mr. Laliberté, the only person smoking in the vast campus here where two-fifths of his 5,000 employees work. “So far the only one I truly conquered is Vegas. New York and London are still on my checklist.”
Mr. Laliberté, whose left hand was injured while cooking, is being modest, since he is hardly a newcomer to New York, where he’s put on 19 shows, or London, where he’s done 18, since Cirque’s founding in the early 1980s. He didn’t make the leap from accordion-playing street performer to one of the world’s most influential and powerful entertainment impresarios by setting his sights low.
Between now and the end of the year Cirque will open three humongous new productions. “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” which has already taken in a $50 million advance, begins touring in October in Montreal. “Iris,” an action-packed fantasy that imagines an alternative history of the movies, is to be Cirque’s first permanent show in Los Angeles.
The highest-stakes gamble, however, may be “Zarkana,” which opens a four-month run at Radio City Music Hall this week. While it will go on to Madrid and Moscow — where it will play the Kremlin — it’s no accident that “Zarkana” starts in New York, the site of what Mr. Laliberté admits is the company’s first real flop. That was “Banana Shpeel,” which opened and closed in an abortive run last year. It began as an attempt to merge the circus and musical theater, telling the story of a devilish producer who promises a clown fame and fortune. By the time the show reached New York, the company had lost confidence in the concept, fired the composer, cut songs and retreated to more traditional Cirque acrobatics, albeit on a smaller scale.
Mr. Laliberté, who owns an island, a boat and seven homes, was hard to reach during some of the troubles; he was orbiting Earth, after paying $35 million to be the seventh space tourist, giving him one of the greatest excuses in the history of show business failure. “I kept hearing there are too many songs, too much like a Broadway show,” said the “Shpeel” director, David Shiner. “Guy wanted to do something different. But he was in space.”
Mr. Laliberté concedes the point and takes responsibility for the rare failure, but it also drove him back to New York, where he hopes “Zarkana” will be a summer staple at Radio City. “We’re returning like men,” he says, to “face the critics who killed us face to face.”
The message is defiant, but it’s delivered in an oddly calm, almost dispassionate voice. Mr. Laliberté has a reputation for fierceness, but despite some forceful arm waving he maintains a poised, business-like demeanor. Philippe Decouflé, the director of “Iris,” describes him as a “very nice bulldozer.”
In aiming “Zarkana” for a run in Manhattan, Cirque du Soleil is inching closer to the heart of the traditional theater world. By numbers alone it’s already a mighty rival; Cirque’s 22 current productions, including its standing Las Vegas shows and the touring big-top productions, annually sell about as many tickets as all Broadway shows combined.
The permanent shows typically cost between $40 million and $50 million, but the business model varies far more for the big-top productions that are pumped out every two years with assembly-line precision. They begin in Canada, move to the United States and then travel the world. (Cirque has touched every continent except Antarctica.) Total revenue, including tickets and merchandise, is expected to pass $1 billion for the first time next year.
Cirque has redefined one of the world’s oldest art forms. Out with the animals and the ringmaster in a red coat; in with New Agey world music, big-budget spectacle, world-class athletes and poetic clowns in swirls of caked-on makeup. The company’s influence ranges widely, from the special effects in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which employs former Cirque employees, to the Metropolitan Opera, where the director Robert Lepage used technology he developed while with Cirque. It even extends to the language: eyes rolled when Cirque du Soleil sued a rival American company, Cirque Dreams, for using a common word in its name. (Cirque du Soleil lost the lawsuit.) But is there any mystery why so many Anglophone companies choose to use the word Cirque?
Mr. Laliberté’s greatest triumph, however, has been in Las Vegas. Like Disney did with Times Square, Cirque helped remake the strip into a family-friendly destination. Seven permanent shows have opened there in 17 years, and despite bad reviews, economic downturns and other setbacks of live performance not one has closed.
Dominic Champagne, who has directed two of these shows, “Love” and “Zumanity,” said you could put almost anything “in a jar, put it onstage, call it Cirque du Soleil and it would be a hit.”
As Cirque has transformed from an arty alternative to traditional big-top circus into what it is today, some suggest it has become emotionally cold and risk-averse. “If Cirque is going to succeed in New York, they need to understand story — and they don’t,” said Richard Crawford, an actor currently in “War Horse” who was fired from “Banana Shpeel” last year. “They have no idea about Aristotelean plotting or character. It’s not in their heart. They come from street performers, and now they are street performance with laser beams and millions of dollars.”
The problem is that audiences have come to expect a certain scale from Cirque, and when they don’t get it, as in the case of “Shpeel,” they may be disappointed. It’s a nagging worry for Mr. Laliberté too. “Are we condemned to only doing big acrobatic shows?” he says, leaning forward with a grave look. “Creatively we have the capacity to do much more. The answer is we can explore new stuff, but we need to give the public a bone to chew on.”
For one of the most influential producers in show business Mr. Laliberté keeps a surprisingly low profile in the news media and, pointedly, within Cirque. Analyzing his character is challenging since he has few close friends, and even his longtime associates say they hardly know him. In the wake of the demise of “Banana Shpeel” Cirque opened its doors to a reporter for a rare chance to talk to him and watch as he sat in on what the company calls a “checkpoint” — basically a progress report for the boss — for the Michael Jackson show.
The formula begins with the conviction that you need something novel in every show. “Zumanity” added an erotic edge; “O” turned the stage into a vast pool. After the concept is established, the team develops what it calls the acrobatic skeleton of generally 10 acts; 6 are imported (acrobat troupes hired from China and the like), and 4 are developed internally. As Cirque has brought in directors from theater, opera and film, the script has become more important. Pairing it with the acts is as tricky a part of creation of a Cirque show as the relationship between songs and the book of the musical. Sequence is critical.
“We need to consider two things: rhythm and height,” Mr. Laliberté says. “Is it a floor, mid-range or aerial act? You can’t put three jugglers in a row or three aerialists in a row. Circus has much more highs and lows than in a play. You need your ‘wow,’ your tender moment and humor. We have our conventions.”
Wall-to-wall music, costumes and lighting work hard to create otherworldly designs that are an overwhelming mess of contradictions: nostalgic and futuristic, whimsical and melodramatic, sexy and asexual. There is just a hint of a plot. You can tease out themes. (“Saltimbanco”: immigration. “Ovo”: biodiversity.) But why bother? What it adds up to is something defiantly vague and open to interpretation. “You need to make an artistic product to be able to permit the audience to open their door,” Mr. Laliberté says. “If they want an esoteric door, there is that.”
But in working with the musical catalog of the King of Pop, more than acrobatics is on the line. So after the director Jamie King — who has staged concert tours by Madonna and Britney Spears — presented to Mr. Laliberté a slick video featuring choreography, designs in progress and deafeningly loud versions of “Thriller,” “Beat It” and other hits, the checkpoint grew silent. Dozens of artists and designers watched. With cigarette smoke swirling above his head, Mr. Laliberté’s deadpan expression never shifted. Nor did his posture. After the presentation he finally interrupted the tense stillness and revealed his hand — well, in part. “Michael is not prominent enough,” he said. “I need to hear him. Make his voice stronger.”
The truth is, circus is Mr. Laliberté’s third passion. His second is travel. His first is business. Within the Cirque empire he has been the major fund-raiser since the beginning; in 1983 he landed a $1.3 million grant from the provincial Quebec government to present a show as part of the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada. At the time his company was a modest nonprofit that divvied up beers at the end of rehearsal in a rented gym. But his original presentation included a five-year plan with multiple shows. He was 24.
Cirque had its breakthrough in Los Angeles in 1987. “Cirque Réinventé,” staged by Guy Caron, was new for American audiences familiar with Ringling Brothers. It was dramatic, emotional, occasionally slow and highly theatrical. Disney made an offer to buy the company. So did Columbia Pictures. Mr. Laliberté turned them both down, insisting on creative control.
Mr. Caron left the company following a dispute over money, and eventually returned, but Cirque’s history is riddled with power struggles that end with one survivor. “I survived three putsches,” Mr. Laliberté says with his usual swagger.
Cirque’s golden age began, many say, when Franco Dragone, a coal miner’s son who worked in commedia dell’arte, started directing in the late 1980s with “Nouvelle Experience.” Over a decade he staged eight shows (including the Las Vegas hits “Mystère” and “O”), and his freewheeling style was rooted in the belief that performers work best when they aren’t thinking. He would ask the acrobats to race around the stage until they were out of breath to prepare for rehearsal.
Steve Wynn, who first presented Cirque in Las Vegas, hired away Mr. Dragone and much of his design team in 1999 to make their own show. Mr. Laliberté was furious. “I called up Steve Wynn and told him: ‘You think you’re buying the creative force of Cirque du Soleil. Be careful,’ ” Mr. Laliberté says. “Will I do business with Steve again? Probably not.”
Behind the scenes there was panic. “There was a concern because we had a successful model and a question of could we do it without him,” said Boris Verkhovsky, Cirque’s director of performance. “Guy said we can now be a great host for innovators and geniuses.”
Instead of finding a new artistic guru, Mr. Laliberté recruited directors from theater and film, injecting fresh ideas into the shows. By bringing in theater directors like Mr. Lepage, who had no experience with circus, and giving them bigger budgets than they had ever worked with, Cirque was taking a risk. For one thing, the chemistry of every show is different.
“At the start it was a team,” Mr. Caron said. “We all knew each other and were friends. So I could tell someone, ‘This is terrible’ and they could say, ‘Go to hell,’ and we’d be fine the next day. Now it’s so big that the decisions take a long time to go from top to bottom.”
As the organization has grown, Mr. Laliberté has delegated more. But he knows he needs to stay on the planet for the start of “Zarkana.” “The machine here is not one I always like, but there’s a limit to what I can do,” he says, flashing a lopsided smile and striking what might be the only note of insecurity in several hours of conversation. “Look,” he says, shifting into confidently matter-of fact mode. “I am in the business of live or die by the public.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 7, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated which government gave Cirque du Soleil a $1.3 million grant to present a show as part of the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada. It was the provincial government of Quebec, not the Canadian government.