Cirque du Soleil Becoming the Disney of the New Age

Guy LALIBERTÉ's mountainside hangout in St-Bruno, a distant suburb of Montreal, is a sprawling, exclusive domain with a private lake and vast gardens outlined by rows of tall, centuries-old trees.

Cirque du Soleil Becoming the Disney of the New Age

Guy LALIBERTÉ's mountainside hangout in St-Bruno, a distant suburb of Montreal, is a sprawling, exclusive domain with a private lake and vast gardens outlined by rows of tall, centuries-old trees. This is where the man who calls himself "The Guide" used to throw one of the jet set's most coveted parties, the CIRQUE DU SOLEIL 's Grand Prix weekend bash - until neighbours complaining about the racket of helicopters and booming speakers recently forced him to find a more secluded location.

People who have scored an invitation to that revelry with the Cirque's founder and owner describe the experience in terms usually saved for old Fellini movies. The festivities have featured bands, exotic food and bonfires with Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities and moguls. Former guests recall the son of a South American head of state gawking in disbelief as a fat, milky moon rose over the lake - a trademark Cirque du Soleil prop, since another, smaller moon was already shining in the sky. With jugglers, fire-eaters, clowns, masseuses, fortune tellers and acrobats on hand for the guests - who usually number up to 1,000 - all would testify that Guy Laliberté is one genial, generous host.

Not to mention resilient party animal: breakfast, then lunch, allow the fun to stretch over two nights. And the suggestion that the place has swarmed with beautiful women in smart outfits checks out, as does the absence of unfashionable reporters toting cameras and microphones. Security has been tight, with B-list guests being asked to sign a confidentiality pledge before being ushered in.

It is in that environment, in the summer of 2000, that a woman we'll call Michelle recalls chatting with an older guy with a British accent who told her, while standing in a food line, that he used to play guitar in a now-defunct rock band. The woman said how interesting, and moved on amid the excitement of the night. The man was George Harrison, now a dead Beatle, then a certified motor-car racing buff and, as such, a friend and guest of Laliberté - who is known to hopscotch to Grand Prix races worldwide aboard his private Global Express executive jet.

But Laliberté's parties are not just a Cirque signature, and part of its creative lifestyle. They're also corporate strategy: a good way to have fun, make friends, impress potential partners. It was there, at that Grand Prix party in 2000, that an outlandish union was conceived: the Mop Tops from Liverpool, playing with the stilt-walkers from Baie St-Paul. George Harrison saying that the Cirque doing the Beatles would be a cool idea...

When a small clique of nomadic, fun-loving, pot-smoking clowns, jugglers and acrobats gelled together around 1984, promising to reinvent the circus under the Cirque du Soleil's big top, the Beatles had long since flamed out. But even now, their iconic melodies still resonate. And the Cirque has long since outgrown its original, nomadic format to become, arguably, the world's fastest-growing, diversified live entertainment conglomerate. So, after years of negotiations with surviving Beatles, widows, lawyers and managers, put the Fab Four and the Cirque in a paper bag, pour in US$130 million, and shake well. Whatever comes out has to be huge and crazy, beautiful and popular, to keep up with the parents' names. "There is absolutely nothing low profile about the Cirque doing the Beatles," says Dominic Champagne, the Montreal director who scripted and put the show together. "I call it 'my impossible show,' to lull myself into sleep at night."

Doing impossible things is, of course, what separates this circus from the mundane. A stage that weighs more than a locomotive, that can lift, sink, pivot and rise into an upright wall, was deemed impossible until the Cirque needed one for Ka, Robert LEPAGE's martial arts epic now playing in Las Vegas. A recent sneak preview at the Mirage - the Vegas casino where the Beatles show, called Love, will premiere as a permanent fixture in a specially designed, US$105-million theatre on June 30 - suggests that the Cirque has now tried to out-razzmatazz itself in theatrical, technical and musical wizardry.

"We knew at the onset what we did not want," says Gilles Ste-Croix, a founding member of the Cirque who has been with the Beatles project since its inception. "It wouldn't be Beatlemania, with look-alikes in wigs, and it wouldn't be a Best Of compilation, and there wouldn't be a five-minute standard-issue trapeze number on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, because anybody could come up with that." Instead, Ste-Croix says, "We tackled the Beatles through their lyrics. They've created a fabulous gallery of characters."

Here, though, Lady Madonna has become a pregnant black woman who tap dances in gummy rain boots, South African style. And Cirque people boast that the project has produced "totally new music from the Beatles." How? "We told them we wouldn't use the Beatles' music everybody already has at home," Ste-Croix says. "We wouldn't rewrite the Beatles' tunes, of course, but we asked if they would let us tinker a bit. We showed them a few examples: if you take the drum line from Sergeant Pepper's closing number in the movie, and lay it under Get Back, it gives you a tune that rocks like never before. They liked the idea."

Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles fished out old masters from the vaults. Then the digital tinkering began - big time. Snippets, tracks, chords, choruses or melodies from no less than 130 original Beatle songs - plus unreleased takes - have been edited into a 90-minute soundtrack that's at once eerily familiar and disconcertingly new. George Harrison's voice in Within You, Without You plays over the bass and drum lines of Tomorrow Never Knows; the opening of Good Night introduces Octopus's Garden; that huge, arch-famous ringing chord that opens A Hard Day's Night resounds all alone, without the rest of the tune following it. "We wanted it to be a performance again for the Beatles," says Giles Martin. "The idea was to try and make people listen again, as opposed to taking the songs for granted." So, nothing low profile in this venture - including the 2,000-seat theatre. Built in the round, it has a stage that breaks into seven different platforms that move independently in an ever-changing configuration, and a sound system with no less than 6,300 speakers.

But the Beatles show means much more to the Cirque than just another blockbuster in Vegas (their fifth). The five years spent working on the extravaganza have also been a time of change for the organization, as it morphed from a happy-go-lucky creative commune into a streamlined, hard-nosed, far-sighted and profit-wise conglomerate - Quebec's latest multinational corporation, and the Disney of the New Age. It's a period that was defined by mounting criticism and opposition from the outside, intense soul-searching over where the Cirque was heading on the inside, cost-cutting, restructuring - and anxiety over whether its essential creative streak would survive the metamorphosis.

Dazzled spectators wouldn't have known about that funk, though. During the last four years, the Cirque systematically moved away from its traditional circus platform to explore radically different formats. It created Zumanity, a ribald cabaret show in Vegas, launched Corteo, a travelling circus, and opened Ka, described by some critics as the most ambitious piece of theatrical work ever undertaken. The Cirque also tried its hand at a touring arena-concert format, Delirium, before bringing the Beatles back to life. And it is currently preparing to conquer Asia, developing two permanent shows, both to open in 2008 in specially built theatres, one in Tokyo in partnership with Disney, and one grafted to a casino being built by Sands in Macau. As well, the Cirque has its sights on permanent venues in London, New York and Miami. And it just announced a major deal to do to Elvis Presley what it's just done to the Beatles. "We have our work cut out for the next seven or eight years," Laliberté says.

Indeed. A plan to build an off-Broadway venue in New York was derailed by zoning protests from neighbours who said the Cirque was not "legitimate theatre." Plans to use the old Jackie Gleason Theater in the Miami Beach area as a site for a permanent show initially also ran into stiff opposition. Even in Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil is a major source of civic pride, sneering at the "new, corporate" Cirque has become a trend among the younger crowd, lefties and social activists. A billion-dollar project to redevelop a derelict part of the old port around a new casino and a Cirque theatre was opposed by activists protesting against building a gaming house next to an impoverished neighbourhood. Loco Locass, a local rap band, called the idea "a millionaire's fantasy." "Is entertainment all we can do in Quebec?" asked band member Batlam. "Who calls building casinos and condos progress?" In the spring, a bitter Laliberté lost patience and pulled the plug. "Creativity is a major natural resource in Quebec," he told Maclean's. "Unfortunately, this society seems unable to seize good opportunities when they arise."

Dominic Champagne acknowledges that sneering at the Cirque has become fashionable. "We've become big and successful, and this means 'suspect' to some, and thus we're more exposed to criticism." Underlying the criticism, though, have been fears that the "suits" had taken over, threatening to stifle the "creatives." How? By inventing new rules and procedures to cut costs and save money - and more paper forms and legal documents for the creatives to fill, shuffle and file. Or by pushing new ways of making money. Why not build a Cirque-themed hotel chain? Spas? Develop fashion lines? Makeup?

Since the turn of the millennium, the Cirque has been growing by leaps and bounds. In the process it became a major managerial challenge, with 3,500 employees producing 13 shows - seven of them travelling constantly over four continents. Several senior key people acknowledge that, under stress to keep up with an annual growth rate of 15 per cent, the Cirque was in danger of losing touch with its soul. "We have known a difficult period," says François Macerola, a former chairman of Telefilm Canada, now an executive with the Cirque. "The atmosphere was not good. People were asking too many questions, they were paying too much attention to the management of the organization."

The Cirque's soul is its creativity - "our ability to start from scratch, from a white page, till we've come up with stuff nobody had ever dreamed of before," Gilles Ste-Croix says. "And then to risk it, and find ways to make it happen, and for the public to go: Wow!" There were times, Ste-Croix adds, when people wondered "which came first in our show business: the show or the business." That perception resulted in part from the fact that with expansion, the Cirque also grew to include 21 vice-presidents, says Jacques Renaud, another senior executive dating from the early days. "They're all very sharp in their specialties, and these guys are very good with the PowerPoint. They can be real persuasive. I think the creatives felt somewhat overwhelmed or pushed aside."

Presiding over the turmoil was Laliberté, estimated to be worth US$1.4 billion by Forbes magazine. This wiry, small-framed former fire-eating tramp has aged into an enigmatic 46-year-old icon with a shaved head, street-urchin accent in both French and English, and a fabulous lifestyle. Cirque people are in awe of their guru. "Guy's not the man to write 10-page analytical memos. His diagnoses are spontaneous, instinctive, intuitive and visionary," says Jacques Renaud. "He's always on the money, because he incarnates both sides: he understands the business of what the public wants, and he knows what it's like to be an artist."

So the Guide put his foot down a few years back. Creativity shall always rule at the Cirque, Laliberté proclaimed. But it shall do so within a strong, solid, forward-looking corporate framework, one equipped with a profit-wise, five-year business plan. To help make this happen, Laliberté gave Renaud the corporate mandate of - get this - "managing creative freedom."

"A multinational that hires 3,500 persons worldwide, many of them artists who travel constantly, needs a solid organization," Renaud says. "But rules and procedures are a damper on creativity. So, we do have a paradox here." Thus, his current job title: senior vice-president, creative synergy. "We had to tell the creatives: look, you need strong management, none of you guys is able to run 13 shows on four continents. But then, we had to remind legal, finance or marketing that they wouldn't have much left to manage in the future if the creatives were stifled."

The result? "We have a business plan, a fair number of lawyers and MBAs running the joint," Macerola says. "But there also exists an informal, ad hoc creative network that meets at the cafeteria or God knows where else, and that can make very important decisions - always based on the crafts related to the circus and to creativity." That's Renaud's new creative synergy thing at work. "If we'd lose that," Macerola concludes, "we'd be like Disney or any other corporate entity."

But why all the fuss in the first place? The Cirque thought it had peaked, and that its market had been saturated. "Five years ago, we thought we had reached maturity, and that Las Vegas was the only market that could absorb our big, permanent shows," says Daniel Lamarre, the soft-spoken president. "So we started looking elsewhere to diversify our sources of growth and revenue. We also had to bring costs in line, because they were growing faster than the revenues, which is never a good thing."

But, Lamarre says, they were proven wrong on their key premise. One big global trend nowadays, he points out, is to create so-called "destinations. And every city, country or developer that thinks of creating a destination thinks of the Cirque du Soleil to anchor it." As a result, Lamarre says, the Cirque decided to "refocus the whole organization back on our core activity, which is to develop new, creative, high-end, live entertainment." That was, he adds, "a momentous re-centring."

Deep sigh of relief amid creatives. End of funk at the Cirque, so to speak.

So, what about the plans for Cirque hotels and other stuff? They're still on, apparently, but on a much slower track. A division officially called "Experiences," but commonly referred to as "Lifestyle" by insiders, employs 30 people in Montreal, and is looking for "platforms outside of show business where Cirque-style creativity can be applied," says Cirque spokesperson Renée-Claude Ménard. A new line of womenswear will be launched in the fall, inspired by the Cirque experience and created by Montreal designer Désirée Sangollo. Cirque recently agreed to provide entertainment aboard Celebrity cruise ships. "We're into this only because Guy is into it," one senior producer told Maclean's. "That's his toy - he loves concept hotels, spas, that sort of thing."

But apart from that, the Cirque is back on top of its real game: producing one-of-a-kind, large-scale entertainment with a cutting edge. Foreigners with loads of cash are beating a path to its headquarters near a former dump in north-end Montreal, begging the Cirque to dance with them. And if local lefties think the Cirque has gone commercial, these prospective partners experience the opposite feeling. "They're a little baffled at first, because making money is not our top priority," Lamarre says. "I'd say that comes third. First, we look at the creative challenge. It has to be there - we wouldn't just clone an existing show into a different market." Next, "We need a time of courtship to see if there are affinities, a good fit. If there isn't, we say no."

The Cirque looks at various aspects in its suitors, Lamarre says: social policy, the causes they support, how much they're prepared to give back to the community. "The Cirque is committed to give one per cent of total revenue to charities and good causes. That's a full five per cent of our net profit. We expect our partners to do likewise." That suggests a profitability of 20 per cent for the Cirque, on revenues last year of between $500 and $600 million. That means roughly $5.5 million a year earmarked for good causes - and a net profit of around $110 million. Lamarre says 10 per cent of that profit - that would be $11 million - is redistributed to employees as a bonus, and most of the rest in reinvested in future productions. Whatever's left is to buy gas for Laliberté's business jet and his Aston Martin, one of the eight fine cars he is said to keep in Montreal.

So the Cirque is back in shape, with big plans and enough dollars coming in through the windows to party forever. What's next? "Perrenité" - permanence, duration - is the big thing now for Laliberté's hard-core phallanx of creative types. "Creativity cannot be taken for granted," Renaud says. "It must be nurtured. It used to be that we were a team of creatives, and we developed all our shows ourselves. Now, we have become a signature that can be applied to several show formats, a platform to which the best creators, the best directors are invited from the outside." The big thing is to create checklists, road maps, a framework of what constitutes a Cirque signature, Renaud says. "One that can be applied to any project, or that we can show to any creator saying: here is the framework for you to exercise your freedom in."

Guy Laliberté has a loftier view of where the Cirque will be 10 years from now. "We are, essentially, messengers of good news and carriers of hope," he said in a recent interview. "The Cirque's objective will remain the same: to contaminate the planet with good creative projects that suggest reasons to hope."

Maclean's June 26, 2006