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Not Clowning Around

The curtain opens for two new Cirque du soleil shows, taking the circus to unimaginable heights.

 

At Cirque du Soleil, it’s not enough for performers to defy gravity or contort their bodies into pretzels. 

Because at Cirque it’s the subtlety, the unexpected, and the drama that leaves the audience breathless.

Whether it’s the longest-running Cirque du Soleil show, “Saltimbanco,” which first debuted in 1992, or any of the 22 other productions, audiences will see something they’ve never seen before. And just when you think you’ve witnessed the most spectacular, unbelievable sight—a human ladder of contortionists, blindfolded men performing jump-roping stunts atop two massive spinning wheels, someone playing an electric guitar while bouncing on a trampoline—another seemingly impossible display of strength, balance, agility, and grace will blow your mind in the very next act.

Impressive and stunning acrobatics, hair-raising choreography and musical scores, vibrant and bizarre costumes, and some of the most talented performers on the planet make up the anatomy of Cirque shows worldwide. But it’s the storytelling, the artistry, and the window to the surreal that make each production stay with you long after the final curtain call.

Founded by Guy Laliberte, who was a fire breather in a bedraggled crew of street performers in Québec in the early 1980s, the group set out to collectively bring in bigger audiences and more viewers, and it ultimately evolved into an artistic machine. The group developed a new brand of circus, which has essentially become its own genre of performing arts right before our eyes.

For more than 27 years, Laliberte has navigated Cirque into a worldwide theatrical empire that now performs shows on every continent except Antarctica and continues to grow. “Guy likes to say that Cirque didn’t reinvent the circus; it just repackaged it in the sense that it created a new concept of live entertainment that was borrowed from many other art forms,” says Mario D’Amico, senior vice president of marketing at Cirque du Soleil. 

“There were people doing circuses—we just took what we thought were the best elements of circuses and put them in our show. People were dancing—we just took the best elements of a certain kind of dance and put them in. Lighting, staging, theatricality—all of those things existed as individual art forms, and Cirque was able to package it all under one big top and travel it around the world.”

But another element sets Cirque du Soleil productions apart from other circuses. In most Cirque shows, the clowns don’t juggle or bounce aimlessly around the stage. They are not clumsy or bumbling. Their humor is subtle, choreographed, and self-deprecating, as they mimic other performers in the show or try to escape contraptions and apparatus easily wielded by acrobats. And this is all part of the script. “The clowning plays that roll of almost making fun of ourselves,” D’Amico explains. “The clowns will do a number where they mimic what an aerialist just did. It’s a little wink; lets not take ourselves too seriously—we’re a circus.”

 

Movie Magic

Cirque du Soleil’s worldwide footprint continues to grow: it currently has 5,000 employees, including more than 1,500 performing artists from close to 50 different countries. And Cirque is eyeballing cities like London, Sydney, and New York as potential homes for new resident shows, D’Amico says. 

Most recently, Cirque moved into the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, annual home of the Oscars. The new $100 million extravaganza “‘Iris, a Journey Through the World of Cinema,’” which officially opened September 25, pays homage to the movie-making process. The word “iris” (pronounced “ee-REES”) refers to the camera lens, and the production celebrates the filmmaking process and its history with Cirque style, flair, and sensibility. 

“[‘Iris’] is a voyage through the world of cinema and the heart of the movie-making process,” says Denise Biggi, artistic director of “Iris.” “It’s unique to any other Cirque du Soleil show because it’s the first time a Cirque show has taken its cue from the venue itself—the Kodak Theatre. As the home of the Oscars, located right in the center of Hollywood, it’s the spiritual home of the movies.”

Before “Iris” even begins, a smiley girl in a praxinoscope skirt warms up the audience, her costume mimicking one of the first devices to show animation, foreshadowing the cinematic theme. 

The show opens with the two main characters, Buster and Scarlett, being magically whisked from a film set into a fantastical world, which is set into motion through dance, live video, interactive projections, acrobatics, and music. 

It’s a sweeping and dizzying array of media that mirrors a movie experience, all set to a symphonic score by film composer veteran Danny Elfman, who wrote the music for dozens of Hollywood films, including Good Will Hunting, Spider-Man, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “This production sparked my enthusiasm right away because of the combination of different elements that were a dream for me: working with [director] Philippe Decoufle, the city of Los Angeles, the Kodak Theater, a new Cirque du Soleil production, and Danny Elfman’s music,” says Biggi.

But for the audience, the story and the drama is as important to the experience as the stunts and multi-media visuals. “While it does not reference individual films, it does speak to how movies are made, what they mean to us, the various genres and how we experience them. ‘Iris’ has incredible acrobatics and lots of visual surprises. For example, our Roof Top number integrates trampolines with other apparatus in a complete innovative way,” says Biggi. “But this show is very much about the journey the show and the audience take together.”

 

Total Thriller

‘Iris’ will inhabit the Kodak Theatre for a decade, clearing out only for the annual Academy Awards each February. However, the other highly anticipated mega fall Cirque debut will have a more nomadic existence, touring the world until 2015. After three years in the making, the $60 million “Michael Jackson: Immortal World Tour,” opened in Montreal on October 2 at the Bell Centre. The multi-sensory experience that pays tribute to the deceased King of Pop’s music, dance, and legend had already sold more than $40 million in tickets in early October.

Whether or not those purchasers are MJ fans, they will experience something extraordinary, which focuses on the very best the artist had to offer, says D’Amico. “When you concentrate on the music and the legacy that Michael Jackson left to the world, you don’t really have to deal with the more controversial stuff,” he says. “A concert tour of Michael Jackson without Michael Jackson is a tough challenge. We needed to make people feel Michael Jackson in the room, not just with his music. We needed to have his songs and his messages speak to us on different levels.

“He was the ultimate all-around performer. He sang, danced, wrote his own songs, and produced his own stuff. Through his music and choreography [of this show], I think that comes through.”

While the music in Cirque du Soleil productions have always been a crucial component of the experience, focusing on musical icons is a relatively new phenomenon for the company, beginning with The Beatles, which resulted in “Love,” a resident show at the Mirage in Las Vegas that originally opened in 2006. 

“It really started with a chance encounter between Guy [Laliberte] and George Harrison in the early 2000s. Guy challenged George and said, ‘I know you guys have created a great body of work, but are you done? If you still have some creative things you want to do, I would be interested in partnering with you,’” recounts D’Amico. 

“I don’t think we set out to do shows on pop icons, but it sort of fell in our lap. Once we had done the Beatles, the people who are in charge of the Elvis image contacted us, which resulted in ‘Vida Elvis,’” he says. “Then the same thing happened with Michael Jackson. After he died there was an interest on behalf of the estate in working with us. 

“Each time, I guess it’s been about the creative challenge for us, and that’s what’s driven us.”

D’Amico says only time and opportunity will tell whether more shows based on musical legends are coming in future. “Maybe Madonna gives us a call, and Guy is spurred on by creating Madonna’s new show. This company grows organically. Things have to turn us on.”

And despite the fact that Cirque didn’t attempt to tackle the more controversial aspects of Michael Jackson’s legacy, it hasn't shied away from weighty themes in some of its shows, including sexuality, evolution, mythology, and even death.

But whether you’re going to see a show based on a music legend or one that turns the mirror on some aspect of society, recent additions to the Cirque family of shows are grand-scale productions. If you look at our last three productions, ‘Zarkana’ [at Radio City Music Hall in New York], the ‘Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour,’ and ‘Iris’—these are mega productions, more than 60-70 artists,” says D’Amico.

Thanks to the company’s remarkable and consistent success as well as advances in
theater technology, newer Cirque productions tend to be on a much larger scale with more financial resources at their disposal. “The other thing you might notice if you haven’t seen a Cirque du Soleil show in a while is the technology, the fact that we can showcase things much better now because we have the behind-the-scenes technology to be able to do it,” D’Amico explains. “Stage elements and set pieces can arrive at a moment’s notice, so that’s allowed us to produce more elaborate shows.”

 

Going (More) Global

Cirque du Soleil has performed for more than 100 million spectators in more than 300 cities on six continents. But it’s still looking for new homes for resident shows. “Resident shows need a large tourism base to operate successfully for a long period of time, which is why the Las Vegas model works for us—every three or four days a new slate of people come in from all over the world,” says D’Amico. “It’s
essentially the same show every night, so it’s not like a baseball game that you can go see 80 games.”

While it continues to expand its resources and global presence, D’Amico says the company is careful to adhere to the same creative processes it did when Cirque was comprised of 73 employees in 1984 to avoid losing its identity. “It’s true our first show didn’t cost $60 million, but when you look at the creative process of what has to happen, it hasn’t changed. The $60 million we have now to make a show still doesn’t allow us to make a show in a month.”

And while shows like MGM Grand's “KÅ” uses 190-some technicians and more than 70 artists, it’s what’s at the heart of each performance—the spectacle and the storytelling—that people carry with them forever, D’Amico says. 

So while Cirque du Soleil continues to consistently churn out new shows, the creation process for each production is still the life blood of the company, D’Amico explains. “From the time we have an idea or get green light on a project, it usually takes two or three years to opening night. Our shows are built along certain lines that have to do with an acrobatic skeleton. The creative teams first establish what the big acrobatic numbers are going to be,” he explains. 

Despite the fact that many of the Cirque productions turnover performers over the course of time, each one has an artistic director who travels with the show, and his or her job is to keep it fresh. “That ensures we’re able to tweak each show while still maintaining the integrity of the original creator,” D’Amico says.

As Cirque du Soleil continues to evolve and grow,  its executives and founders understand its success is contingent on each production and performance inducing the same awe and wonder that it has since 1984.

“There’s an unproven theory that the first Cirque du Soleil show you saw remains your favorite. My first show was ‘Saltimbanco,’ and I just remember feeling like a kid again, asking myself how do they do that,” he says. “There’s a freedom that comes with Cirque. The idea that people do this for a living—travel the world and entertain people every night is amazing… 

“And, after all these years, ‘Saltimbanco’ is still my favorite.” 

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