Canuck group adds permanent shows in Tokyo, N.Y., London

TORONTO — Just like any other 20-year-old, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil is full of ambitious plans to conquer the world.

The company has just announced a partnership with Celebrity Cruise Lines to take its magic to the high seas. It is also in the planning stages for permanent shows in Tokyo, London and New York. With a trio of shows running in Las Vegas, Cirque is now planning a fourth, to be directed by theatrical innovator Robert Lepage, that will open by the end of the year.

So far, there are no signs that audiences are tiring of the company’s distinct entertainment formula, which was born on the steets of Quebec, literally, two decades ago.

The idea of “reinventing the circus” may not have seemed like much when Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix spun it off from a festival of street performers called “La Fete Foraine” in the tiny Quebec town of Baie-Saint-Paul during the summer of 1984. Their idea was to eliminate the animal acts and cheap carnival atmosphere that had come to make circuses seem like a low-rent form of entertainment. In their place, they provided dazzling acrobatics and high-concept performances that featured outrageously stylized costumes and makeup as well as haunting musical scores.

“The circuses of the past presented everything to you on a platter,” Ste-Croix said recently. “At Cirque, you have to become part of the experience. … We have one secret weapon: We engage your imagination.”

The result can be seen in Cirque’s amazing growth. In 1984, with a staff of 70, they produced one show and played to 50,000 patrons.

By the end of this year, they will have 10 shows in production, utilizing a staff of 3,000, and their total audiences this year are expected to reach 7 million.

Cirque’s corporate headquarters in the northeast corner of Montreal is where all the creative, administrative and production work for this far-flung empire takes place.

The facility, which sprawls over a lot the size of 15 football fields, opened in 1997 at a cost of $50 million, was expanded in 2001 and is currently undergoing further substantial additions.

It houses three acrobatic studios, a dance rehearsal hall, a full-size theater, two cafeterias and a fitness center capable of meeting the needs of the numerous artists on site for training and rehearsals.

The various workshops house 300 artisans who create and maintain the 20,000 hats, props, costumes and shoes used in the existing shows, as well as creating them for the new ones.

“I don’t think we ever dreamed we’d get this big,” confessed Ste-Croix, “but it’s strictly supply and demand.”

The supply includes five shows on tour around the world, currently in Boston, Toronto, Frankfurt, Antwerp and Sydney.

Then there are the “permanent” shows running in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.: “Mystere” (1993), “O” (1998), “La Nouba” (1998) and “Zumanity” (2003).

The fourth show in Vegas, as yet untitled, is scheduled to open near the end of this year at the MGM Grand.

The latest touring show, currently called “Cirque 2005,” premieres in Montreal in April, and there are four productions in various stages of development.

Demand seems to be keeping up as well, with consistent capacity crowds around the world the rule rather than the exception.

The full extent of these plans, including the new permanent shows, was confirmed by Cirque’s president-CEO, Daniel Lamarre, in a recent interview.

“I wouldn’t want to put a calendar to the construction,” Lamarre said, “but I think it’s safe to say we will begin work on the Tokyo project very soon.”

The partnership with Celebrity Cruise Lines is already under way. Starting in December, one of the Millennium-class ships run by Celebrity will feature Cirque-style entertainment. Under the guidance of prominent Quebec designer Jean-Francois Bouchard, the ship’s observation lounges will be turned into an environmental showcase called “The Bar at the Edge of the Earth.”

Cirque-inspired characters will interact with the public in a manner that Bouchard describes. “They will greet the guests as old friends, not as cruise patrons. There is a shared camaraderie that happens on board a journey like this. People you have just met suddenly seem like you have known them all of your life.”

“The overall sensation,” continued Bouchard, “would be as though the patrons were all part of a Cirque du Soleil experience, not just observers, but participants in a new style of entertainment.”

In addition to this two-hour nightly session, there will be a gala midnight “Cirque du Soleil Masquerade Ball” during the seven-day cruise and what’s billed as a “world-class performance” from Cirque on another evening.

Cirque’s Lamarre said many other companies had previously approached the org about a similar partnership, but only Celebrity Cruises was willing to offer Cirque full creative control and the latitude necessary to create something completely new and different, yet within the recognizable envelope of the organization.

It was Jack Williams, prexy-CEO of Celebrity Cruises, who made it possible, with his whole-hearted admiration of Cirque’s activities.

“I’ve been a fan of Cirque du Soleil since they first began 20 years ago,” Williams said. “I think this is a perfect alliance.”

The first cruise is set to depart Dec. 7 from San Juan for a weeklong journey through the southern Caribbean, utilizing the liner Constellation.

The 965-foot-long vessel, which had its maiden voyage in May 2002, is capable of holding 1,950 passengers and recently was voted “world’s best large cruise ship” by Conde Nast Traveler.

A similar package will be available on cruises of its sister ship, the Summit, starting in 2005.

It will prove to be a busy December for Cirque du Soleil, since the opening date for the unnamed Lepage project at the MGM Grand is expected to occur during the same month as the cruise.

Final details for the Las Vegas show are being announced at a Sept. 15 press conference there, but Lamarre has already called it “the most spectacular production in Cirque du Soleil’s history,” which — considering its past efforts — is a fairly remarkable claim.

It has even been referred to by some Vegas insiders as “the most expensive stage show in North American history.”

Quite a 20 year-journey for what started out as a grass-roots operation.

As Ste-Croix put it, “This all began with a group of street performers. Sometimes I find that hard to believe. It shows what you can do with a dream.”

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