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Le big top hits jersey

New Cirque show bows across the Hudson

NEW YORK — Every three years, like some visiting astral body, Cirque du Soleil blazes through the New York metropolitan area.

But the latest touring production, “Dralion,” isn’t quite making it to Gotham. The company, which has previously presented its shows in Battery Park City, is pitching its tent across the Hudson River, in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park.

To see the show, patrons without easy access to Jersey City — most New Yorkers, in other words — will have to hop a special ferry from the World Financial Center, hard by the World Trade Center. At least eight ferries will leave for each show, from two hours until 15 minutes before curtain time.

Will the new show lure Manhattanites away from more easily accessible entertainments, including the latest Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey attraction, which is opening a two-week stand at Madison Square Garden just days before “Dralion” begins perfs April 4? Will they warm to the idea of spending an additional $10 per person for transportation?

Chances are, yes on both counts: Cirque du Soleil is one of the more staggering success stories of late-20th-century showbiz.

The company was founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberte, who remains the sole owner. His current title is founding president and he remains the company’s topper; former prexy Daniel Gaulthier resigned in May 2000. Lyn Heward is the CEO. Cirque now has seven productions running concurrently and employs a total of 2,100 people.

In addition to “Dralion,” which bowed at the company’s home base in Montreal in spring 1999 and has been on the road in North America since, these include the wholly owned “Saltimbanco,” soon to open in Fukuoka, Japan; “Alegria,” currently touring Australia; and “Quidam,” on the road in Europe.

Two permanent shows are in residence in Las Vegas, “Mystere” at Treasure Island and the phenomenally successful “O” at the Bellagio.

Cirque is partnered with MTM Mirage Resorts on “O,” now that Steve Wynn has sold the hotel. The company also is teamed with Disney on “La Nouba,” a permanent attraction housed in a Disney-owned theater at Disney World in Orlando.

In a single weekend, about 50,000 people come out to see the shows. Consider that tickets for “Dralion” run from $43.75 for the cheapest kid’s ticket to $85 for adults.

With 10 perfs per week, the show’s total capacity is about 25,000 a week. It can bring in well over $1 million a week; multiply that by seven, just for fun, and you might get a rough idea of Cirque’s overall weekly gross at the box office.

The company is tight-lipped about its financial figures, and it’s easy enough to see why.

Recipe for success

The Cirque aesthetic was created back in 1984 in a rural town in Quebec by Laliberte, Gilles Ste-Croix and a troupe of street performers called Le Club des Talons Hauts.

The formula, from which the company hasn’t really strayed, is a blend of circus tradition and whimsy, featuring steely fits of physical daring and a surrealist finesse.

The concept clearly struck a chord with a wide audience and continues to attract theatergoers of all ages and types.

As Mario D’Amico, Cirque’s VP of marketing, says, “Sometimes in life, things just happen. It would be nice to say this all happened because Guy has a vision.” But perhaps inspired accident is more the thing.

“We are not a kids’ product,” D’Amico adds. He avers that the troupe’s core aud is “a younger crowd — theatergoers who have some experience with the performing arts. It’s a personal experience. If you’re a weekend jock, it’s not an intimidating product. If you’re a university art professor, you can take it artistically.”

The troupe’s eclectic internationalism and reliance on music and spectacle rather than language also assures it a wide appeal.

As D’Amico bluntly explains, “The words are made up; they just go with the tune.” Suggesting many languages at once, they blend many tongues together into a harmony that has no actual meaning.

For Cirque, in pragmatic terms, it means no market is really closed. A show can go down equally well with audiences in Vegas or London, Tokyo or Paris or the Big Apple.

And the polyglot audiences see themselves reflected onstage.

“When you look at the nationalities combined, it’s like 40 countries, between 500 and 600 performers,” D’Amico says. “A flag for every nationality goes on our big top. We source our talent from everywhere. We have a casting department. They have to scour the globe.”

Indeed, the casting crew, which numbers 22 people, is continually scouring the globe for talent to keep seven shows circulating simultaneously across four continents. They’ll be holding auditions in New York in the days before “Dralion’s” first perf.

“Dralion” opens April 4 in New Jersey and plays through May 20, with a possible extension. Its 10 shows a week is unheard of on the Great White Way, where union rules, box office economics and iron-bound custom preclude such a thing.

Although execs are sanguine about the New Jersey setup, the move came about only because the Battery Park City site was unavailable due to construction; no other suitable Manhattan site could be found.

“New York is always on our tour plan. With all due respect for Southern California, it’s probably our key market,” D’Amico says.

Tickets for the show will range from a children’s rate of $43.75-$59.50 to $63-$85 for adults. Cirque has added a separate VIP tent for its corporate hospitality clients, setting aside 200 out of 2,500 tickets for “patrons who want to entertain clients”; however, these ducats can be purchased by anyone who chooses to fork over big bucks for the privilege.

For these seats, the Gotham tickets range from $130 for kids to $190 for adults, and customers are given added perks such as a special tent, champagne and refreshments and their own separate clown entertainment during intermission.

Artistically, the new show is in some ways a return to the company’s roots: It’s directed by Guy Caron, who is returning to the company after a long intermission. Caron, the first artistic director, was with the company from 1984-88.

The theme is a meeting of Western styles and the culture of China, an attempt to “marry the ancient acrobatic traditions of China” with the West’s circus know-how and finesse.