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Cirque battles declining fortunes

Layoffs hit Quebec mega-producer

TORONTO

Even the slickest tightrope walker loses their balance sometimes, and 2012 will go down as the year when blockbuster spectacle-peddler Cirque du Soleil found itself on a very slippery downward slide for the first time in its 28 year history.

On Jan. 16, the company announced it was laying off 400 of their 5,000 world-wide employees, most of them coming from the head office in Montreal.

PR topper Renee-Claude Menard put a brave face on the news, saying, “Cirque is a billion dollar private business that does not depend on any government grants, and has 19 unique productions currently reaching 14 million people per year. Last year we played to more people and took in more money at the box office than we ever have before. We are not closing our doors just yet.”

But obviously something was wrong.

After a non-stop string of 30 hits that toured successfully around the world, the magic evaporated, and over a single year, they were forced to close four major touring shows in Tokyo, Macau, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. As a private company the organization can keep mum on its exact figures, but informed sources suggested that the loss on those productions alone came to $250 million.

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For the first time, Cirque no longer seemed critically invulnerable. Their ill-starred attempt to revive vaudeville, “Banana Shpeel,” was the target of widespread media derision during its Chicago and Manhattan runs, and the press attention paid to its over-hyped “Viva Elvis” at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas not only attacked the show itself, but questioned Cirque’s growing infatuation with celebrity-driven vehicles such as “Criss Angel: BeLIEve” and “Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour.”

Meanwhile, downturns in tourism drove them out Asia, and their attempt to conquer Hollywood with the motion-picture driven “Iris” was doomed by an array of problems — some of them as simple as not having adequate affordable parking.

Cirque began as a group of street performers from Quebec who hit upon a fresh entertainment idea in 1984 and developed its artsy-circus aesthetic with a careful mixture of bravado and caution. In the first 20 years of operation the troupe created 13 shows, developing each one in their Montreal headquarters and making them durable enough that, for instance, “Mystere” is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary in Las Vegas.

More recently, however, to company’s desire for expansion began to overreach, and in the past seven years Cirque has developed 17 shows. Some of them (such as Beatles-centric “Love”) have had true staying power, but others were the flops that have brought them to the difficult spot they’re in are now.

Las Vegas is still the company’s heartland, with seven shows playing to 9,000 people a night and a new one scheduled to open later in 2013. Their touring projects remain strong, commanding devoted houses around the world.

But apart from “La Nouba,” a Walt Disney World show that has been packing them in since 1998, all Cirque’s attempts to find other permanent homes have failed. New York City has been particularly painful, with ill-fated ventures at Madison Square Garden (“Wintuk”), Radio City Music Hall (“Zarkana”) and the Beacon Theatre (“Banana Shpeel”).

It is those ventures that have proved the biggest drain on the organization and its cash-flow.

Cirque’s enigmatic leader, Guy Laliberte, is seen as another problem. The man who went from unemployment in 1984 to a net value of $2.6 billion today has lately been more interested in flying into space than spending time on the ground at Cirque. His management style is widely known for parachuting into shows late in the creative process, then ripping them apart with sometimes disastrous results.

The real hand on the tiller belongs to Daniel Lemarre, a calm influence who manages to combine the artist and the executive. But evidently he too got carried away with Cirque’s expansionist tendencies. “We try to focus on one show at a time,” he once said, but with five productions opening around the world in a year, that just isn’t possible.

Cirque still has a lot going for it: Name recognition, a strong (if slightly tarnished) brand, a brilliant marketing machine and a superstructure capable of sustaining great levels of activity.

There’s nothing to say that it won’t be able to re-capture its former glory, but that much-in-vogue word, “right-sizing” that is usually used in the wrong situations seems to be just what this organization needs right now.

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