Dream of a New Circus

How Cirque du Soleil Revived the Big Top and Took Over the World

Dream of a New Circus

It started on a street corner in Quebec and now it literally spans the planet, amazing audiences worldwide with its ability to transform a simple tent into a focal point for the fantastic.

The circus of Cirque du Soleil is not lions, tigers, and stale popcorn. Instead, it's an adventurously artistic alternate reality where sight, sound, and spectacle interact with unexpected results. As aerial acts fearlessly hurl themselves through space, seemingly just above you, gnarled figures decked out in elaborately sequined outfits and bright plumage patrol the stage. A costumed band parades through the crowd, stopping to serenade fortunate fans. A grinning hunchback in a scarlet tailcoat introduces a fire-dancer, who spins so close to you, you can hear the flames and smell the smoke. With stunning sets, outrageous costumes, modern music, and an attention to art in every aspect of the production, Cirque du Soleil conjures up an almost hallucinogenic sense of magic that is often as surreal as it is sensational. And it is sensational beyond description.

The Cirque du Soleil concept -- integrating dance, music, and story to expand what circus performance is while retaining the inherent excitement of a circus -- was a flight of fancy made physical, and it has spiraled upward for two decades, creating a seemingly insatiable international appetite for its enlightened upgrade of the traditional entertainment event.

For all the art and athleticism of its performers and productions, Cirque du Soleil -- undoubtedly one of the most unexpected and unlikely of entertainment empires -- is almost as impressive a business story. The troupe was founded in 1984 by Guy Laliberté, an accordionist, stilt walker, and fire-eater. Whatever his skills as a performer, Laliberté made his greatest contribution to the evolution of the circus as the organizer and mastermind behind Cirque du Soleil's surprising ascent to global eminence.

Cirque du Soleil began staging its shows in Quebec in an 800-seat tent. Once fans were exposed to the troupe's cutting-edge attitude and magical mix of artistic disciplines, the small tent became the destination of choice for those seeking a theatrical experience unlike anything else on the scene. Tours of Canada and the U.S. built the company's audience so dramatically that in just six years Cirque du Soleil was able to premiere its Nouvelle Expérience show in Montreal in a 2,500-capacity big top, a precursor to the state-of-the-art "Grand Chapiteau" under which it now stages its traveling productions. In 1992, the troupe played Las Vegas for the first time, presenting Nouvelle Expérience in a yearlong residency at the Mirage Hotel. Its success was so overwhelming that a theatre was custom-built for the troupe, which opened Mystère at Treasure Island in 1993. As more productions have been added and tours expanded to Europe, Asia, and Australia, audiences have continued to fill the troupe's assorted big tops in record numbers, averaging more than 60,000 fans per weekend in 2002.

In the 19 years it has taken for Cirque du Soleil to reach Austin, more than 32 million fans have personally witnessed its performances. Alegría, the production that will serve as the city's introduction to the company in live performance, was created for its 10th anniversary and has been on the road for almost a decade. Like all the troupe's touring productions, it is thematically unique and physically self-sufficient. With 1,000 tons of equipment and a week of site preparation, Cirque du Soleil has transformed the old Robert Mueller Airport into its current home away from home. Alegría is now a village unto itself, with its own power source, offices, kitchen, and storage facilities. While the tours are a major undertaking, the troupe has grown accustomed to them.

Cirque du Soleil currently has four touring productions in addition to Alegría. Varekai, the newest, is currently in New York City as it makes its first full-scale North American tour. Saltimbanco, which premiered in 1992, is in Geneva after a three-year tour through the South Pacific. Dralion, which set box-office records in Houston last year, is in Baltimore as it works its way back to Montreal. Quidam, the fan favorite that first brought Cirque du Soleil to Texas in 1997, is presently playing in Tokyo. And Alegría, which was in Mexico City before pitching its tent in Texas, will move on to Western Canada after departing Austin.

Dream of a New Circus

While the touring shows take Cirque du Soleil everywhere from Amsterdam to Atlanta, three resident productions provide stationary shrines for its ever-growing legion of devotees. La Nouba, located in the Downtown Disney entertainment district of Walt Disney World in Orlando, established a permanent East Coast base for the troupe in 1998. That same year "O," the first Cirque du Soleil aquatic show, opened at Bellagio in Las Vegas. A new resident production, Zumanity -- rumored to include a bit of R-rated sensualism -- opens July 31 at New York-New York Hotel & Casino, and a fourth Vegas production will open next year.

The Cirque du Soleil empire stretches far beyond the big top, however. Films of the troupe's performances were among the highest-rated events on the Bravo television network, leading to the 2002 reality series Fire Within, which showed the behind-the-scenes development of Varekai from the perspective of artists auditioning and rehearsing for the production. Next year Bravo will air a 13-part series of Cirque du Soleil miniproductions, each an independent realization of the type of thematic shows the company takes on the road. In 2000, the company filmed Journey of Man for IMAX, a format befitting its larger-than-life presentations. Such activities have increased its public profile to the point that Cirque du Soleil has become an icon of contemporary culture.

Cirque du Soleil, however, is a live experience, and even IMAX can't capture the sensory saturation of the live shows. Each production has its own storyline and imagined universe, from the dreamy Quidam, with its mysterious characters, to the energetic Saltimbanco, with its whirlwind of urban life, to the jubilant Alegría, with its birdlike figures and images of flight. It is circus as theatre, a multidisciplinary creative collusion that delivers more than the traditional form ever imagined. "Our productions are much more than just a circus," says Artistic Director Pierre Parisien. "But we always try to remember our first responsibility to the audience is to create something that evokes that special sense of awe and wonder that can only be experienced at a circus."

Parisien is entrusted with the duty of keeping Alegría at once fresh and yet true to its original vision -- a vision that includes sound at the center of things. The distinctive music of Cirque du Soleil, available on more than a dozen CDs, is a primary component of all its productions and one of the most obvious differences between the original and the assortment of "extreme circus" imitations that have sprung up in its wake. Composed by Cirque du Soleil stalwart René Dupéré, the music serves to brings harmony to the wildly disparate elements of the show, embellishing and bridging the onstage activities. The score for a production is created much like that of a motion-picture soundtrack. Broad themes expressive of the production's storyline and sensibilities are composed and then synchronized to the action.

But it is the death-defying nature of that live action that sets the music and its creative process apart from the after-the-fact cinematic approach. With performers literally flying through the air, a misplaced beat or an out-of-time accent can be disastrous on both physical and performance levels. "It is crucial for the music to not only sound right, but to also make the right sound at the right moment," Parisien explains. "It is a part of the show, but artists also must depend on it for their performances. Like most elements of the production, it has more than one purpose and meaning."

In other words, the music exists to serve the circus. It is that succession of mind-boggling activities performed by incredibly agile and accomplished artists that has always been Cirque du Soleil's primary source of awe. Everything, whether fire-dancing or a synchronized trapeze act, is done with style and a casual virtuosity that serves to disguise the difficulty of the feats. But there is simply no way to obscure the astounding athleticism of the artists and the physical poetry of their performances.

At the Houston Alegría engagement Jim Pierce watched a slender young female contortionist casually twist herself into shapes rarely seen outside comic books. "These people are just not from this planet," he said in astonishment. But they are indeed earthlings, if admittedly, almost supernaturally talented ones drawn from across the globe. Alegría features 56 artists from 13 countries, including Mongolia, Finland, Argentina, Russia, and Poland, in addition to its American and Canadian natives. They soar, somersault, and generally defy the normal limits of human activity with a level of physical precision and graceful body control above and beyond the best and brightest of past circus stars. And they do it nightly.

In a way, Alegría tells the story of Cirque du Soleil. Its bent characters in fantasy finery represent the old and obstinate while the energetic, enthusiastic performing artists personify the young and innovative vanguard. A torch is being passed, albeit reluctantly, and the theatrical device re-creates the early clash between a group of Quebec street performers and the rigid structure of the traditional circus.

Cirque du Soleil revitalized the big top at a time when the ageless dream of running away to join the circus had become an almost archaic concept. But when a new generation saw the dream reimagined and invigorated, the circus was assured of surviving into the 21st century. And the dream continues to fuel the imagination of both fans and, more importantly, potential performers.

"We have people coming to our Montreal headquarters all the time, intent on performing in the circus," Parisien says with pride. "Because of what we've accomplished they know they can achieve their dream and that is a wonderful thing to be part of." end story

Cirque du Soleil presents Alegría through May 18 at the former Robert Mueller Airport. For information, call 800/678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

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