Cirque du Soleil

Las Vegas is the last place you would expect to find art. The city rises from the Nevada desert like a pop-up cartoon of American consumerism. On the Vegas strip, you can get married in the morning, pawn your wedding ring in the afternoon, sell a pint of your blood at sunset and feed the proceeds into slot machines all night long. But on this same strip, Quebec's Cirque du Soleil - an exotic hybrid of music, theatre, acrobatics and dance - has taken root like a cactus flower.

Mystère, the Cirque's permanent show in Vegas, is located in the depths of Treasure Island, a resort easily identified on the strip by the huge skull hanging under the sign and the two pirate ships that exchange cannon fire at regular intervals. Anyone looking for the circus has to walk through the casino, past factory rows of gamblers working the slots with buckets of change. The room percolates with the cheerful din of machines, hundreds of them chiming the same calliope notes, the rat-tat-tat of coins spitting percussion. The oxygenated air carries a vaguely coconut scent, memories of Tropic Tan. But past the casino, past the Black Spot Grille and the corridor of souvenir shops, is the incongruously elegant Mystre Theatre. Plush reclining seats - twilight blue with gold stars - circle an enormous stage, where gambling of a very different kind is about to go down.

With a thunderous din, a Japanese drum the size of a car descends from the ceiling, pounded by a shirtless drummer who hangs by a harness. Fog swirls across the stage, which suddenly sinks away and turns into a staircase. The fog is sucked down the steps into a pit. A bare-chested Russian with a triangular torso soars through the air in the chrome frame of a twirling cube. A live band plays, a woman sings. The stage swarms with creatures, amphibian riddles of skin, scales and tendrils. It is a circus without animals, just people who look like them. Gecko gymnasts with masks on the backs of their heads slither up Chinese poles. Pear-shaped men in padded spandex catapult from teeter-boards and trampolines. There are leaping lizards and jumping Jacobeans - courtly acrobats in white wigs and pearl-white breeches who somersault over flaming candelabras. And high overhead, six trapeze girls trailing fringes fly through the air on bungee chords, zooming in and out of each other's slipstreams in starburst formations.

The show doubles as a sexy Vegas extravaganza and a surreal New Age sacrament. It is an otherworldly celebration of celestial bodies. But it is also a business, a feat of corporate stunt work no less audacious - and elevating - than the one onstage. In partnership with Mirage Resorts mogul Steve Wynn, the Cirque has been packing the 1,500-seat Mystre Theatre with two shows a night since 1992. It is the hottest ticket in town. And at $100 a pop, it is the most expensive after Siegfried & Roy's fabulously tacky magic-and-white-tigers spectacle.

Cirque du Soleil also has two shows touring under its familiar blue-and-yellow big top: Quidam, launched in 1996, is playing American cities this summer, while Alegría (1994) tours Europe. But the Vegas production - an oasis of refinement in a town built on bad taste - offers the most striking example of how the Cirque has evolved into a high-wire balancing act between art and commerce.

Founded by a ragtag band of Quebec street performers in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has grown, literally, by leaps and bounds. It is now an industrial-strength circus operating on three continents. It has won more than 70 awards, for both art and business. Its shows have sold more than 17 million tickets in over 120 cities around the world. And, with revenues of $175 million for 1997, and annual profits averaging 15 to 20 per cent, the company is expanding at a breakneck pace.

By the year 2000, the company plans to have eight shows running simultaneously. Saltimbanco will tour Asia after an October run in Ottawa. This fall, the Cirque will open a second permanent show in Las Vegas - an aquatic spectacle on a proscenium stage built as a giant water tank - in a $100-million theatre at Mirage's lavish new Bellagio resort. Another Cirque theatre with a custom-made show will open in Orlando's Disney World in December. Alegría, meanwhile, will find a permanent home in Beau Rivage, a Mirage casino-resort due to open next spring in Biloxi, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Two more productions are planned for Europe and Asia.

Cirque du Soleil has evolved from a street troupe of jugglers and acrobats into a circus juggernaut, an international brand complete with its own line of souvenir merchandise, clothes, CDs and videos. But as the Cirque falls into the orbit of mega-corporations such as Disney and Mirage, its autonomy remains miraculously uneclipsed. The company is still solely owned and controlled by the same daredevil entrepreneurs who created it. With offices in Vegas, Amsterdam and Singapore, they are stubbornly based in Montreal, in new, $30-million headquarters. And, for all their success, they still seem committed to a corporate culture rooted in idealism. "We never forget where we come from," says Daniel Gauthier, the Cirque's 39-year-old president, "and we come from the street. Our shows have no age barrier, no class barrier. When Vegas was looking for family entertainment, they called the Cirque; when Disney wanted adult entertainment in Orlando, they called the Cirque."

Gauthier co-owns the company with 38-year-old founding director Guy Laliberté, a former performing fire-eater. Both were born and raised in St-Bruno, a half-hour drive from Montreal. And both are high-school dropouts who ran away from home in their teens, though not together. Now they are affluent family men, two bilingual cosmopolitans busy reinventing show business. Gauthier talks of their five-year plan for the Cirque like a cautious commissar trying to keep a successful revolution from going sour. "There's always the danger of bureaucratization," he says. "We've taken on size and weight - we're conscious of that. But we do everything so that we won't become a big machine controlled by Montreal with tentacles everywhere. Our strength has always been our ability to turn on a dime. It's all a question of balance."

In a seven-storey studio at Cirque's Montreal headquarters, half a dozen acrobats are developing aerial routines for the new Bellagio show in Vegas. High above the floor, they sail back and forth on a huge double cradle, a swing made of metal tubing in the shape of a stylized galleon, hinged to the ceiling at both ends. Swinging the boat in a steady arc, the acrobats jump off and catch each other in an intricate rhythm, as if their flying bodies are being passed through the hands of an invisible juggler. Occasionally, they miss and drop dangling in mid-air from their harnesses.

Later, two trapeze artists - 23-year-old twins from Montreal named Karyne and Sarah Steben - lie side by side on mats in the gym, stretching. They have been with Cirque du Soleil from the age of 16, when they answered a newspaper ad. "We just showed up and they believed in us, I guess," says Sarah. "They trained us for a year." The twins talk about working together with giddy enthusiasm, completing each other's sentences as if handing their bodies back and forth in mid-air: "We have a message with our act ... something to say to the public together... yes, the trust, the complicity ... the amazing relationship you can have with someone you love."

For Saltimbanco, the twins came up with a breathtaking manoeuvre in which they catch each other using only their feet. Now, another set of twins - Elsie and Serenity Smith - is rehearsing to duplicate the routine while the Stebens work up a new act for Bellagio. They say they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. With improvisational philosophy similar to that of another Quebec visionary - stage director Robert Lepage - the Cirque forges its new material out of creative accidents. "Every show we start with a blank page," says Cirque creative director Gilles Ste. Croix, 48, who started out as a stilt-walker with the founding troupe. "By now, we have covered all the existing acrobatics. We created this studio to explore new ones. It's a cathedral where we can protect and develop the artists. But it shouldn't become a shell where we just go and hide for 10 years, saying 'I have a job.' "

The Montreal headquarters, where about 500 of the Cirque's 1,300 employees work, is located in the East End - beside a city garbage dump that is being transformed into parkland. It is a gleaming white complex that looks like a vast IKEA outlet, or a high-tech fortress for a villain in a James Bond movie - a building with attitude. Inside is an open-concept rehearsal studio/office/factory where everyone can watch everyone else work. Expanses of corrugated steel. Curved metal stairs. White catwalks spanning a vertiginous atrium. Some employees have desks overlooking a rehearsal gym the size of an aircraft hangar. A publicist typing a news release can look up from her computer to see a trapeze artist fly past her window. Or, if she is enterprising, she can take trapeze lessons after work.

The building has a discernible buzz. The average age of the employees is 32. Many of them wear clothes sporting the Cirque du Soleil logo - and express a visible enthusiasm for their work, as if they are conjoined in some utopian experiment. In a sense, they are. Their benefits and working conditions are unusually progressive. The employees, who are not unionized, are paid at a competitive rate - and receive 10 per cent of company profits. At lunch they can choose from a menu of superb, inexpensive meals at a cafeteria run by François Martin, who was once Brian Mulroney's private chef at 24 Sussex Drive. And the kitchen uses fresh vegetables grown right outside the building, where there is also a cornfield with a yield of 13,000 cobs, which are given to employees and the neighboring community.

But Cirque du Soleil is not a utopia. It is a dream factory, a profitable corporation in the business of making rainbows. Among 140 workers in a sprawling costume shop at the Montreal headquarters, a seamstress will spend her day hand-sewing 2,500 sequins on the fringes of a costume to be worn by a bungee girl in Vegas. Four floors up, their bosses run the business from a penthouse aerie.

Laliberté's corner office is flooded with sunlight from a vast expanse of window. A wall separates him from his partner, Gauthier, but their offices open onto a common solarium. They take their soleil seriously at the Cirque. Laliberté's desk is flanked by sleek blond cabinetry and a state-of-the-art entertainment console with a giant TV. The decor is ripe with images of fertility - African sculptures and meaty orchids that droop from huge pots suspended from the ceiling. Laliberté has the look of an affluent bohemian. Balding with a thin braid curling down his neck, he wears blue jeans and a black shirt with silver studs.

"As a kid, I always dreamed of travelling," says Laliberté. The son of a nurse and an Alcan vice-president, he left home at 14 to become a busking accordion player. At 18, he went to Europe and fell into a romantic demi-monde of circus street performers. He learned to breathe fire. Then, working as a theatrical animator at a youth hostel in Baie St-Paul, a small town northeast of Quebec City, he hooked up with Ste. Croix. Together they formed Club des Talons Hauts (High Heels Club), a street circus designed to play festivals. Then, with Gauthier, another animator at the hostel, they started up Cirque du Soleil - it was founded, with a provincial subsidy, to mount a $1.5-million tour of Quebec in 1984 as part of the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's arrival in Canada.

"In the beginning, we had no fear," says Laliberté. "We just jumped in. In our second year we had $50,000 in the bank and we'd signed more than $1.2 million in contracts, which meant buying a lot of equipment - it was insane." The Cirque moved from a disappointing run in Toronto to a disastrous engagement in Niagara Falls. "That's where we established a policy that if there are less people in the audience than performing, we cancel the show." Then, in 1987, Laliberté gambled on a make-or-break gig in California, at the Los Angeles Festival. "We went down there barely paying for the gasoline," he recalls. "The festival had no advance money. So I said, 'I'll take the risk, but give me some publicity and the opening-night slot.' It was a hit. The next day, the scalpers were making money from us. But if we had failed, we had no money to bring our equipment back to Quebec."

In California, the Cirque started up a long-term love affair with the media and the show-business elite. Hollywood stars became regular backstage visitors. And now, although the Cirque is not the biggest show on earth - Ringling Bros. employs twice as many performers - it is the class act. It can hire the cream of acrobatic performers from around the world. Competitors have accused it of strip-mining talent. And Pierrot Bidon, founder of a more avant-garde French troupe called Archaos, has gone so far as to call Cirque du Soleil "the McDonald's of circuses."

"That's bullshit," says Laliberté, stressing that, unlike producers of such blockbusters as Phantom of the Opera or Cats, his company does not clone any of its shows. At any one time, there is only one troupe performing Saltimbanco, Alegría, Quidam or Mystère. Any backlash against the Cirque, he adds "is a jealous reaction more than anything else. We're shaking their world. We're getting into their European market. And we're a big buyer of talent - if we go to a festival, acts approached by other circuses will say, 'I'll wait to see if Cirque du Soleil is interested first.' "

The Cirque scours the world for talent, auditioning gymnasts, jugglers, dancers, divers, clowns, musicians - and swimmers. For the new Vegas water show, it has recruited synchronized swimmers, including Olympic champion Sylvie Fréchette. But athletes trained for competition have to learn to become actors in a theatrical ensemble. "Here, they teach you to become an artist," says Eligiusz Skoczylas, a Polish acrobat in Mystère. "This is not a competition. It's a showroom. It's like a playground. All the differences of language and tradition disappear. We're trying to create one tradition, one spirit on stage."

The creative process is collaborative, and often laborious, which can come as a shock to new recruits. When the Cirque hired its first Russian artists in 1990, they expected star treatment. "Once they were asked to go and take a mattress over to the stage," recalls Ste. Croix. "They refused. And when we explained that everyone at the Cirque works collectively, they said, 'But that's communism.' " Adds Ste. Croix: "Well, maybe it's a kind of Quebec socialism."

Although Cirque du Soleil prides itself on being a circus without stars, some acrobats are more equal than others. Laliberté says the performers' annual earnings can range from an apprentice rate of $30,000 (which includes free food, lodging and training) to $250,000 for a veteran who owns creative rights to his or her act. There is no danger pay.

Each night, Pierre Dubé, the drummer in Mystère's 10-piece band, watches the action from a catwalk perched 18 metres above the stage. Standing beside his drum kit before a show, he gazes out over the railing. Far below, acrobats are busy rehearsing somersaults off teeter-boards, a nightmarish version of what children are told not to do in playgrounds. "We had a very bad accident here a year ago," says Dubé. "On the high bar, two of our flyers met in mid-air. They were both going full speed, coming at each other head-on. We heard a big bang. It was one of their legs breaking. One flyer was in shock in the net, shaking. His leg was all crunched up. The other was completely unconscious."

Both recovered, and the one who broke his leg is back performing on the high bar. "A lot of people here have been taking St. John's Ambulance classes," says Dubé. "Not very long ago, we had a high-bar catcher who fell on his head. We thought he'd broken his neck." As it turned out, he was all right. "But the worst thing for me," the drummer adds, "is seeing some guy getting injured, and I have to keep playing. The music doesn't stop."

Although serious accidents are infrequent, Laliberté admits that "we have a lot of injuries." Any night of the week, there are always two or three Mystère artists missing in action. "I can never get over the fact that people, even with injuries, keep coming back and performing higher and better than they did before," adds the founding director. "You can't do that unless you have passion and pleasure in doing it. I think you have to be a little mad to be a circus performer. It's a wild job."

And it attracts a wild variety of personalities. The Cirque's cast is an international playground, dominated by Eastern Europeans (35 per cent) and Canadians (33 per cent) - English and French tend to be the working languages. "You have all kinds," says Laliberté. "There are people who are disciplined, training at 6 a.m. Then you have Russians who are doing triples in the air - guys who run the most risk of breaking their neck - and five minutes before they go on, they're smoking a cigarette, and they'll drink half a bottle of vodka the day after. You have vegetarians, macrobiotic types, and people who just eat junk food. It's a total mosaic."

And sometimes pieces come unglued. "There are fights, and depressions," says Laliberté. "We've had clowns chasing after technicians with their motorcycles. One day, we had a clown arrive with such a big depression. Imagine - the guy is supposed to make people laugh and he's crying for 20 hours. What do you do? Clowns are the most anxious people in the world. It's the discipline that takes the longest to learn. And they're the people who break down most easily."

Living together for months on end, a Cirque touring company is like a big, sprawling family. But for the 160 members of the Mystère cast and crew, who drive to work each day from houses in the suburbs, the circus is a job.

Backstage at Mystère, any New Age mystique quickly falls away. The facilities are cramped, the decor spartan. Between the two evening shows, performers stroll around half out of costume, in pink spandex shorts and white greasepaint. The artists' lounge is thick with cigarette smoke. A group huddles around a video of the show that has just ended. A pool game is in progress. And two acrobats in whiteface play a deadly serious game of table tennis; they look like a parody of a Bergman film.

Down the hall in the physiotherapy room, Lizard Girl lies on a massage table, groaning as a therapist slides a chunk of ice up and down her calf muscle. Lizard Girl is Andrea Ziegler, a pixieish dancer with lively green eyes and short orange hair. "I jammed my leg," she says. "They don't know what it is." Pumped with anti-inflammatories, she will still be able to dance, but alone: Lizard Boy is out with a broken ankle.

Ziegler is new. The 25-year-old dancer was recruited to Mystère from the Toronto cast of Phantom of the Opera in December. Her job is to leap around the stage and look as much like a lizard as is humanly possible. "It's much more carefree than Phantom," she says. "When I came here I had one rehearsal and they just threw me in. Here everyone's really cool. What's so unique about this show is that backstage all the artists are watching what's going on from the wings, or on TV monitors. They're cheering and rooting for each other."

As for the Vegas life, Ziegler has no complaints, aside from missing her husband, who is a student back in Toronto. "I share a really nice house in the suburbs with another dancer. A lot of the artists who have been here a long time have a lot of money. They have their houses with their pools and their four-wheel-drive vehicles." But there is still some circus spirit, even in Vegas. In April, many of the Mystère cast gathered in a spectacular stretch of Nevada desert called the Valley of Fire for a lesbian wedding - between the stage manager and the wardrobe mistress. "We all sang," says Zeigler. "The musicians played. And at the end, as a surprise, 10 of us stood in a circle and sang Fools Rush In - we'd secretly rehearsed it for three days backstage. They were crying. I was crying. It was beautiful."

After a performance of Mystère, a dark-eyed Bulgarian gymnast is all aflutter after meeting Bruce Willis, who visited backstage with his three daughters after the show. Mikhail Matorin, the Russian cube artist, seems indifferent. In four years with the Cirque, he has already met Harrison Ford, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn and Robin Williams. With his sculpted torso, high cheekbones and mane of brown hair, Matorin, 33, has a noble bearing. He grew up in the Moscow Circus, where his father was the director, his mother a trapeze artist. "Mystère is like a big machine," he says. "Touring is more fun - it's like a gypsy thing, partying all the time. But after 15 years on the road, I don't feel like it any more." Matorin now lives in a big house, with two golden retrievers, and is dating the lead dancer from Splash, a showgirl revue at the Riviera casino. Reluctantly, he is teaching his act to a Cirque colleague. Another show in town has already copied it: a Russian does a cube act down the Strip at Bally's.

Inevitably, Cirque du Soleil's success has spawned imitators, arty circus shows with French names. "I take it as a tribute to what we've done," says Laliberté. "But the public could be confused. When someone starts a show in the Lake Tahoe casino called Mystique with the same lettering as Mystére, it's a little obvious."

Meanwhile, as the company expands, Laliberté and his partner try to keep it agile and ahead of the game. "We study lots of other corporate models," says Gauthier, citing a principle at Hewlett-Packard called "the double ladder," which allows those on the creative side, as well as management, to rise to the top. Both partners stress that they have no interest in going public with their company, which has no outside investors. "We don't even talk about it," says Laliberté. "We're having too much fun playing in our own sandbox." Explains Gauthier: "We don't want the pressure of going public. One year, we might decide not to make a profit, in order to develop a new show. Or if we decide to delay a development, we don't want shareholders asking us why we didn't do what we promised."

The Cirque's two partners are an odd couple. Both are married with one daughter each and live in St-Bruno. While both are clearly astute businessmen, Laliberté plays the dreamer while Gauthier is the money man. "It can be difficult sometimes," says Gauthier. "We have the same basic values, but we don't have the same lifestyles - I'm more conservative. The two sides need each other: if we want to fulfil all these dreams, it's going to take money."

The Cirque takes risks that do not always pay off. It entrusted its director, Franco Dragone, with making a $7-million dramatic feature called Alegría, a surreal art film that its North American distributors say has little commercial potential. Meanwhile, new windows of opportunity continue to open up. The Cirque has turned down offers to stage shows for opera companies and rock stars. To fill its expanding cast, it holds mass auditions every month in different cities around the world. And it has programs to teach disadvantaged children circus skills in Montreal, Quebec City, Amsterdam, Las Vegas - and in the urban slums of Chile and Brazil. For all its international ambitions, the Cirque retains its Quebec identity. "We're born here," says Laliberté. "Our head office is here. And we bring a part of Quebec around the world whenever we set up our big top." But he stresses politics do not enter the picture. "Cirque is more universalist than nationalist. We believe in one world. It's a philosophical thing."

The Cirque du Soleil's founding director still talks like a visionary whose goal lies forever beyond the horizon. "After 14 years," he says, "we've done nothing. The real test will be the next 10 years." Under the Cirque's ever-expanding big top, the former fire-breather seems to have found his place in the sun - but he is still the boy from St-Bruno, running away to join the circus that has yet to be invented.

Maclean's July 27, 1998