Cirque's mid-life crisis

Cirque du Soleil became a global success by transforming audience’s expectations of what a circus could be. But after a quarter century, has its avant-garde style become stale?

Broadway’s newly renovated Beacon Theatre has been vacant for the past 2½ months. Instead of filling empty seats, it has accumulated dust. The landmark theatre has been ready for Cirque du Soleil to debut its new show, Banana Shpeel, since Feb. 2, but Cirque delayed the opening three times.

When the vaudeville-inspired Banana Shpeel was put before critics at a preview run in the Chicago Theater last November and December, the response was abysmal. Tony Adler, associate editor at the Chicago Reader, was one of the first critics to see Shpeel. He called the performance a failure, one that radiated desperation. The worst of it, says Adler, were the abusive clowns. “The audience spends so much time with the clowns, Wayne and Daniel, and they’re both just so obnoxious and mean,” he says. “There were some highlights in the show, of course. The dancers were good and some of the acrobatic acts were amazing. But the clowns have no redeeming qualities. It became painful to watch.”

After the brief Chicago showcase, Shpeel was supposed to première in New York on Feb. 4. But due to the changes so obviously necessary after the Chicago run, it is now slated to open at the Beacon on April 29. Shpeel is booked for an open-ended run, with plans to tour afterward. Cirque hopes to use Banana Shpeel to prove to New Yorkers that it can carry a new, permanent show at the Radio City Music Hall next spring.

But more important, it hopes that Shpeel will affirm that there is still a lot of life in the Cirque du Soleil brand. A reputation for creativity and innovation has long been Cirque du Soleil’s strength. Its performances reimagined the stale traditions of the circus, and the masses ate it up. But as the brand expanded and its interpretation became identifiable worldwide, Cirque’s acts became the mainstream, rather than avant-garde. The Cirque brand itself risks becoming stale, which is why there is so much riding on the $20-million new production in New York.

But instead of a big hit to drum up some hype in the city that never sleeps, Cirque’s got Shpeel on its plate, and it isn’t the sort of entrance the 26-year-old company was hoping for. Cirque du Soleil has delighted more than 90 million spectators in 200 cities with its stunning acrobats, moody music and shellacked face paint. Its hit shows tour around the globe like satellites. But despite this momentum, attempts to wow audiences with a “roller-coaster mix of performance styles inspired by vaudeville that blends comedy with tap, hip hop, eccentric dance and slapstick” completely missed the mark.

In theory, a vaudeville show could be a promising venture. The variety of acts should appeal to a broad audience, and initial buzz that Cirque had scored Broadway stars Annaleigh Ashford and Michael Longoria seemed promising. But both performers were dropped and their characters written out of the show in late October. A Cirque du Soleil spokesperson said that these changes were just part of the creative process.

When Cirque was rapidly building its brand in the early ’90s, there was a sense that new ideas and departures were a part of Cirque forging its path, but the reluctance of audiences to warm to Shpeel shows they’ve developed higher expectations. “Go back 10 years, and they were introducing new shows, themes and ideas,” says Matt Thomson, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business who specializes in relationships between consumers and brands. “But what was similar amongst those shows was a core of hedonic thrills and aesthetically amazing acrobatics. Now, vaudeville? That’s a pretty big step out. That’s like Chevrolet making bicycles.”

The term “surreal” has become so synonymous with the company’s transcendental acrobatics that it is now a cliché. Cirque depends on that powerful association with awe-inspiring acts to keep audiences coming back, but that connection is also what makes a show like Banana Shpeel such a risky departure and a difficult sell. Yet it may also be a mark of the company’s powerful mass appeal that it can calmly take these kinds of risks. After all, the main reason critics and audiences find the show so objectionable is because they are both loyal to, and emotionally invested in, the founding concept of what Cirque du Soleil’s name stands for.

“There’s a fine line between brand fatigue, and the idea that a brand has really and truly penetrated the culture,” says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “Everybody has heard of Cirque du Soleil. Anything, these days, that’s over a quarter century old has got to have the sense of getting a little long in the tooth, but with that comes total brand identity.”

Mario D’Amico, senior vice-president of marketing at Cirque du Soleil, says the company is determined to make Banana Shpeel work, and while the initial reviews weren’t what he was hoping for, he doesn’t sound terribly concerned with whether or not the show will go on. He talks about Shpeel missteps paternally, as if comforting a son who’s lost the big game. “One of the things Cirque continues to do is venture out to different formats and arenas where we can do shows. Banana Shpeel was intended to go after the Broadway model, where there’s no big top. We were going to work within the confines of the stage.”

Cirque has tried to move its brand beyond the onstage spectacle aspect of the shows before. In 2005, Cirque du Soleil teamed up with Celebrity Cruises to bring vacationers A Taste of Cirque du Soleil, which involved 30-minute performances offered onboard Celebrity’s Constellation and Summit cruise ships, where travellers could enjoy three acrobatic performances and roaming characters from Cirque du Soleil. The partnership lasted a couple of years, but then fizzled. D’Amico can’t remember exactly when the two companies split, saying only that Celebrity Cruises isn’t the same kind of company it was when that partnership made sense.

Daniel Gauthier and Guy Laliberté founded Cirque in Montreal in 1984 as a group of just 20 street performers. Since then, Cirque has become a major player in artistic entertainment and now employs more than 4,000 people from over 40 different countries. More than 1,000 of those are artists.

Gauthier cashed out in 2002 and now owns a ski mountain called Le Massif de Charlevoix in Quebec. That left Guy Laliberté, former fire-eater and accordion player, as majority owner and CEO. He continued to grow the company privately to the point where last year 15 million people saw a Cirque du Soleil show.

But while Cirque du Soleil still maintains its Canadian headquarters, its shows are most at home in Las Vegas, where they have permanently changed the landscape of entertainment. Its first Vegas production, Mystère, made its debut at the Treasure Island hotel in 1993. Cirque’s presence has since grown to seven shows scattered along the Vegas strip. Mystère is still running — in fact, Cirque has yet to close a show in Sin City. “Being private might be easier in some ways for Cirque, because it doesn’t have to meet demands of shareholders and report quarterly,” says entertainment industry analyst Harold Vogel. “It can take a longer-term view.”

Being a private company has certainly helped Cirque establish control over the Vegas market, by putting all the cards in the hands of Guy Laliberté. In 2007, he placed fourth in the World Poker Tour at the Bellagio, winning $696,220. Last fall, he spent an estimated US$35 million to travel to the International Space Station as Canada’s first space tourist, which generated media coverage that one report estimated was worth $592 million. His power in Vegas seems to stem from the fact that he doesn’t have to justify his ideas to anyone. “If you went back 25 years and explained the idea for adding an artistic flair to a bunch of street performers, if you took that to Dragon’s Den, you’d get a lot of eye rolls and people saying ‘no way,’” says Matt Thompson, “And look what they’ve done with it. If they were public, they probably wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate.”

But not everyone is enthusiastic about a continued Cirque boom. Mike Weatherford, a columnist for the Las Vegas Review Journal, wonders just how much Cirque is too much for the city. “Each time Cirque opens a show on the Strip, there is a renewed gap between the company’s ambitious plans and the skeptical local reaction,” he writes.

Richard Abowitz, a writer for Las Vegas Weekly and the Los Angeles Times has been chronicling Las Vegas for more than a decade, and he agrees with Weatherford: when it comes brand fatigue, Cirque is always a question mark. “At first, there was a sort of artistic genius behind Mystère and O. Then it was a corporate genius for understanding how to expand the brand into sex, into magic into Elvis. But what’s next?”

He’s talking about three of Cirque’s more adventurous departures. The Zumanity show, marketed as “the sensual side of Cirque du Soleil,” is a part burlesque and part cabaret adult show at the New York–New York hotel. Cirque’s foray into the world of magic came from its collaboration with Criss Angel in the Believe show at Luxor. Its most recent offering to the Vegas lineup is Viva Elvis, an unusual musical review with a $50-million budget for the show and $180 million to build the theatre. All three shows experienced some backlash. Many still refer to Believe, another departure from the Cirque brand, as the worst show in Vegas.

Abowitz does give Cirque credit for recognizing quickly how to make a Vegas show that would appeal to a broader audience. “I think they did find around Ka that they were hitting a dead end. That they had to start — I don’t want to say gimmicks, that cheapens it — but there wasn’t an artistic desire to express the Beatles or Elvis through a Cirque show, there was a commercial opportunity.”

Abowitz thinks this is why the local media dislikes Viva Elvis, but the national media have given it very good reviews. One Las Vegas reporter, for instance, predicted Viva Elvis would soon blend into the backdrop of the entertainment scene. Abowitz also agrees there are no deeper philosophical undertakings in this production, something an audience has come to expect from Cirque. “Viva Elvis is a traditional Vegas show,” he says, “They even have showgirls in it. Elvis came to Vegas, so you have a plot excuse to put them on stage, but you have a plot excuse to put all sort of Vegas things in the show. It’s way closer to Jubilee than Mystère.”

This is telling. It’s been 17 years since Mystère premièred in Vegas as the antithesis of a Vegas show. With its brooding sensuality and haunting music, the show had vision and made an artistic statement. “You’re meant to think about Mystère when you leave the theatre. It was an entirely new direction for a Vegas show, ” says Abowitz.

In some ways, Viva Elvis is the closing of that circle. It is Cirque’s first truly traditional Vegas show and manages to push the brand just that little bit further — beyond the surreal and into the realm of normal.

Viva Elvis was launched during the recession and has made it out alive, but the economic downturn still put significant pressure on the company. Cirque shows have huge budgets, which means seats must be filled.

Where Cirque shows used to be independent from the casinos and hotels they call home, with tickets sold separately from vacation packages, within the past five years it has become quite easy to find, say, a package to stay at the MGM Grand that includes credits for food and two tickets to Ka. Abowitz suggests O will stay successful because it’s in Bellagio — good match of property to show. And ties to the hotels can be an advantage when things go sour. “Luck plays a bit of a role, there’s no shame in saying that,” says D’Amico. “We have some amazing partners, especially in Las Vegas. The whole MGM Mirage group in Vegas have been incredible supporters and offered us buildings and theatres to enable our creators.”

Mystère is now the only Cirque show owned by MGM Mirage, as it went with Treasure Island when the casino and hotel was sold to Phil Ruffin about a year ago. Ruffin received a US$20-million discount for paying US$600 million in cash.

“It’s been tough,” says D’Amico of the economic climate in Vegas. “We’ve had to package our tickets with the help of our hotel partners. It’s just the quantity of tickets we have to sell is phenomenal, and we just have to pull out all the stops to sell them.” Tickets for all of Cirque’s shows, save the ever-popular O at the Bellagio, also became available at retailer Tix4Tonight.

But this isn’t necessarily a sign of saturation. “What Cirque does is fairly unique, but one of the issues they have is timing,” says Matt Thompson. And timing is a problem that he sees with Cirque’s launch in New York, too. “If you’re trying to open a new show in New York or Chicago where there are already many different entertainment options at a time when discretionary income is dropping, then it’s going to be hard to charge a premium for those tickets and hardto make an economic go of it.”

D’Amico knows the recession could have been worse for Cirque and recognizes that its dominance in the industry really pulled it through at a time where the lights were going out. “Before the recession, people were staying four or five nights and seeing three or four shows. Well, now less people are coming to Vegas, and they’re only going to see one or two shows. But that puts us in a good position, because if you’re in Vegas and only going to see one show, you might as well see a Cirque show.”

But there’s plenty of competition. Franco Dragone, who used to work for Cirque, formed his own production company in 2000. He has since staged the US$110-million production of Le Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, which initially shocked audiences with faux-pregnant women falling into water tanks, but has been scaled back into what is considered a magnificent Vegas spectacle. Dragone also directed another Quebec export, Céline Dion, at Caesar’s Palace. Her show returns for a three-year residency in March of 2011.

Still, Abowitz thinks Cirque has permanently changed the Vegas landscape. “Now even the non-Cirque shows have aerialists. Vegas is spectacle. We’re a bandwagon mentality. Cirque has become a brand-name of a generic you can get elsewhere in the city,” he says. “Even topless shows now have aerialists, which didn’t happen before Cirque.”

If Cirque is the Chanel of Vegas acrobatic shows, constantly subject to knock-offs and copycats, it will have to be wary of diluting its market with a glut of shows. “If you have a lot of fans who are attached to your brand, and I think that’s certainly the case with Cirque, you would expect that it could expand farther,” says Matt Thompson. “The perceived failure of their acts in Chicago and New York might be an indication that they’ve reached that limit of how far their brand can extend. It could be that people who really enjoy Cirque see their new efforts as a small betrayal to what the brand really is.”

That’s an integral point in defining Banana Shpeel. Cirque has seen enough blockbusting successes now to know that it can take a flop or two in the name of taking a risk — it has certainly earned that right. Rather thanlosing its edge by diversifying, maybe Cirque has proven its fans are more loyal, and more in touch with the company’s performances than ever. They expect Cirque to produce shows that astonish and inspire, and they won’t tolerate less than what they expect.

Meanwhile, Cirque’s new show, Totem, opens April 22 on the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, and seems like a safe bet. The performance will be highly acrobatic and inspired by the evolution of man.

That recipe works well for Cirque. “With any brand — and we’ve seen this with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, with Starbucks — the great dream that a brand can expand indefinitely and infinitely, of course, isn’t the case,” says Robert Thompson. “Until we find other solar systems that want to drink Starbucks and watch Cirque du Soleil, planet earth is a finite place.”

D’Amico knows Cirque has carved out its niche, but thinks that the idea of a circus troupe taking it easy, especially one born in the gutters, just isn’t right. “This company was founded on risk. It drives the founder of the company, Guy, himself. And his feeling is we’ve got to keep going. As long as there’s an audience out there that wants to see our shows, we’re going to give ’em shows.”