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ROBERT EPSTEIN

Those Daring Young Men in the Cirque's Front Office

March 02, 1991|ROBERT EPSTEIN

What garlic is to life, loud is to the circus.

Not always. Take a look inside the big blue and yellow tent off the 405 Freeway in the parking lot of South Coast Plaza where Canada's Cirque du Soleil is holding forth. There, majestic among the band's amplifiers and Fenders, is something older even than the circus, an acoustic, stand-up string double bass. Unplucked and bowed, daring solos come from it, all done without benefit of net or spotter.

Clearly, any circus with a mellow, deep bass fiddle has a message to tell.

And the message: If you build it . . . they will come.

Canada's Cirque du Soleil is an example of inventive and imaginative building, a prospering circus during a time of hit-or-miss success rates for the more traditional three-ring, hardtop indoor shows. Cirque is also an example of how a growing number of arts and entertainment companies diversify themselves, becoming self-contained mini-conglomerates in order to stay financially strong. It's not enough anymore to count on the box office and the popcorn machine.

In Hollywood it is called secondary sales where spin-off companies or divisions distribute home videos, record albums, cable and television shows and produce souvenir merchandise from sweatbands to sweat shirts. In television it is called syndication, reruns, even the selling of transcripts and cassettes.

In art galleries and museums, it is the gift shop.

That bass fiddle among the brass is just one small sign of the imaginative measures Cirque du Soleil takes in producing a new type of circus and at the same time building an audience following in the United States. It started and has remained a most untraditional traveling big-top show. It has no wild animals. No three rings. No sawdust. No stars. No long-term performers. No hawkers under canvas. And no creditors waiting in line to grab the day's receipts.

The average age of its 150 roadshow employees is 24. Its executives are in their very early 30s. Its performers work only two years and then move on. The show itself changes totally every two years. None of the original acts has remained. Unlike most other circuses, it is a themed show with its performers acting out a story. Its lighting and stage effects are space age and high-tech. Eighty-five percent of its engagements are in the United States, heavily along the Pacific Coast.

Paradoxically, much of what Cirque has done could also describe the very early American circuses. That's the belief of Robert L. Parkinson, a circus historian and research director of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., where Ringling got started 107 years ago. Early American circuses also were based on story lines: A visitor comes to town, for example, and discovers wondrous things as he moves from performer to performer. The early circuses had no wild animals, but they did have equestrian acts. Early circuses invented new forms of entertainment. Many, like the human cannonballs and the lion tamers, became circus traditions. "Circuses always had a tradition of variety and newness," he says. "They suffered in the 1960s, though. The recession kept people away and killed off some circuses. Television ate into the audiences. Those circuses that stuck it out saw inflation bring ticket prices to a more attractive level."

Cirque du Soleil is also carrying on another, almost ancient circus tradition. It makes money, conceivably Canada's answer to balance of payments.

While its parent is a nonprofit company, Cirque turns a profit. It has expanded in tour dates and earnings in an era where the number of American circuses have dwindled to 100, with only three able to take limited national tours. Cirque more recently grossed $25 million in one tour. The subsidy provided by various Canadian government agencies to form Cirque in 1984 and to send it to Los Angeles four years ago has dropped from 95% of budget to less than 7% this year.

What has helped power the Cirque organization along with its strong showmanship and marketing is its financial organization. The parent holding company is Le Groupe du Soleil Inc., and in its short history has developed a number of related businesses, self-sufficient spin-offs. In effect, they've sent in the clones.

Cirque du Soleil Productions is the traveling circus, the one that opened the first Los Angeles Festival in 1987 in an empty downtown lot. It has twice returned to Southern California and when it closes its current West-Coast run after hitting San Francisco, Santa Monica, San Diego and Costa Mesa it will head east for New York before summering back home in Canada. It produces 300 shows a year, only 85 of which are staged in Canada.

Early on the Telemagik company was formed. It is a video company that has produced and marketed cassettes, developed television specials for HBO and the Canadian Broadcasting Co., and is working on new TV and movie projects.

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