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The Biggest Cirque on Earth

Cirque du Soleil, once a small troupe of performers with a soaring dream, today balances art and commerce throughout the world.

September 22, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

When Gilles Ste. Croix, a street performer in Montreal, became one of the founding members of Cirque du Soleil, the last thing he would have imagined was that someday he would find himself sitting in a Santa Monica hotel talking about a $100-million industry forging mega-deals with Las Vegas hotels, European real estate developers and 30,000-acre theme parks.

But that's exactly what he's doing--and he doesn't want to. Ste. Croix, 46--who used to fly through the air, launched from a teeter-board, and land on stilts in Cirque's first show--is bored with earthbound concepts like profits and box office.

"We were just trying to make a show and live off our art," he says. Numbers? "I don't know, I have no idea," he says. "I would say a number, and I might be wrong. I don't say numbers. I don't learn them, and I don't say them."

Ste. Croix, the troupe's director of creation, would rather talk about the theme of its ninth production, "Quidam," opening Wednesday in Santa Monica. "Quidam is a Latin word meaning anonymous and unknown," he says. "We are at the end of a millennium. We always pick a theme that is close to our lives, and everyone is concerned about what the end of the millennium will be like. . . . Through technology of the past 10 years, there is now a global community, but at the same time we have become more and more lonely, more individually separated; the community feeling has been forgotten.

"There have been many changes in the past five years, and there will be more in the next five. We talk about the individuals who are suffering the changes, but they don't have a word to say about it. So quidam is the scream of all the quidams, to wake up and make themselves known."

Ste. Croix doesn't want to talk about the numbers. But in the second year of Cirque's second decade, the numbers are too big to be ignored.

In 12 years, Cirque du Soleil--French for "Sun Circus"-- has transformed from an eccentric show-biz quidam into a popular global commodity with four touring shows, one permanent show in Las Vegas and three new permanent productions slated for the near future--in Vegas, at Disney World and in Berlin.

The troupe is also looking at film and television, as well as more international shows. As Cirque continues to grow, balancing art and commerce has become as precarious an act as anything you'll see under its blue and yellow big top at the Santa Monica Pier.

"The people who created Cirque, some of them were performers, and some of them were entrepreneurs," marketing director Jean David says. "So we found out it was very important to marry the relationship between the arts and the business, the culture and the business--it was extremely important if we want to survive. We are the kind of people who, when we learn something, we learn it forever. And we learned that at the very beginning."

The Cirque machine has its entrepreneurs, but it is also an organization in which a publicist is as likely to have walked the tightrope in an early show as to have studied communications in college. Although it is big business, it still contains plenty of renegades like Ste. Croix, who describes the show as "acrobatics with emotion."

Cirque was born in 1984 when Ste. Croix, founding member Guy Laliberte and a small circle of French Canadian street players put a tent over their heads and reinvented the circus as we know it. The players had already begun performing together in local festivals in the early '80s, calling themselves Les Echassiers.

Laliberte was the chief negotiator in bringing the troupe here for its U.S. debut at the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, an offshoot of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, in a tent at 1st and Alameda streets. Back then, festival artistic director Robert Fitzpatrick said the festival could offer Cirque only minimal financial guarantees, so its decision to venture to L.A. meant taking a substantial risk.

"Other festivals wouldn't touch them because it wasn't quite 'cultural' enough, and towns looking for a standard circus were used to dealing with horses and elephants," says Fitzpatrick, who was first mesmerized by the troupe in Toronto on a trip with his daughter, then 12.

He decided instantly to showcase Cirque as the festival's opening performance, though Peter Brook's nine-hour "Mahabarata," was the more obvious choice because it was a more serious entry with extensive artistic credentials.

Cirque sold out every night, says Fitzpatrick, former chairman of Euro Disney and now dean of the Columbia School of the Arts in New York. "If I'd been smart, and rich, I would have paid all of their costs and taken 10%," he adds ruefully.

Even in its early days, Fitzpatrick says, the Cirque clan was hardly wide-eyed when it came to business: "That's part of the savvy myth they have created. For all the 'naivete' and street smarts they are supposed to have instead of MBAs, these guys can negotiate like Michael Ovitz and still come off well."

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