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Cirque du Soleil may give Hollywood a tumble

Promoters gambled and won before in L.A. The city may lend $30 million toward the latest project.

August 04, 2009|Carla Hall

Before the Cirque du Soleil performers pranced onto the outdoor stage in the sweltering heat Sunday, bushels of ice cubes were flung across the wooden floor to cool the surface for the hands and feet of dancers. A crowd of hundreds, hot but patiently watching at the Grove shopping center, cheered as if this safety step was part of the show.

Onstage, Sebastien Coin, encased in a yellow striped unitard, balanced his body horizontally on one hand and languidly eyed his rapt audience.

As dazzling as the acrobatics was the troupe's ability not to sweat. But then, the entire Cirque du Soleil organization seems not to be sweating anything in Los Angeles -- particularly its ambitious plan to create a show, install it permanently in the Kodak Theatre and present it at least 368 times a year.

Of course Cirque du Soleil's billionaire founder, Guy Laliberte, has made a habit of taking chances -- one of his biggest ones being his trip here with his then-fledgling group in 1987 to perform when he had no money to get back to Canada if the show bombed. (It didn't). Now, the company has 19 shows -- nine of them permanent -- and tours the world. Laliberte, who is training in Russia to ride on a Soyuz spacecraft next month, is also well-known for his high-stakes poker playing in Las Vegas. Blogs gossip about his supposed hefty losses. "He's never ever mentioned how much he's lost," said Cirque representative Renee-Claude Menard. "He's a risk-taker."

And so, it appears, is the city of Los Angeles. The plan to bring Cirque du Soleil here would require the city to approve a $30-million loan to the owners of the Hollywood & Highland shopping center where the Kodak -- best-known as the home of the Academy Awards show -- is located. The theater would have to be retrofitted for Cirque du Soleil. The money comes from a $350-million federal fund for the city to use on economic development. CIM Group, the company that owns the shopping complex, says the installation of the show would create 858 jobs at Hollywood & Highland in retail, restaurants and entertainment.

In addition to the city's loan, CIM would contribute $20 million to the project and Cirque du Soleil would put in $50 million.

The City Council is expected to vote to approve the loan today. Council President Eric Garcetti -- whose district includes the shopping center -- has said the show would be a magnet for tourists.

Councilman Dennis Zine has been the lone critic on the council, saying initially last week when he first found out about the project that he was concerned about concentrating the $30 million on one venture.

"Since then, we've done some research," said Zine, noting that his staff is trying to find out how well the six different and permanent Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas are selling. Zine said he still would probably not vote to approve it -- if he attends the council meeting at all. A reserve police officer, he is scheduled for mandatory training today. But, he added about the project, "I am softening on it."

Zine said he was glad to know that CIM and Cirque du Soleil were contributing money to the project. "Would they invest $50 million of their own money if they thought it was going to fail?" asked the councilman, who said he has seen two Cirque du Soleil shows. He wondered if Cirque will be a big draw here. "I imagine if they're going to put $50 million in it, they're going to make it a big draw."

But hasn't everyone everywhere seen at least one incarnation of Cirque du Soleil, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary and plans a seventh permanent show in Las Vegas at the end of the year?

It doesn't matter, says James Hadley, senior artistic director for Cirque's North American shows. "Our biggest challenge is not about diluting the brand," Hadley said as he stood in the shade watching his performers go onstage at the Grove. "It's letting people know each show is different. People see Cirque du Soleil once and think, 'Well, I can cross that off my list.' One of the reasons we came to the Grove is to show how different each show is." On Sunday afternoon, performers from each of the six Vegas shows performed an excerpt from their shows.

The Kodak Theatre show would be new and centered on a history of the movies -- as befits the Hollywood location. And referring to the legendary story of Laliberte's gamble on Los Angeles in 1987, he said, "now to come back to Los Angeles is just a wonderful way to complete the circle."

"A lot of the performers in our show are from Los Angeles," said Eric Newton, who plays the cartoonishly fat usher from the Cirque show "Criss Angel Believe." "I'm from Los Angeles . . . Hollywood & Highland has fun stuff. But there's nothing this grand in a place that should have something this grand."

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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