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Hollywood stars align for Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberte

With 'Iris' set for a summer debut at Kodak Theatre and a New York production in the works, Cirque creator Laliberté has cemented his influence worldwide. Not bad for a one-time street performer.

December 05, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

A few days ago at Hollywood & Highland, a smooth-scalped man in a black leather jacket, jeans and sneakers got a red-carpet treatment that royalty might envy.

Not one, but two, L.A. City Council members took turns gushing over him. His fellow countryman, the director James Cameron, praised the honoree as a theatrical magus who conjures "living dreams," populated with aerialists, acrobats and clowns that are actually amusing. Then, as a beaming Hollywood Chamber of Commerce representative looked on, Guy Laliberté, the press-shy billionaire founder and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, stepped forward to unveil his and Cirque's shiny new star, the 2,424th on the Walk of Fame.

The VIP theatrics were telling. On July 21, the Montreal-based Cirque will pull the drapes off its latest high-flying extravaganza, the Hollywood-themed "Iris." The new show has a 10-year contract to perform at the Kodak Theatre in the Hollywood & Highland Center, which annually hosts the Academy Awards ceremony but has had trouble filling its cavernous 3,400-seat enclosure year-round.

Written and directed by French dancer-choreographer Philippe Decouflé, who staged the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Winter Olympics, with music by Danny Elfman, "Iris" is shaping up both as a valentine to the movie industry and a mash note to the city that, perhaps more than any outside Canada, has put Cirque's blue- and gold-striped tent on the global map. Over the years, Laliberté said, Cirque has conducted "a love affair" with L.A., and in an interview he spoke of how working on "Iris" has fired up the group's creative juices.

"This opportunity for Cirque du Soleil to pay tribute to an industry that has an amazing history, we were like little kids in a candy store," said the 51-year-old impresario, who likes to depict Cirque, one of the world's most lucrative entertainment brands, as a humble troupe of hard-working acrobats, and still regards himself as the scrappy Quebec street busker he started out as 30 years ago. Never mind that he's now one of the world's 500 or 600 richest people, a recipient of the Order of Canada (his nation's top honor), anda top-tier philanthropist in environmental causes.

So far, Laliberté and his colleagues have revealed few details about "Iris" ( pronounced, in the French-Canadian mode, more like ee-rees than eye-ris). But they acknowledge that it will reference specific films and characters, and that the design will include projected images. "There's so much history in [the] cinema industry that was very inspiring," Laliberté said.

City officials, retailers and tourism promoters hope that Cirque's Hollywood residency will provide a major infusion of visitors and cash to the theater and the shops and restaurants that surround it. "Iris," with a cast of 75 performers and a cost of $100 million, including theater renovation, is contracted for a minimum of 368 performances a year. Cirque plans to use a roughly 2,500-seat configuration by closing off part of a balcony, and is excavating 45 feet under the Kodak stage to accommodate its sprawling sets. Tickets will run from $43 to $133, and higher for VIP packages.

The theater is part of the Hollywood & Highland Center retail complex, whose current owner, CIM Group, bought it in 2004. One of the center's biggest boosters, Council member Eric Garcetti, whose district encompasses the Babylonian-motif mall, declared at the Walk of Fame ceremony that "Iris" would draw about 2 million visitors annually and create hundreds of jobs, and "not just for the folks in the show."

Those are big expectations for the big-top ensemble, which almost single-handedly reinvented Las Vegas entertainment by mounting seven shows in custom-built theaters along the Strip. It also has full-time productions running in Tokyo; Macau, China; and Orlando, Fla. Yet another new Cirque spectacle, "Zarkana," is scheduled to open a 15-month engagement in June at New York's Radio City Music Hall and a new touring show, " Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" will launch in October.

Sounding purposeful but relaxed, Laliberté, who oversees every Cirque project, said he's not concerned about his company growing overextended. Cirque now employs 5,000 people worldwide, including 1,200 performing artists from nearly 50 different countries. "At the end, we live or die from our public, they're the ones who will decide," Laliberté said. "And at this point they're still coming, they still want more."

As for L.A., he said, Cirque has met big-time challenges here before. Founded in 1984 by a tatterdemalion band of jugglers, stilt-walkers and fire-belchers, Cirque had performed across Canada by the mid-1980s and was scouting out potential new venues, preferably in a year-round warm-weather market. The troupe made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles in 1987.

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