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September 1, 2014

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Le Factory de Cirque

In a remote corner of Montreal, plans for world domination are laid

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

Cirque du Soleil gives a sneak preview of Viva Elvis at CityCenter’s Aria Resort & Casino on Dec. 15, 2009.

The world headquarters for Disney features a mammoth topiary ode to Mickey's famous ears. The home of Hershey has its own chocolate-themed town. And, of course, the mothership for NBC is also the site of the most famous Christmas tree and ice-skating rink in the world.

So everyone, squeeze your eyes shut and imagine the incubator for the fantastical, surrealist imagination that brought us flying stages, strawberry fields of bubbles and a grown man playing a baby bouncing a gigantic ball into an audience. What do you see? Maybe a Frank Gehry? Surely such a place demands something a little avant garde, a little rock 'n' roll and a lot of bright color. Right?

Or not.

Apple is at 1 Infinity Loop in Cupertino. IGT is on Prototype Drive in Reno. And Cirque du Soleil?

That's at 8400 2nd Avenue, where stands a boxy, four-story, metal-and-glass structure a shade of slate that matches Montreal's usual midwinter skies. It stands on the eastern, suburban edge of this Canadian metropolis, at the end of a bus line, beside a landfill and offering panoramic views of a billowing Simpsonian — although not nuclear — power plant.

Somehow, I had forgotten this. I had been here six years earlier, for a Newsweek piece in advance of Cirque's third permanent Vegas show, Zumanity. But somehow I had forgotten, until I hopped off said city bus earlier this month, just how drab and remarkably unremarkable the place appears from the outside.

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Cirque HQ in Montreal.

Of course, like anything Cirque-ish, appearances are deceptive, and there's a lot going on inside that makes more sense of the weird universe launched into the world from these parts. But a reasonable first impression is that it looks from the street like an auto plant, and Cirque president and CEO Daniel Lamarre only reinforces that notion with this factory analogy: "I can easily see Cirque developing two to three new shows a year. Right now, we have 20 shows. It doesn't matter if we have 30 or 35 shows or 40 or 50 shows."

With that remark, Lamarre is actually making a point about the importance of maintaining quality control, of having the resources and the staff to create and perform that many productions. But then again, he is totally serious about those numbers. It's staggering to imagine a world with 50 Cirque shows in it. But clearly not to him—he believes without hesitation that two or three new shows a year is a reasonable plan.

No, no. Not all in Vegas, which could be a relief to many who watch with raised eyebrows as the dominant entertainment force on the Strip prepares to officially unfurl show No. 7, Viva Elvis, at Aria, on February 19. That, of course, follows—in order—Mystère, O, Zumanity, Ka, Love and the perpetually troubled Criss Angel Believe. We'll get back to that one in a bit.

Cirque-umstantial evidence

There's virtually nothing on the outside of this $40 million, nearly 400,000-square-foot unadorned building that bespeaks Cirque. Not even an appearance by their famous smiley-sun logo. Cirque HQ is the last thing on a long east-west road that cuts through the St. Michel region of Montreal — which, I would discover the next day amid the coverage of the Haitian earthquake, is best known as home to the 125,000 immigrants who make up the world's third-largest expatriate Haitian population. The decision by Cirque to relocate there, in anticipation of a growth spurt in 1997, was something of a goodwill gesture to the home city, a way to develop a lower-income region. Nearly 2,000 people work there now, and every Cirque performer spends at least a few months up here training before being deployed.

The interior isn't particularly dazzling, either, except that the cumulative effect of it all provides a renewed respect for what Cirque does. Up front sits a cheerful receptionist, who greets visitors below a four-story windowed atrium with gunmetal walls and gangways crisscrossing above.

25 Years and Still Stilting...

Coinciding with the 25th Anniversary of Cirque du Soleil, Director of Creation Carmen Ruest stands atop her nine-feet long stilts and shares with us how people from around the world plan on breaking the world record for most people stilt-walking 100 meters at one time. The event takes place outside the Bellagio June 16th around one in the afternoon.

Black-and-white photos of scenes from a Cirque-operated youth circus program are prominently displayed, as well as portraits of the creators of the latest show, which is — for the moment — Viva Elvis. There's a trophy case that's not nearly as ostentatious as it could be: three shelves with a total of 36 honors, the most prominently displayed of which is last year's Guinness Book of World Records certificate for the most people stilt-walking at once. Missing, surprisingly, is the Grammy award earned for the soundtrack of Love. Missing, happily: any of the gazillion Review-Journal "Best of Las Vegas" banners Cirque has garnered.

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An acrobat hangs out in one of the many gymnasiums at Cirque IHQ.

International Headquarters, or IHQ as they call it here, boasts three towering gymnasium-style rehearsal spaces. The first, on the day I peeked in, contained a pair of shirtless, needless-to-say lithely muscled gymnasts practicing high-bar routines for potential placement in Mystère, while in another set designers fussed over a piece I'm not permitted to describe, for the newest touring show, directed by Robert Lepage—the title will be announced when it debuts in Montreal in April.

The third and tallest of the gyms was vacant, availing me a chance to stand underneath a net of aerial equipment as high as the highest leap of divers in O—a perspective that again reminds me that the people who work for this company are courageous lunatics.

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The mail room routes correspondence for performers posted at Cirque shows around the world.

The hallways bustle with performers in various stages of costume, babbling in any number of foreign languages, many of them with tape on their hands or legs reflecting injuries, and every single one of them with bodies that make me feel guilty about the donuts I had for breakfast. There's an immigration department devoted to handling work visas, a mail room responsible for routing correspondences for cast members roaming the globe on tours, a research library for both show creators (bios of Elvis and The Beatles abound) and theater architects (Restroom: Contemporary Design must be a page-turner.)

Cirque is known for making seemingly impossible physical feats seem easy, but at least you know as you watch that you're seeing something impressive. Few of the millions of audience members have ever wandered the IHQ, which is not open for public tours, and thus, few can know how much more of what they see they are taking for granted, too.

The makeup of Mystere

Cirque du Soleil's makeup technician Sarah Pascoe and Mystere performers offer a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation and makeup procedures that takes place before every Mystere production.

Each Cirque performer, for instance, is taught in Montreal how to do their own elaborate makeup, because that's easier than sending technicians all over the place to apply it for them. There are studios in which dozens of artisans work by hand on building or mending every shoe and wig, entire rooms devoted to rolls of fabric and clasps that correspond to specific costumes of particular shows. Nearly all the fabric purchased for costumes is white, then dyed, because buying pre-colored fabric risks the prospect that the manufacturer may some day discontinue that hue and performers' attires won't match anymore.

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The wall of "Creepy Heads": Cirque du Soleil makes a bust of every performer in every show.

The one part of this place that I recalled vividly was no longer there: the Creepy Heads. Cirque creates a bust of the head of every performer and keeps it on hand in case a particular headpiece needs mending or altering. Back in 2003, they were all in one incredibly freakish space, but seven years and a dozen shows have created a tremendous number of heads, and they're now spooking some other facility; artisans simply summon a messenger to retrieve whichever Creepy Head they need.

Four of those dozen shows are, of course, in Vegas.

Cirque-umnavigation

As I sit down with Lamarre in an office as sparsely decorated as the exterior of the edifice, I realize it is telling that I am having a conversation with this man at all. Last time, I met with the worldwide face of Cirque, Guy Laliberte, the chrome-domed former stilt-walker and fire-eater whose office, on the opposite end of same floor, I recall as being adorned with Houdini and P.T. Barnum memorabilia—the sort of tchotchkes you might expect.

But now Lamarre, 56, is largely in control here, having left his gig as president of TVA Group, Quebec's largest private TV broadcaster, in 2001 and ascended to CEO in 2006. That liberated Laliberte to gallivant the globe searching for ideas and talent and, most recently, to escape the earth altogether as a $47 million space tourist dropping in on the International Space Station. Laliberte owns 80 percent of Cirque (he sold off a chunk of stock to Dubai last year), so he does have final say, but Lamarre is his man in Montreal.

A small, calm fellow with a small mop of stringy salt-and-pepper hair, Lamarre favors frameless tinted glasses and colorful striped button-down shirts. He first came into contact with Cirque back in the 1980s, when he donated his public relations work to the ragtag, then-penniless Cirque troupe, as a service to the arts.

That was, of course, before Cirque staged the tent spectacle Nouvelle Experience at the Santa Monica Pier in 1990. It was seen by Steve Wynn, who brought it to the Mirage parking lot in 1992, where it was a hit and begat Vegas' first permanent Cirque show, Mystère, in 1993. After that, Laliberte never needed charity again. The company is on track to sell $1 billion in tickets for the first time, either this year or next, Lamarre says.

If you found it reassuring that there's no plan at the moment for 50 Cirques in Vegas, not so fast. Only two things prevent yet another Vegas production from actually happening: the fact that the company is the exclusive "content provider" (Lamarre's term) for MGM Mirage in Las Vegas and that, for the moment, MGM is all out of vacancies.

"I always have the same conversation with Jim: 'Do you have a theater for us?'" Lamarre says, referring to Jim Murren, the MGM Mirage CEO. "But at the same time, it's a two-way street. I cannot just take a theater from Jim Murren. I have to come to him with some content."

Murren's restraint is somewhat remarkable. There was a Cirque concept offered up for the Mandalay Bay Theatre — nobody has told me what it was, other than that it existed — but recession-era MGM didn't have the dough to overhaul a perfectly functional showroom last year, while it was busy digging between every nearby seat cushion for the loose change to finish CityCenter.

Also, the timing was off, inasmuch as Mamma Mia! was departing in January, and Cirque already had its Vegasy arms full with opening Believe in late 2008 and Viva Elvis by last December. Now Mandalay Bay has a surprisingly durable hit in The Lion King; originally seen as a one- or two-year placeholder, it is doing impressive business. Or, as Lamarre demurely puts it, "My understanding is that showroom is not available any longer."

The contracts given recently to Lance Burton and Frank Caliendo seem to denote that MGM isn't planning to Cirque up the Monte Carlo any time soon, and a once-expected plan to replace the 16-year-old Mystère became moot when new Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin extended the show to at least 2016. Ruffin also can't replace it with another Cirque show anyway, per Cirque's exclusive MGM deal. That leaves Excalibur and Circus Circus, neither of which MGM cares enough about to commit to a fancy $100 million-plus theater.

But that doesn't mean Lamarre is done: "I still have a lot of markets to conquer around the world."

Cirque-ling the wagons

Lamarre's roots are in public relations, and he retains his gift for spin.

Viva Elvis Preview

Cirque du Soleil brings Elvis back to the Strip with "Viva ELVIS" at Aria in CityCenter.

An example: When I complain to him that the $150 million Viva Elvis Theater at Aria is a technological and acoustical letdown—no speakers in the seats for a show about a musical icon?—and compare it to the stunning structures that house O, Ka and Love, he insists that the Elvis sound system "is as sophisticated as the one in Love," and that there as are many lifts—the mechanisms to move scenery on stage—as there are in the Beatles-themed show. "People don't realize all the equipment we have in there," Lamarre says. "When you have a theater in the round, you see it more." He then suggested, to a Cirque publicist sitting in with us, to take journalists on Viva Elvis backstage tours and emphasize this—so look for that angle to be faithfully stenographed in the local media soon.

Lamarre also acts surprised when I say the buzz I've heard on Viva Elvis has been negative. As recently as mid-January, when MGM Mirage flew in 130 journalists for a three-day CityCenter junket, I was getting texts and e-mails from friends gang-bashing it as simplistic, confusing and at times dull. And these were the folks who got in for free!

Yet Cirque maintains its audience surveys show increasing satisfaction with the production and that the show won't be really ready until its official premiere. A building delay for the theater, Lamarre says, led to a rush to open by the mid-December bow of Aria, and the only way Cirque knows what to tweak is to see how it plays before an audience.

Cirque-umvention

Still, when the conversation turns to Criss Angel Believe, even a Cirque loyalist can't pretend it's all been hunky-dory.

'Believe' sneak preview

Criss Angel and crew offer a first look at the new Cirque Du Soleil production, "Believe."

"We truly think that at the beginning of the show, [Believe] was not on par with the quality of Cirque du Soleil," he says. "We have been doing a lot of changes, and we're still doing some changes, and I think Believe will deliver at the same level as the other shows. Right now we're putting all our efforts and resources to bring the show to the quality level that Criss and we deserve."

Which means what?

"We are going to be adding a lot more magic." Six new tricks, to be exact.

Ah, that would be the famous "fixation" effort that Review-Journal entertainment columnist Mike Weatherford first reported on a year ago. The rap on the show from the start was that it wasn't Cirque-ish enough for Cirque fans but also not magical enough for Angel's Mindfreak corps.

To which the next logical question is the one I ask in exactly this way: "The show's been open a year and a half. What are you waiting for?"

Lamarre is startled by that phrasing and insists that adding new illusions is complex, that you cannot "change it like this," as he snaps his fingers. Give it another three months, he says, and it'll be "to a level that we want it to be."

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Cirque du Soleil purchases all its fabric in white, then dyes it to each show's specifications.

That's a refreshing acknowledgement, but the wagons circle again when I turn to the question of what it has been like to deal with the tempestuous Angel, whose mercurial nature has prompted the necessity for Cirque to apologize on his behalf more than once. Angel threatened to blind the R-J's Norm Clarke, bellowed obscenities at Perez Hilton from the stage and offended gays by performing a trick that revealed the slur "faggot," to name a few highlights.

But, to Lamarre's mind, all of this is simply the media out to get Angel.

"I think it's very important to make sure that the values are always in the same place, and we've always been very candid with Criss about that," he says. "I think that people like to take stabs at him all the time."

In fact, not only does Lamarre not regret the partnership with the controversial star but — get this! — he hopes that the next time they pair up in such a way that the star will have Angel's intense work ethic and willingness to change and edit the production in progress. He even claims the company has been "very, very lucky" with Angel. No, really.

Oh, but there is a regret, and it's a damning doozy, because it lays bare the truth about the medium that made Angel a star in the first place: "The one thing that might have been underestimated was what the magician can do on television and what a magician can do live." Ouch.

Cirque-ling the globe

One thing nobody can deny about Cirque, though, is that they don't give up and they stand their ground, even with the bosses. Steve Wynn famously screamed at Laliberte, after a preview of Mystère, that he had created "a fucking German opera." And it not only succeeded without any significant changes but launched an empire. Lamarre recalls serious consternation about the explicit homosexual content of Zumanity — although he wouldn't say from whom — and yet they didn't touch it, even as they constantly altered other components. The epic Ka opened weak and went on, Lamarre says, to be "the first time in our history of our permanent shows that it did better the second year than the first year." When Love was in development, Beatles purists were outraged that these clowns would put their oversized gloves on such sacred material; the score went on to win a Grammy.

Now, with a critical headwind against Criss Angel Believe and, possibly, Viva Elvis, Lamarre appears completely unfazed. He's also contending with slow business for Zaia at the Venetian Macao, owing to the Chinese disinterest in anything but gambling, and horrifying reviews for a less-acrobatic vaudevillian touring show called Banana Shpeel. The latter previewed in Chicago, where a critic for Variety tabbed it as a "frenetic but unfunny dollop of shtick." It's due to open in New York City in February and Lamarre says the Chicago response has been helpful in retooling the comedy.

After that, there's that as-yet-unnamed touring show, referred at IHQ as Cirque 2010, which Lamarre says is "about evolution." (A turtle figures in the signage around the IHQ, if that's any clue.) Cirque is also cooking up two new productions that break significant new ground for them in 2011, one that will occupy Radio City Music Hall in New York six months of the year, and another cinema-themed show to take up permanent residency at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood year-round except for during the month of the Academy Awards ceremonies.

"I have two traveling shows in Asia but I don't have one traveling show in Europe," Lamarre says, per his earlier remark that there are markets all over the world that have yet to be Cirque'd. He wants two or three new shows opening every year, and that would mean having about nine on the boards at once, given that each takes about three years to create.

Some of those shows, inevitably, will be for Las Vegas. During a debate I had with Murren in November last month about what I saw as a tasteless decision to adorn the unfinished Harmon Hotel with a wrap advertising the production at Aria, Murren said the company is contractually obliged to put up the sign as they will be "for new Cirque shows in the future."

Cirque-it overload?

That, of course, returns us to the ongoing debate in Vegas over whether there can be too much Cirque. Wayne Newton last month said Vegas is in the latter stages of a "Cirque syndrome," and insisted that "it's on the wane, no pun intended."

Lamarre says that's wishful thinking by competitors; that as long as Cirque keeps creating shows that are distinctly different — and it's hard to claim that Viva Elvis and O have much in common — they'll keep going.

Here's why: "There's no other city than Las Vegas, not even New York. There is no other city that can afford to spend the kind of money that people are spending in Vegas on these production costs to build the best theaters in the world and go as wild as we have been going in that city."

So what's next, then, for us? This exchange may illuminate. Lamarre had noted that the Elvis show was born because the Presley estate's folks saw Love and wanted that treatment, so I asked who else had come a-calling.

Lamarre: "A lot of artists, but there are not that many iconic stars, you know? What do you do? Elvis and the Beatles are alone in their own game."

Me: "What about Michael Jackson?"

Lamarre: "Yeah, he's probably the only other icon I can imagine that would be of interest. Maybe Madonna, perhaps. We're talking about people that will turn our creators on."

Me: "Is there any movement right now towards a Michael Jackson show?"

Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis

Cirque du Soleil's Viva Elvis. The costumes were designed by Stefano Canulli. Launch slideshow »

Lamarre: "No."

Me: "No discussions, no talks?"

Lamarre: "No."

Me: "Is it too soon? Do you think there's a certain cooling-off period right after the most recent round of Michael Jackson frenzy?"

Lamarre: "Yeah."

Me: "You do."

Lamarre: "Yeah, that's what I think. I'm not saying no, not saying no to anything at this point in time. But we are focused right now on delivering Elvis."

So the big question that remains is whether the Cirque library will be stocking up on Martin Bashir interviews or copies of Sex, and whether the artisans will someday be beading white gloves or building mammoth conic brassieres. But rest assured, Cirque No. 8 will be upon us before we know it.

Vegas "is the most important entertainment city in the world," Lamarre says. "And it always will be the most important city to us."

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