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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The BBC Calls, Wanting to talk Cirque du Soleil (for Sale), My Take on Guy Laliberte and the Canadians Fearing He'll Desert Them

Got an e-mail last Thursday from BBC World Service.  Might I be up for a brief ten minute chat on a Cirque du Soleil item? Why not, sure, I'm here.  I like being interviewed with no advance on the questions.  Toss 'em at me on the spur; keeps my brain cells in motion, my rushed answers more apt to land spot-on when hot-on.  After all, an interview should be an interview, right?

So, that evening here (4:30 AM, London time, there), Dominic Laurie, a Business Presenter for BBC, called me with questions circling news that Guy Laliberte is now offering 90% of his ownership to outside investors, causing Canadians to fear that he is about to desert them.  Here is what I tossed Laurie's way -- not exactly in these words:

In the beginning, CDS produced an infallible magic that lasted for years. They could do no wrong, and then, the world changed, as always it does. Laliberte could not control his lust for spreading out into more venues, inking contracts for 10-year runs from one city after another, New York to LA, and over in China and elsewhere. Reckless confidence.



The contracts lined up like doomed dominoes, and, likewise, soon came cascading down into an embarrassing heap of fiascoes, one after another, four or five in a row. The product was getting denigrated in over-expansion, over-saturation.

The Cirque King’s most strategic blunder: Not closing his vaudeville stage show, Banana Shpeel, out of town in Chicago, where it had reaped critical and consumer disdain, but stubbornly pushing it onto New Yorkers.  All of which marked Cirque in Big Apple eyes as just another desperate player wanting to take Broadway on a lark.

That old infallible magic was beginning to fade. Other denigrations to the product: Throwing shows originally presented under enchanted tents, into large humdrum arenas, making them look and sound more common.   Desperation invaded the box office. The product was being diluted. Don’t like those words "product" and "diluted," but they fit.


What about the Canadian government? That’s what Laurie most wanted to talk about   Sure.  In essence, Canadian taxpayers funded Cirque in the begriming, about up to a million and a half, giving the show so many years to make it on its own. Great smart idea, I told Laurie. In around five seasons, Cirque du Soleil had weened itself off the subsidies.  


Here’s where a budding morality play gains traction: Given that, minus government start-up money, it's doubtful there would have ever been a Cirque du Soleil as we know it, does Laliberte bear a moral obligation to keep the headquarters in Montreal? A lot of people up there, fearing the worst as Mr. Circus goes looking for buyers, believe he does, even though he, or those who buy him out, can go wherever they want, Nepal to New Jersey.

When I fearfully projected that, without the Cirque King continuing to rule, the whole complicated operation might in time come tumbling down, the man interviewing me seemed to react as if I were, well, a little bit out of my range.  Came his most skeptical question --  Why?

Big sigh on my end. Pressing myself to a point, I talked about Steve Jobs, who had groomed Tim Cook to take over Apple. And I implied that I don’t think Laliberte has ever done such a thing. I mentioned Kenneth Feld grooming his three daughters to take over as Ringling producers.

That's about the gist of it, dressed up rhetorically for this post.

So, one of the greatest circus impresarios who ever lived seems very alone in his ominously shrinking kingdom. Some prospective investors last year pulled out when, given access to the books, they came upon unsettling evidence of a disintegrating balance sheet.

You can’t get much more than that in ten minutes, though I did, tracing Cirque's artistic roots back to the Russians -- in reply to Laurie's wanting to know what made the Cirque version of circus so special. Okay. There it was. It was fun, walking a rhetorical high wire to a drum beat incessantly pushing for a shorter act. Being grilled by, of all mortals, a business reporter!

I wonder if my voice even went out over UK airwaves.

Update, 3/31/15:  It did!  A tad scratchy, but I was pleased with two of the points I made that got quoted -- about Cirque's rapid rise on the world stage after the 1987 L.A. date, and how intelligently the Canadian govt had funded them in the beginning -- giving them so many years to make it on their own before the funding would end.

BTW: The BBC World Service, I've just discovered, reaches the largest broadcast audience in the world, about 200 million people a week, and in 28 languages.

The most thrilling moment in Los Angeles. 1987: this one act, by Amelie Demaiy and Eric Varelas, seductively scored to a tango, sensually choreographed straight through, not a breech in the fabric, brought down the house and sealed the show's fate in LA.  Overnight, Cirque du Soleil's acclaim skyrocketed from local to global.

All photos, from the 1987 program magazine for the Los Angeles Arts Festival run:
* Guy Laliberte, left, with his first artistic director, Guy Caron
* The tent that went to Los Angeles.
* Some of the company members
* Progaram magazine message of good will from one of many government sponsors, Benoit Bouchard, Minister of Employment and Immigration
* The penguin-businessmen tetterboard act
* Chinese Trick-Cycling riders from Beijing
* Demay and Varelas

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Next stop on this thread: My interview, six years back, for Phil Weyland’s documentary on Miguel Vazquez, The Last Flyer, to be uncorked down in Sarasota, come April.

From a welcome message from Phil, seems I escaped the cutting room floor.  I have a few cameos in the film. Tell you more about it soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

From a Bang to a Whimper: New Book, The Greatest Shows on Earth, Celebrates Some, Snubs Others


Book Review
The Greatest Shows on Earth:  A History of the Circus
Linda Simon
Reaktion Books

There is a great feeling of excitement stepping into the opening pages of Linda Simon’s promising new book, The Greatest Shows on Earth.  Jumping quickly into the ring, she grabs hold of what circus is all about:

“It started like this: Someone captivated attention by doing what others could not do.”

Her tour takes us back by more than a thousand years to find evidence of performing bears, jugglers and the like, and then moves forward, to find them all (eventually) joined gloriously together in one showmanly stroke of good fortune by English horse rider Phillip Astley, in effect creating the first “circus” show in London.  The year was 1770.



Astley, something of an early day Guy Laliberte, would go on to operate 19 circus amphitheaters in France and England .  One of his disciples, Bill Rickets, would bring Astley’s form of circus to America.

And from there, the Americans, thanks to a little help from ballyhoo master P.T. Barnum, would grow a one-ring show into spectacular proportions, taking three rings and two platforms to  London’s Olympia in 1899, for a three month winter run.  The reception was so great,  they added seven thousand seats to the five thousand already in place

 “The American style circus “ writes our tour guide, “took London by storm.  After the opening, it was impossible to get tickets ...  Unless you ordered them for weeks ahead."


So lifted were my spirits by how Simon followed these and other watershed moments, that I  expected a major literary achievement ahead,  both entertaining, informative, and complete.

Complete, sad to report, “A History of the Circus” is  far from.  Incredibly far from.  The big picture Simon so skillfully composes in her early chapters eventually dwindles down to a minuscule portrait of today’s niche shows.  Hard to believe how she could have overlooked the entire Soviet-to-Russian circus empire, which remains a major player out there in the real world.  From Russia’s creative roots, Cirque du Soleil would, years later, rise, to become a global phenomenon.   Even Cirque gets short shirt in this curiously under-researched tome.  Charged with favoring "spectacle" over true "artistry" — a tired knee-jerk put down by envious rivals, previously labeled against Ringling-Barnum — Cirque clearly deserved much more from the author.

Another legendary 20th century impresario, John Ringling North, barely escapes being ignored as well.   Were it not for his famous elephant ballet, he might have been.  The felds — remember them? — do not make the final cut.  Not even a cameo!  For an academic writer embarking on a project so sweeping in its heralded scope, not to spotlight the Russians (nor, for that matter, the Chinese) is simply inconceivable — tantamount to a book on world cinema leaving out Hitchcock or Fellini.  Perhaps on library shelves, where Simon appears to have spent most of her time, she failed to come across anything about the Russians, other than their Moscow Circus School, which she mentions only in passing.



As well as containing minor errors (dates, etc. ), more troubling still are some rather novel assertions, a couple of which:

During the five-year period while Barnum & Bailey was touring Europe (1897-1902),  “the Ringlings made their biggest advances, performing in arenas rather than under tents” Oh?

“Gunther Gebel Williams did not use a whip, chair, or pistol”  Not a whip?  I don’t recall ever seeing him without one, nor do the photos I have.


And there are missing icons, such as arguably the greatest juggler of our era, Anthony Gatto, and surely the greatest flyer of all time, Miguel Vazquez.  All of which made me wonder what else is wrong or misleading.

The rarely plodding Simon is a most engaging writer — there is plenty here to enjoy and savor. She draws from many great writers and artists who have found inspiration around the sawdust rings.  She  explores clowns and animals, among the usual topics, with a fine gift for nuance and balance.  And you will not feel being lectured to by an edgy feminist.   She is good at evoking the erotic undertones of early circus shows, and of how the circus, then about the only game in town, held such sway over the public. She gives voice to the reactions of people from long ago, of how the circus coming to town thrilled them.  She reveals a particular fondness for freaks, giving the side show perhaps more time than it merits in a long penultimate chapter bordering on the gratuitous, just before the big parade peters out into alternative circus land, exemplified in the photo below. 


Thus does the book fall woefully short of a greater mark that its author clearly has the talent to have reached:  Instead of the story advancing onto the great victories of the Russians, of Cirque du Soleil and of today’s still-powerful Ringling shows, not to mention world circus festivals -- instead of that,  Simon ends up, of all places, in Berkeley California.  There, she talks to Shana Carroll, in her youth a performer with the long-gone Pickle Family Circus, then co-founder of Seven Fingers, one of the more successful of many fringe groups struggling to find and hold an audience, and to others of a like minded advocacy.  The short list of interviews is small, narrow, limiting.   As to their claim that those larger and glitzier shows are all about "spectacle" — heck, when I want to see the best acts on the planet, I go looking for and expecting to find them at Ringling or Big Apple, or under a Cirque du Soleil tent.  Even under a smaller U.S. top.

I was left to wonder if Simon has ever actually seen a Cirque show – indeed, any circus?



The book is ideally designed to give both text and the handsome photographs ample space, the reader, a very good view of it all.  What is there, make no doubt, kids, is well worth recommending.

All photos from The Greatest Shows on Earth, published by Reaktion Books, starting from above:
Astley's Amphitheater,  1808-11
Banner act, 1875
James Tissot, Women of the Circus 1883-85
Lolo''s Flight Through the Balloons, c. 1870s
The Circus Girl, 1897
A Zingaro show, 2012
Early cannon act, 1887
Forepaugh & Sells poster, 1899
Lillian Leitzel and clown, date unknown