A final bow, but no last rites
SALTIMBANCO, the 20-year-old show that opened so many doors for Cirque du Soleil, has earned immortality — and its retirement
Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco is coming home to Montreal to retire, not to expire. Cirque du Soleil creative guide Gilles Ste-Croix wants to make this distinction clear.
After 20 years of touring the world, visiting 200 cities in 48 countries, this landmark Cirque show, which premiered in 1992, is about to take a well-earned rest — again. When it finished playing the Royal Albert Hall in London in early 1997, Saltimbanco took a break, reopening in Ottawa in October 1998. In 2006 it ended its tenure as a tent show, rising again, in July 2007, as an arena show.
Now it’s back for its final run, at the Bell Centre, beginning Wednesday.
Saltimbanco, directed by Franco Dragone, has broken records for longevity. As have other Cirque shows, like Mystère, which will celebrate its 20th year in Las Vegas next year. In 2014, Alegria, which continues to tour as an arena show, will turn 20. And so on, down the list of the Cirque’s 20 still-active productions. The staying power of Cirque shows is so far beyond industry standards that they set their own. (Worldwide, Cirque du Soleil actually brings in more revenue than all of Broadway.)
But every company has its setbacks. And, in some cases, Cirque du Soleil shows really do kick the bucket. “Viva Elvis is dead,” Ste-Croix admitted during an earlymorning interview at Cirque headquarters this week.
Resuscitation is not in the cards for this tribute show, created in partnership with Elvis Presley Enterprises, which wound down at Las Vegas’s Aria Resort in August after a 2½-year run. And there’s no way the Cirque’s one notable flop, 2009’s vaudevillian Banana Shpeel, is ever going to make a comeback.
But with Saltimbanco, “I don’t like the idea that it dies,” Ste-Croix said. “I think it retires. Maybe, you know, in 10 years, 15 years, some young artists will say, ‘Hey, let’s do Saltimbanco again.’ ”
Saltimbanco was the first Cirque show to use the spoken word (a unique form of gibberish spoken by the clown Le Baron, originally incarnated by René Bazinet), and the first to feature a singer (originally Francine Poitras). The twin Steben sisters were a sensation in their duo trapeze act. The original juggler, Miguel Herrera, was amazing. The music, by René Dupéré, was remarkably eclectic. But it was the riotously coloured Saltimbanco costumes that triggered the most superlatives. As The Gazette’s former fashion editor Iona Monahan wrote after interviewing Saltimbanco costume designer Dominique Lemieux in 1996: “Who can forget those jungle-fever body stockings striped in primary colours on acrobats who shimmied up and down the Chinese poles?”
Not surprisingly, Saltimbanco was also the first Cirque show to become a sensation on television, with its performers backing up Peter Gabriel at the Grammys in 1993.
“We call it the bulldozer show,” Ste-Croix said. “It opened new markets.”
Ste-Croix, 63, a benevolent father figure at the Cirque and the original creative director of Saltimbanco, aimed to put a positive spin not only on the show’s final arena run, but on the current vulnerable state of Cirque du Soleil itself.
After the recent announcement that the Los Angeles show Iris is going to close on Jan. 19, a year and four months after its opening, a headline in the Los Angeles Times read: “Iris joins list of recent duds for Cirque du Soleil.” (Iris will be the fourth Cirque show to close prematurely since Dec. 31, 2011, including Zed in Japan, Viva Elvis in Las Vegas and Zaia in Macau.) The article posed the Icarus question: “Has Cirque du Soleil flown a little too close to the sun?”
Shortly after the Iris announcement, it was revealed in the francophone media that there had been 30 layoffs at Cirque headquarters, including three vice-presidents. In La Presse, Iris losses were estimated at $20 million (plus an initial investment of $45 million, for a total of $65 million).
Ste-Croix says seasonal layoffs happen every year at Cirque, where many people work on contract, but he doesn’t deny that the company is going through a period of adjustment. The reasons are complicated, ranging from the box-office failure of Iris to the tsunami in Japan, which precipitated the closing of the Cirque’s mega-spectacle Zed at Tokyo Disney Resort last New Year’s Eve. It has been a difficult year.
Ste-Croix admitted being worried about market saturation. What the Cirque is doing now, he said, is slowing down its pace.
“It’s a timing situation, where the market is low right now,” he said. “So there is less demand. And we have developed a lot. We are covering lots of markets.”
It’s the new ones, in South America and Asia, that are offering hope, he added.
One alteration, he said, will be less frequent visits to regular stops, like Montreal. There will be no yellow and blue big top down at the Old Port this summer, as the Cirque’s next tent show is slated to launch in the spring of 2014.
Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre has refused to comment on the Iris closure, leaving it to the head of Cirque public relations, Renée-Claude Ménard, to respond by email: “We are basically adjusting our operation to reflect our new reality of 2012. Our growth was very rapid in the last five years and production schedules and operations adjusted to that pace. We have now achieved a more normal production pace. So we are reviewing all of our operations over the next months to reflect this new reality.”
In 2013, only one Cirque show will be launched: a second Michael Jackson tribute, a permanent show scheduled to open at the Mandalay Resort in Las Vegas in June.
The first Michael Jackson show, The Immortal World Tour, produced in partnership with the Michael Jackson Estate, has essentially been printing money ever since it was launched (to mixed reviews) at the Bell Centre in October 2011. Shortly after it opened, it was rated as the top touring show in North America. Now, after conquering Europe, it’s heading to Russia in early 2013. The rest of the touring and arena shows are doing steady business. And the six remaining Vegas shows have survived the economic crisis of 2008-2009. The eldest of them, Mystère, has just been renewed for another five years. Ste-Croix describes Mystère, O, Love and Kà as “forever” shows, with no end in sight.
The new 2014 tent show is “barely started,” Ste-Croix said. Chantal Tremblay, who worked with Ste-Croix on Love, will be the creative director, while Michel Laprise will be the director. Laprise, a National Theatre School graduate who began at Cirque as a talent scout and has served as creation director of the company’s events and special projects department, recently proved himself as show director for Madonna’s MDNA tour. “He has developed his acrobatic style and he’s ready to do a permanent show,” Ste-Croix said.
What happens to a Cirque show when it retires — or dies? Sets, props and costumes are either stored (if a revival is possible) or recycled. Acrobatic equipment and even entire acts may end up in another show. “We recycled some acrobatic acts from Zed into Mystère, which needed to be refreshed,” SteCroix said. “And we recycled some acts that were in Viva Elvis into the new Michael Jackson show. So often a performer can go on to other shows.”
In the old days, when the same creative team ruled for 10 years, Ste-Croix recalled, concepts could be recycled, too. If a good idea arrived too late for one show, it could be passed on to the next one. Thus the signature Cirque style was set.
Other forms of immortality for Cirques past include numerous albums and making-of videos. And now with the release of the film Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, the Vegas shows have found another afterlife. Even a bit of Viva Elvis lives on in 3D.
Saltimbanco opens Wednesday and continues through Dec. 30 at the Bell Centre. Tickets cost $57 to $139.25. Call 514-790-2525 or visit www.cirquedusoleil. com or www.evenko.ca.