I still can't believe we dropped the plan for a casion/cirque du soleil;
Keep your growth and uniqueness in balance
The challenge To stage costlier spectacles in bigger venues without compromising your daring and innovation or spreading yourself too thin financially The call Resist the urge to go "assembly line" with knock-offs of your acclaimed shows, drive creativity even more relentlessly and join deep-pocketed partners who value your risk-taking, outside-the-box approach
MONTREAL -- Daniel Lamarre gets asked the question a lot. Why doesn't Quebec's world-famous cultural export, Cirque du Soleil, go the cookie-cutter route and do -- for example -- 10 touring productions of its aquatic extravaganza O, which plays only at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas?
"We very deliberately chose a strategy of exclusivity," says Mr. Lamarre, president and chief operating officer of the Montreal-based entertainment giant, which got its start more than 20 years ago when a ragtag group of street entertainers banded together.
"We've been approached by corporations around the world who would like us to do copies but we always say, 'No. If you want to see O, you have to go to Las Vegas."
Clowns, yes. Clones, no.
Avoiding the temptation to churn out carbon-copy shows means that the product retains a valuable cachet and Cirque partners, such as MGM Mirage Inc., the owner of the Bellagio and three other Vegas venues where Cirque has resident productions, are delighted at the resulting boost in gambling, dining and hotel sleepovers, says Mr. Lamarre.
It's a careful balancing act that Cirque and its founder and chief executive officer, Guy Laliberté, are committed to, says Mr. Lamarre: Go big, pursue growth, but not at the expense of the quality and uniqueness of your offbeat product, the very thing that made your name in the first place.
Cirque's partners share in the profits, too, but they also take on a big portion of the risk. MGM shelled out $170-million (U.S.) to build a state-of-the-art theatre -- to Cirque's highly demanding specifications -- for its blockbuster show at MGM's Grand Hotel in Vegas launched last year, KA, directed by world-famous theatrical innovator Robert Lepage.
Cirque's production costs? About $30-million, said Mr. Lamarre, seated at a conference table in his office at the troupe's sprawling head office and rehearsal space in a North Montreal working-class neighbourhood.
Other giants of the entertainment world with which Cirque has partnered include Walt Disney Co. and Live Nation, the entertainment division that was spun off last year from U.S. multimedia giant Clear Channel.
Cirque carefully nurtures and protects the goose that lays the golden eggs -- the core group of artists, technicians and crafts people who take about three years to put together a show from concept to launch -- says Mr. Lamarre, a former print reporter and television executive who decided to run away with the Cirque five years ago.
Not everyone, though, is dazzled by what the Cirque has become over the years.
"Big, expensive and filled with technical razzle-dazzle, Cirque productions also have gone far beyond the intimate 1987 show [We Reinvent the Circus] we fell in love with," California arts reviewer Janice Steinberg wrote earlier this year in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Too far, many critics say. They find the Cirque style overpolished and lacking humanity, and virtually no one has a good word to say about the typical Euro-pop score that tends toward singers warbling nonsense syllables, backed by synthesized instruments."
Lyn Gardner, a critic at Britain's Guardian newspaper, said the European touring production of Dralion transformed "the daring, drama and dreams of the circus ring into nice, clean, sawdust-free corporate entertainment."
The 3,000-employee company now has a total of 12 shows -- six touring and five resident, as well as one live music show that is on the road.
Privately held Cirque's sales this year will be in the $500-million range, Mr. Lamarre said.
About 40 per cent of profits are plowed back into the core creative activities, twice the usual reinvestment rate in corporate research and development in North America.
A new Vegas show, inspired by the Beatles and with legendary music producer George Martin on board, is planned for later this year at the MGM Mirage.
Having left a hefty footprint on Vegas, Cirque is now focused on growth in Asia.
The company plans to open a resident show at Japan's Disney Tokyo Resort in 2008 and is part of a consortium with MGM that is bidding against three other groups for a casino-resort-entertainment complex at Marina Bay in Singapore.
On the touring front, Cirque is also diversifying away from the big top -- le grand chapiteau -- as its traditional venue.
A new production called Delirium is a music-and-dance show that takes Cirque even further away from its flying-trapeze origins. It plays the North American concert-tour circuit of such arenas as Montreal's Bell Centre, where it launched three months ago.
Instead of taking two weeks to rack up ticket sales in a tent accommodating only 2,500 a night, arenas offer audience capacities of 12,000 seats or so an evening, allowing for two-or-three-night stands in individual cities. Cirque's partner on Delirium is Live Nation, which takes care of production and promotion.
Cirque has also branched out into the music business with a record label called Cirque du Soleil Musique that packages and promotes music from the shows as well as emerging artists from around the world. And merchandising and licensing of Cirque-related products is a thriving business.
But at the centre of all that commercial bustle is the sacrosanct creative unit, Mr. Lamarre says.
"We're able to attract the top creators in the world because people don't see the Cirque as a commercial enterprise.
"We don't have a traditional business plan. Here, everything flows from the creative. It's the creative that rules."
and chief operating officer, Cirque du Soleil
Family: Two children, Josianne and Sébastien.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in communications, University of Ottawa.
First career-related job: Reporter with Trois-Rivières daily Le Nouvelliste.
Activities: Jogging, tennis, shows, movies.
Last book read: The Spark: Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives Within Us All, by Lyn Heward, former president of creative content at Cirque du Soleil, with John Bacon
Favourite place: Philippines island resort Amanpulo.
Favourite management guru: Tom Peters.
Management philosophy: Trust your team and create an environment conducive to creativity.
What he likes best about his job: The opportunity to watch creators and artists at work.