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Acrobatical Radicals

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Nouvelle Experience, a February 1995 performance of Mystere at Treasure Island
Photo courtesy of Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau

Nouvelle Experience, a February 1995 performance of Mystere at Treasure Island

Before it became a Strip behemoth, Cirque du Soleil was an oddball upstart. A reflection on Cirque’s 25 years of defying expectations — and transforming our city’s idea of spectacle

NouvelleIt really was like being transported into another world.

It was a chilly day in November 1992 when a Cirque du Soleil publicist led me down a walkway into the 56-foot-tall, blue-and-yellow big top behind the Mirage, which had intrigued I-15 commuters for weeks. Inside, a “flying man” practiced his aerial spins, and composer Rene Dupere discussed his influences (Pink Floyd, Brahms, film composer Ennio Morricone) as he broke in a new band. I was behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s Nouvelle Experience show — its first foray into Las Vegas.

Outside, the Strip went on as usual. But Cirque was about to unpack. The real objective of Nouvelle Experience was to be a warm-up act while Treasure Island and the Mystère Theater were going up next door. Mystère, which opened on Christmas day 1993, was a huge step for Cirque as well as Las Vegas. The Montreal-based troupe famous for downsizing the three-ring circus (and performing without animals) was moving into its first permanent venue. One so large it had to divide the band on each side of its 105-foot stage and enlist automation and computer technology to fill the 75 vertical feet of space with its acrobats.

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“I’ll always remember the very first day we were invited into the theater. ... It was overwhelming,” original-cast dancer Kathleen “Kati” Renaud recalls. After rehearsing in Montreal, “It was so unique and powerful and very, very special. We all knew we were part of a very special moment in the history of this company.”

With Mystère, and therefore Cirque, celebrating its 25th full year on the Strip, context may help explain its transformative effect. We’ve all had a lot of time to get used to seeing Cirque titles in six different hotels. (At one point it was up to eight, and will be back to seven with a new Luxor show in October). That’s 104,500 tickets on sale each week. But in 1993? Las Vegas was at a crossroads, between the aging Rat Pack generation and, well, whatever needed to come next — which no one had figured out yet.

Vegas was good at old-school spectacle: sinking Titanics, chariot races, and mermaid showgirls in giant water tanks. This was something else. Jaw-dropping acrobatics packaged like a wistful Fellini film. That unexplained “you figure it out” amalgamation of taiko drums, fat men wearing baby diapers, and — in the grand finale — a giant snail. Gibberish talk instead of English, elegiac music instead of marching bands, and a title that represented nothing less than the mystery of life, “the power of life coming on Earth,” Belgian director Franco Dragone explained then.

“It was the content (of Mystère) that was different,” Renaud says. So offbeat, so European, so, well, sophisticated, that Steve Wynn’s rivals at Caesars Palace had already backed away from a deal with Cirque. (Years later, Cirque co-founder Guy Laliberte remembered he was “raging” after being told Cirque was “too avant-garde, too esoteric” for Las Vegas. But in hindsight he mused, “Sometimes the deals that don’t happen are the best deals that could happen.”)

My slack-jawed delight probably was no different from that of the people sitting around me when the “bungee birds” bounced down from the ceiling, the taiko drums rattled our chests or the hand-balancing bald men hoisted one another like floating spacemen on a slowly revolving dome. None of us had likely stepped into a theater specifically designed for the show they were about to see. But I could see how Cirque was harnessing technology rather than worshipping it. It was accelerating the evolution begun by Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage in 1990, and Starlight Express, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened at the Las Vegas Hilton just months before Mystère. The first re-dressed an old-Vegas act; the second remodeled an old-Vegas space — a sacred one, Elvis’ showroom — into a skating rink.

Laliberte also witnessed the Wagnerian opening half-hour of Siegfried & Roy, and realized he could mold the technology of spectacle into something “a little more emotional,” he later recalled. Laliberte’s mother had been among the generations who raved about the Titanic sinking onstage in Jubilee! But Parisian-styled showgirl revues were showing their Ed Sullivan-era roots, and only the Stardust’s 1992 Enter the Night was taking a serious stab at reinventing the genre.

OMystère rendered that effort unnecessary; the Stardust revue closed a year after O arrived. Mystère had recouped its costs in six months, so a new Cirque at Steve Wynn’s next project, Bellagio, was a no-brainer. And in the last days before the Internet was in every household, Cirque was again able to surprise the world — this time with a $92 million aquatic spectacle, O. A giant red curtain whisked away to reveal the stage was ... a lake. And just when you got used to people flying off pendulums to land with a splash, or high-diving into it from towers, that lake dried up into solid land. [Pictured right is a scene from the Cirque du Soleil show O.]

Co-founder Gille Ste-Croix looked at the shape-shifting, 100-by-150-foot pool and noted that only a casino mogul as daring as Wynn would agree to such an expensive gamble, more than three times the cost of Mystère. But in 2000, MGM Grand Inc. acquired Wynn’s two resorts. “As MGM has grown in the city, we’ve grown right along with them,” says Jerry Nadal, the vice president who oversees Cirque’s Las Vegas product. (Disclosure: Nadal is former chairman of Nevada Public Radio’s board of directors, and Cirque du Soleil is a financial supporter of Nevada Public Radio.)

Great Unexpectations

In early 2005, another publicist escorted me into a Cirque rehearsal at the MGM Grand. This time, I knew what to expect. Sort of.

Cirque had simultaneously developed two new shows. Zumanity, which launched with an awkward start at New York-New York in August 2003, was the company’s riff on the Las Vegas adult cabaret show. The goal was make its velvety, in-the-round theater seem as cozy as possible.

The MGM Grand production, KÀ, was said to be headed the other direction — some sort of fantasy-themed spectacle with a giant budget. But in 15 minutes, Cirque untethered the stage along with the acrobats. Much of the action unfolded on a 40-foot platform, lifted and tilted by a gantry crane into a near-vertical position.

“Anybody in their right mind would look at that and go, ‘These people have completely lost their minds,’” Nadal says now. O had already altered the physics of a performance space. But this took it a step further, combining theater with the narrative of film. When two characters fell off a rocking ship and into the sea, the perspective changed to follow their plunge underwater. I was excited about what this could mean for live entertainment in general — what was next, putting the audience on a motion-simulator? — and for Las Vegas in particular.

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A scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Love.  Photo courtesy Cirque du Soleil and Matt Beard.

KÀ mirrored the sky’s-the-limit growth of Las Vegas in the 2000s. “It was the end of the ‘If you build it, they will come,’ period. We and MGM were the beneficiaries of that growth trajectory in Las Vegas, and audiences came along for the ride with us,” Nadal says. While most new Cirque shows took over and/or remodeled existing theaters — Zumanity after Lord of the Dance, Love after Roy Horn’s tiger bite forced Siegfried & Roy into retirement — Cirque multiplied as the Venetian, Paris Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas, and CityCenter joined the skyline.

Another smash crowd-pleaser followed in 2006: the first licensed use of the Beatles catalog, for Love at the Mirage. Hearing the songs remixed from the original masters for the theater’s 6,000 speakers was amazing in itself, courtesy of Beatles producer George Martin and son Giles. But the narrative theater approach of KÀ carried over into Love, making it an elegy for postwar England and a ’60s celebration by a company born of the hippie era, with creators who had listened to the Beatles’ albums in Canadian communes.

Cirque overload?

How many Cirques were too many? Laliberte got tired of the question. MGM Resorts did not. But the next two ventures were humbling. Believe was the first blemish, a terrible mismatch with magician Criss Angel. Both sides later agreed the fever dream of outrageous visuals (bondage bunnies, anyone?) would have been fine for some other magician. Within a year of its October 2008 debut at Luxor, Angel stripped away most of the production trappings. Cirque continued to produce and market the standard magic show his fans expected.

And then came Elvis. Rather, Viva Elvis, a salute to a previous king of Vegas that came off as a European vision of Americana, trying to disguise its foreign accent. It was Cirque’s first real Las Vegas flop (Angel’s revamped show ran 10 years). Nadal says the recession was a hidden culprit. Early 2010 “wasn’t the best time” to launch a new show at Aria, “but we were so far down the road with MGM we were kind of on the train you couldn’t stop.” (KÀ still stands as the epitome of the open checkbook. When it opened, Cirque seemed a little embarrassed about its $165 million budget. Once the recession hit, they promoted that number on a billboard.)

Viva Elvis closed, and Zarkana moved over from Radio City Music Hall in New York. It ran a respectable three years, but Cirque saturation was evident: That “Wheel of Death,” in which daredevils balanced on top of a spinning, carnival ride-like contraption? Awesome. Except KÀ already had one.

It was back to a can’t-miss superstar brand with Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay in 2013. This one managed to revitalize not just Jackson’s tarnished image but Cirque’s dominance on the Strip, after its formula had grown so familiar that Absinthe played like a Cirque parody in a big top at Caesars Palace.

Lows and highs

The 25 years have included heartbreaks. On a hot June night in 2013, company executives were called away from an outdoor launch for the Jackson show at Mandalay Bay. Aerialist Sarah Guiyard-Guillot had fallen to her death during a performance of KÀ.

She was married to another KÀ performer, and ran a circus arts dance school called Cirquefit. The tragedy was a reminder of Cirque’s ripple effect beyond the Strip. Renaud remembers the original Mystère cast as “a very tight family,” sticking together for Mount Charleston ski trips or Lake Mead cookouts on their one day off each week. But, Nadal now says, “There’s probably a couple thousand former employees in town that decided to stay. They’ve gotten their green cards, they’ve gotten their citizenship.”

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A scene from KÀ. Photo courtesy Cirque du Soleil and Denise Truscello.

Cirque performers have ventured into creative collaborations with Nevada Ballet Theater (A Choreographers’ Showcase), and employees show off their visual art in the annual “Parade the Collective” exhibit at Core Contemporary Gallery. Nadal points out that, as a corporate citizen, Cirque made the first million-dollar pledge to construction of The Smith Center, sponsors charity events such as the annual Run Away With Cirque du Soleil, and puts its performers into Clark County schools.

“With success has come the ability to reach out and help other people,” Nadal says. “I think a lot of people expect that from corporations now, but that’s always been part of our DNA.”

After Michael Jackson One, Las Vegas entertainment drifted to living concert performers — residencies — but even steady-going Cirque is a silent factor in that trend. “I don’t think (production shows) wanted to compete with us and the budgets that we have, so now you see a lot more headliners coming in,” Nadal notes.

Now 60 percent owned by the private-equity firm TPG — which helped it acquire rival Blue Man Group — Cirque is in “another transitional period” and growth spurt, Nadal says, with big new permanent shows on the horizon in Orlando and in China. Dinner-show and musical-theater experiments in other cities could find their way to the Strip. The Luxor show, Cirque’s first new Las Vegas venture in six years, will be “a significant departure from what we’ve done in the past,” with “a completely different performance vocabulary. It’s not going to be acrobatics-based. It’s not going to be a different version of what we’ve done before.”

While we wait for the next one, Cirque has pumped new money and life into Love and Mystère, the latter bringing original dancer Kati Renaud full circle as artistic director. She took a look at the original souvenir program, for old time’s sake. But the goal was to ask, “If we were starting from scratch, what would we do? We wanted to ‘zhush’ it up a bit,” she says. “Elevate it to the next place, to the next level.”

Jubilee! played on the Strip for 34 years. But change came awkwardly to that sinking Titanic, or not at all. And there’s one thing Nadal knows from his 25-plus years in Las Vegas. “We don’t want a dinosaur sitting there. You can see people that have remained what they were, and they have come and gone.”

The new show, the first since Michael Jackson One, brings back two push-pull questions that have been with the company as long as Mystère’s bungee acrobats: Can Cirque apply its special magic to subject matter beyond its original vision? (Yes with the Beatles and Michael Jackson, no with Elvis and Criss Angel.) And how many Cirques are too many for Las Vegas? (Previous answer: Seven or eight, if you open Viva Elvis or Zarkana during a recession.)

But it also has been 25 years since Frank Sinatra last sang in Las Vegas. The fact that  he last performed (at the MGM Grand, where KÀ would move in), just five months after Mystère opened, makes for a neat snapshot of that ever-churning Vegas cycle of the new replacing the old. Then again, perhaps Sinatra and Cirque aren’t so different. His signature song “My Way” — that dramatic recounting of struggle and triumph — easily applies to Cirque’s high-flying 25-year career of conquering the Strip on their own terms.

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