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Analysis & Opinion
04.12.08 The Canadian Way To Entertain
By Roland Oliphant

Cirque du Soleil, probably the world’s premier circus company, has announced plans to establish a permanent presence in Russia, and despite the unfavorable economic situation, the organizers are nothing less than evangelical about their chances of success. But Russia’s own venerable circuses have mixed feelings about the arrival of such a powerful competitor.

The Canada-based company’s decision to establish its brand in Russia is, if anything, belated. The circuses’ relationship with Russian performers goes back nearly 20 years, and today the company includes some 400 Russian artists. In a press release, the company said that many of its shows have been “greatly influence by Russian talent and specific know-how.” That and the singularly international nature of the company – it says it has performed in over 250 cities on five continents, and this year has presented 17 shows around the globe – make the step to Russia logical. But why has it taken so long for the company to plug into a market that includes what Daniel Lamarre, President and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, called “some of the world’s most sophisticated cultural citizens?”

The company says it was simply a matter of not being able to be everywhere at the same time. “Many dreamed of bringing Cirque du Soleil to Russia, but multibillion dollar shows are not transportable,” it said in a press release. The sheer scale of organization and forethought required for its elaborate productions, which often run for months, is illustrated by the fact that it will be a year before the first show – a touring production of Varekai – comes to Moscow.
The circus itself is relatively young. Founded in 1984 by a group of street performers from Quebec, it has grown into a globally recognized, and very valuable, brand. “In 1989, when we first began working with the artistic and circus community of Russia, we were a very young company with only one production touring in North America,” said Gilles Ste-Croix, the senior vice president of creative content at the circus. In the early 1990s the circus began to tour abroad, primarily in Europe and Japan, and soon was running simultaneous shows on different continents.

The expansion to Russia, however, represents far more than an extended tour. The company has teamed up with two American-Canadian business world heavy-weights, George and Craig Cohon, who respectively brought the McDonalds and Coca-Cola brands to Russia in the early 1990s. The mission, said Craig, is “to build a business locally that will last.” For that reason, they say, Cirque du Soleil Rus will be a Russian company “lead by Russians for Russians.”

It is an impressive team who, they claim, are undaunted by the risks of expanding into Russia in the current economic climate. “Entertainment,” said Lamarre with admirable bravado, “is the best cure for a crisis!” The fact that people as business savvy as the Cohons are on board suggests that there is at least some more hardheaded thinking behind the decision to go ahead with the project at this juncture. Certainly, professionals at Moscow’s established circuses say they have seen no change in audience numbers because of the crisis.

Cirque du Soleil is, as George Cohon said, a “one-of-a-kind brand,” with “sensational international appeal.” But Russian circuses and their performers have their own, more venerable claim to global fame. It is, indeed, one of few countries where circuses are institutions that occupy permanent buildings in the city centre. The Old Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar, founded in 1880, is one of the capital’s best loved institutions and in its heyday was credited with inspiring circus performers the world over. It competes with two others: ROSGOSTSIRK (the Russian State Circus), and the Circus at Vernadskovo (also known as the Moscow Bolshoi Circus), whose building is reputed to be the largest circus building in the world and sits on top of a unique (and massive) soviet-built hydraulic lift that allows it to literally change the arena (it has five to choose from) between acts. “It is true what they say about Russia having a strong circus tradition. The circus schools here are very good and strong, and we have circus schools, sports clubs and circus clubs,” said Elena Poldi, the director of the program at the Old Moscow Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar. The quality of those skills is attested to by the high proportion of Russians in Soleil.

It may have been this traditional elevation and respect for the art form that Lamarre was referring to when he spoke about Russia’s “sophisticated cultural citizens.” It is unclear, however, how the local circuses will take the arrival of this “Rolls Royce of circuses.” Poldi admits to mixed feelings. “Any competition is good, it’s stimulating. And Soleil has no artistic bearing on our circus. But if they stay for good this is on the one hand good, and on the other it leaves us no choice; they are the dominating, monster, empire in the industry of world circus talent. That’s something you have to face and accept, and try to provide an alternative to; but it is difficult to match them for financial reasons,” she said.

Cirque’s trademark is a fusion of dance, circus, acrobatics and music that relies more than anything else on the power of sheer spectacle. It is by no means a traditional circus performance - do not expect to see a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth, or clowns attacking each other with custard pies. That leaves the Moscow circuses some room for maneuver.

But the greatest single point of tension is not the competition for audiences, but for the talent produced by Russia’s remarkable circus schools. It is certainly true that Soleil has benefitted from Russian talent, and not entirely to the benefit of Russian circuses, says Poldi. “Cirque du Soleil can offer the best artists money that we cannot,” she said. “The money for circus professionals - trainers, performers etc. – in Russia is pitiful.” She added that her own circus had lost artists to Soleil in the past.

Cirque du Soleil Rus promises to produce its first show in autumn next year. The piece they have chosen – Varekai, from a Romanian word meaning “wherever” – is one of Cirque’s flagship touring shows, and has been chosen to “showcase the Cirque du Soleil brand and serve as a stepping stone into Russia,” Craig Cohon said.

The publicity describes it as “an inspired incantation to life rediscovered,” and it certainly promises to be interesting, combining Cirque du Soleil’s trademark skill, extravagant sets and fantastical costumes. Never to be daunted by scale, they will take over Moscow’s 80,000 seat Luzhniki stadium for the show. As a tribute “to the spirit and art of the circus tradition,” it is an appropriate choice - especially in Russia – and may serve as an olive branch to the local circuses. How the public (and the critics) will respond is difficult to gauge. Reviews from elsewhere range from the dismissive (“a show that, for all the skills involved, combined corporate soullessness with spiritual pretension,” sniffed the Guardian) to the gushing (“higher production values and better turns than Cirque du Soleil has offered in Britain for several years,” according to the Daily Telegraph).

Soleil appear to be confident of success, and intend to stay for the long term – at least partly for philanthropic reasons. “We are seeing a bold cultural renaissance in Russia, and we are committed to helping take this renaissance to the next level,” said Lamarre.

There is indeed a need for such help. “There is a big problem facing the circuses here, but no one addresses it. They just focus on individual shows, one at a time. So the future is very uncertain,” said Poldi. Perhaps Soleil’s prestigious planning abilities will benefit the Russian circuses after all.
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