Put the name of Quebec billionaire Guy Laliberté, the mercurial founder of Cirque du Soleil, into YouTube, and the first result isn’t circus-related but a six-and-a-half-minute clip from a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ’em.
A few minutes in, Laliberté has poker pro David Benyamine up against a wall. Benyamine is all-in with an extremely weak hand, and Laliberté has a 2:1 chance to win and walk away with $600,000 of Benyamine’s money. All he has to do is let the hand play out. But Laliberté, worth $2.5 billion, is feeling charitable. Perhaps it’s because the money would increase his net worth by just one ten-thousandth of one percent, or maybe it’s because Benyamine is French.
“I know this is a lot of money for you,”LalibertÃ© says in his slight French-Canadian accent as he waves his hand dismissively. “It’s more important [for you], that pot, than it is for me.
“I know I’m very favorite, so I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take the middle [pot, maybe $100,000] and forget it.”
It’s an incredibly unorthodox move by Laliberté, completely out of left field and completely unnecessary, and it’s extremely generous. There’s no crying in poker, after all. Benyamine, who had the trembling look of a guy about to be executed, instantly takes the deal. Instead of potentially losing $600,000, he loses $50,000.
Laliberté doesn’t play by any rulebook, be it in poker or in the performing arts. He loves to travel. He spent $35 million to visit space.
Cirque du Soleil, his life’s work, is far from conventional; he has taken the traditional circus, pumped it with steroids and mescaline, and created a billion-dollar company. When he plays poker, you get the feeling it’s not about the money, it’s about play, about the challenge, maybe even having fun. And what kind of jerk lets a little thing like half a million dollars ruin a good time?
Laliberté’s company employs 5,000 people, including more than 1,300 artists. Two thousand of them work at the beating heart of Cirque du Soleil’s global, extremely profitable operation, the company’s 118,000-square-foot headquarters in Montreal. It’s where, in addition to the expected corporate duties, top brass create new shows, train performers, make costumes, mold athletes into artists and more. The building is also home to a massive costume workshop, where Cirque employs artisans and fashion designers to make the elaborate costumes, headpieces, shoes and wigs that make the Cirque shows so visually appealing.
I got a chance to see the headquarters up close and personal after Cirque du Soleil invited me to see Dralion, coming to the 1stBank Center in Broomfield Feb. 8-12, in Montreal. They flew me out to Canada, set me up in a hotel downtown and gave me a tour of the headquarters and costume workshop. I got a rare glimpse at a side of Cirque du Soleil most never get to see — the unsung workers who keep the costumes shiny and clean, the artisans who make them, and the studios where the acrobats and performers perfect their craft.
The training process for new Cirque du Soleil performers lasts at least 16 weeks. About half of all performers come from an athletic background, so Cirque puts them through a training program designed to help them transition from athlete to athletic performance artist. (See Jan. 26 story “Inside the heads of circus performers.”) “We give them tools to develop their artistic potential,” says Cirque du Soleil’s corporate PR manager, Chantal Côté. “We will not give them all the answers. They will have to find them, learn to cope with ambiguity, which is not an easy thing to do.”
“When you are competing, you just compete. You have to do your routine, and that’s it,” says 36-year-old Alejandro Cuenca, a Barcelona, Spain, native who was competing in international trampoline competitions before joining Dralion. “When you’re a performer, you don’t only have to do your skills, you have to perform. You have to do some choreography, to do movements, to do makeup. To be in character, it’s absolutely different. It’s a different world.”
Cirque du Soleil doesn’t employ makeup artists as part of the touring shows; rather, each artist applies his or her makeup individually. Simple makeup designs take up to an hour to apply, and the more complex ones can take even longer — some of the performers on Dralion, says show publicist Julie Desmarais, have seven layers of colors to apply around their eyes alone. Learning how to apply makeup is a complex process that takes a couple of training sessions, but it explains why, as you walk around Cirque’s headquarters, you might pass by a woman wearing gym clothes and elaborate silver and red makeup.
All the costumes for the 22 Cirque shows are designed and produced by hand at the Montreal headquarters. The average life for a Cirque du Soleil show is 12 to 15 years, and that creates problems when designing costumes. You can’t just buy a decade’s worth of cloth at one time; it’d be impossible to store. And that’s just for one costume, not thousands. So Cirque solved that problem by doing everything in-house, from silk-screening to bath-dyeing to painting directly on the fabric.
“Let’s say we see a nice blue on the market somewhere,” CÃ´tÃ© explains. “In order to have enough blue to last the show for the next 15 years, we would need to buy rolls and rolls and rolls of this, since next year fashion would make it unavailable for us.
“So we buy it white, and we’ll just dye it and print it as needed.”
The supply area for the costume workshop is impressive, with shelves filled with hundreds of rolls of brightly colored fabrics. Tall shelves filled with zippers, sequins, straps, buttons and more stretch as far as the eye can see. One section contains dozens of gallon-sized jugs of different colors of glitter.
Every costume has a production “bible” that specifies how much red, yellow or green the workers need to produce a specific color.
To make the process even easier, the bible also includes the measurements of the performer that the costume needs to fit. Cirque takes very exact measurements when the performers come to Montreal to train, down to a 3-D model of the performer’s head. This allows the costume workers in Montreal to tailor each costume in Montreal, which minimizes the time the show’s wardrobe supervisors have to meddle with the costume once it gets shipped out to the performer on tour.
All the shoes worn by performers are made in Montreal as well. The shoe workshop is a busy, cluttered place filled with beastly looking industrial sewing machines and work tables. On one wall sits dozens of different-sized shoe molds that the shoemakers use to create shoes entirely from scratch. In other cases, athletic shoes or ballet shoes are painted or dyed to fit the specific needs of the costumes. On average, the workers produce nearly 3,000 pairs of shoes each year.
Creating a show, designing the costumes, making the shoes, and training the performers is just the first step. The next step is sending the show out on the road.
Dralion premiered in Montreal in 1999.
The show blends Chinese circus arts with Cirque du Soleil presentation, and it was recently adapted to tour small arenas. It takes 18 53-foot semis to transport the show’s elaborate set and wardrobe, and 24 full-time crew members manage everything during the show. At each stop on the tour, 75 to 100 local volunteers help set up and tear down the show, and with all that help, it only takes a few hours.
“In some places, the little things don’t count, but for us it’s very important. Just maintaining that is very important. … Our job is to make sure the artists feel 100 percent secure and comfortable,” says Mike Newnum, the interim production manager.
That means doing everything from checking each light bulb before the show to regulating the temperature backstage. There are literally thousands of pounds of rigging that must be hung from the rafters of each arena. Technicians must oversee all the moving parts in the show, anything that’s automated. All the sound systems must be checked. It’s a massive operation.
“Every city we go to, before we ever do a show before the audience, almost every act goes on stage,” Newnum says. “Our artists have hardcore work ethics. We want to make sure they’re not questioning what they’re doing, because what they do is pretty crazy. So we want them to make sure that when they’re on that stage, even if it’s a new arena, they know where the suite lights are, they know where the exit lights are, so when they’re spinning around and doing all the things that they do, they have those reference points and they know what to ignore. And we’ll do that every week.”
The wardrobe alone takes up one and a half semis. Melody Wood, a Londoner, supervises all the wardrobe operations, which includes setting up six washing machines and two dryers and a number of fans to speed the air-drying process.
“As a rule, if they wear it, whether it be their face or their body, then we take care of it,” Wood says.
That includes wardrobe, makeup, shoes, etc. Dralion employs four full-time wardrobe workers with them, who are responsible for putting out any wardrobe-related fires, including sudden rips, tears, alterations and replacements. They carry a whole filing-cabinet-sized drawer full of shoelaces, packets of replacement beads, dozens of different colors of threads and hundreds of spare cases of foundation and creams.
“It’s about assisting the artist, whether it’s about providing them with makeup, makeup removers, whether the elastic is stretched on the hats,” Wood says. “Ultimately it’s about preparing. We do a lot of washing, a lot. But that’s part of any show because items are being used every day and have to be clean. That’s a challenge for us because we change cities every week. Water can be very different from city to city. So sometimes a costume can feel very soft, and sometimes it can feel very stiff.”
Cirque’s success is in flaunting the rules, taking the unusual and making it extraordinary. Part of Dralion is an incredible act that involves a woman balancing on one or two hands on a small, circular platform raised five or six feet off the ground. With her back to the audience, she curves her torso so that her head is facing the audience, and then slowly brings her feet to her head. It’s as if instead of bending forward to touch her toes, she bent backwards.
It’s an astounding display of strength and flexibility, but in the United States, it’s typically the stuff of NBA halftime shows, where the novelty — the “look, mom, she’s super bendy!” factor — is exaggerated, and the poetics of the human potential minimized by the bright lights and popcorn and beer.
But in Cirque du Soleil, the presentation is sublime. And with beautiful handmade costumes, live music, elaborate and enormous sets and gorgeous stage lighting, contortion — or juggling, tumbling, etc. — becomes art.
And it remains art, despite the pomp and bombast and production values that dangle precariously on the edge of cheesiness.
Cirque du Soleil remains true to the spirit of its founder, the fun-seeking visionary who never lets the logistics bog down the pursuit of wonder, whether it’s in poker or circus.
ON THE BILL: Dralion plays the 1stBank Center Feb. 8-12. Tickets start at $20. For tickets and more information, visit www.1stbankcenter.com/events. 11450 Broomfield Lane, Broomfield. 303-410-0700.