Two acts turn high concept to mass market

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Under a gigantic yellow and blue tent in Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam," a Russian acrobat stands on the linked hands of two of his teammates. They are about to toss him more than 16 feet in the air – onto the shoulders of a three-man tower. It should be impossible, and it just about is. He makes it, but his footing is unsteady, and he jumps off. The audience lets out a collective gasp.

He tries again and lands on his feet. The audience of 2,400 breathes a sigh of relief. A booming standing ovation follows.

Some observers say that Cirque's rise to success has been every bit as difficult as this acrobatic act. But, like the acrobat, it now towers above its competition. Joining it at the top, in terms of franchise success, is another group founded in the 1980s, a trio of bald actors in blue face paint. Both Cirque and Blue Man Group have danced and flipped, painted and beaten their own drum – or tubes – to international success.

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Unlike Riverdance or Stomp, they not only have captured the public imagination, they've held it for more than a decade, building instant name recognition.

Now both groups – with US tours and permanent homes from Las Vegas to Orlando – are converting that brand recognition into new ventures.

"Blue Man and Cirque have really strong buzz and word of mouth," says Scott Mires, founder of Mires, a brand consulting and strategic design firm in San Diego. "That's the strongest marketing you can have."

Cirque and Blue Man share parallel stories. Both started with one man's vision (in Blue Man's case, three), and it was unlikely that either would succeed long term.

Created by street performer Guy Laliberté in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has grown into a multimillion dollar corporation. It's a colorful and dramatic circus act that blends a narrative story and astonishing acrobatic tricks.

About 2,400 people work for Cirque du Soleil, and revenues are expected to reach a reported $325 million this year.

Cirque plans to extend its circus act to the hotel, spa, and restaurant business over the next five to 10 years. (They'll go into existing hotels and provide the entertainment and staff.) Cirque will also add two new permanent productions in Vegas within two years in partnership with MGM Mirage.

Expanding a business without diluting it and succeeding financially would be two of the most daunting challenges for any top CEO. One of the ways that Blue Man and Cirque have defied the odds is to train – and retain – their talent.

"We've grown at a decent pace, and we have a lot of people [who] have come up through the system," says Blue Man cofounder Chris Wink. "A lot of the people who have been Blue Men are now associate directors and casting directors, which protects the spirit of Blue Man. You always have to be careful about how quickly you're growing."

With so many new ventures, one might think Cirque is spreading itself too thin. But Daniel Lamarre, CEO of live shows and new ventures, says that Cirque's shows are a work in progress, even if they've been running for 10 years. "It's not the same show [it was] two years ago," he says. "Unlike 'Phantom of the Opera' or [other] entertainment acts, we are reviewing our show on a day-to-day basis. We don't want the consumer to feel that our shows have aged."

Meanwhile, artistic scouts scour the world for top talent. "Sometimes, you have to go to Mongolia to find it," says Lyn Heward, Cirque's chief operating officer for creative content. (In fact, all of Cirque's contortionists hail from Mongolia.)

The level of scrutiny extends all the way to dress: All of Cirque's performers wear original costumes designed specifically for each artist by a 200-person strong costume department.

The Blue Men performers don't have the same sewing needs. The trio wears the same Nehru suit. But as the group has grown, it, too, has had to attract a stable of performers with very specific talents – specifically 6-foot-tall drummers who can catch everything from marshmallows to paintballs in their mouths.

Blue Man Group started in 1987, when three longtime friends – Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, and Phil Stanton – experimented by shooting Jell-O, banana, and oatmeal through tubes attached to their chests in the bathtub of their apartment.

"In the first years, every single thing we did was a losing proposition," says Mr. Goldman. Tickets were $8 per person, but it cost about $20 a person to do the show. "In essence, we handed everyone who came to the show $12."

They've acquired a lot more business savvy since then. Tickets now run $39 and up. And what started with three men Off-Broadway has expanded into a 350-person organization, including 30 Blue Men and 50 musicians who rotate in the nightly shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

While there won't be any bald blue heads bobbing around hotels and spas anytime soon, the Blue Man Group hopes to set up productions in Germany, England, and the Netherlands.

They are now touring with David Bowie and Moby in the Arena 2 tour and working on their second CD. "We want this to last forever," Goldman says. "We never had a master plan.... We seize every single opportunity."

Gourmet food, massages, and bonding backstage

Cirque du Soleil dancer Karl Baumann loves creating new characters. He created the dancing lizard character in Cirque du Soleil's "Mystère." Now the Austrian plays a joyful, fairylike dancer in "Quidam."

"I always have trouble following other people's choreography, so it's perfect for me to create it myself," he says.

There are more than 500 artists who perform in Cirque's eight shows each year. But there are five traveling shows (under the Big Top). Performers typically spend six weeks in each new city. It can be difficult and lonely, as well as physically demanding. Baumann says it helps to have his wife and daughter traveling with him while performing a grueling 10 shows a week.

But a majority of the performers travel solo. Marie-Laure Mesnage, a French acrobat who performs feats of strength in the amazing "Vis Versa Statue," says she got the traveling bug early on when she and her siblings traveled extensively with their parents. Ms. Mesnage says she returns to Orlando, where she has family, during breaks. Performers are given one week off between cities (totally about seven weeks, plus two weeks of vacation each year).

Baumann says that the traveling performers are a tight-knit group.

"There is a star formation around the artistic tent where we warm up, or we meet in the kitchen, so it's much more of a community," he says. "It's like a small town where everybody knows each other."

The annual income varies for each performer, but the acrobats, contortionists, and dancers earn above-average circus pay and there are other perks to life on the road.

Under the Big Top, a nutritionist, top chefs, and physiotherapists are available to performers.

"Sometimes, you can get a massage before you go on stage," says Baumann, who studied engineering in Austria at his father's request before moving on to ballet. "It's really necessary to be treated that way, to get the good work done."

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