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Two acts turn high concept to mass market

By Lisa Leigh ParneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 9, 2002

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.

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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.

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.)