Cirque du Soleil Jumps Through Hoops to Broaden Its Audience

Cirque du Soleil isn’t exactly the household name in Chicago that Ringling Brothers is. But the marketing powers-that-be at the Montreal-based circus are counting on strengthening its base of support and its visibility here when its new show, Nouvelle Experience, opens September 13 at Cityfront Center near North Pier.

Those who caught Cirque du Soleil when it first visited here in the spring of 1989 already know the company is one of the most successful of a small band of new-wave troupes trying to resuscitate the circus as an art form. With the once grand Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey three-ring extravaganza now a somewhat tawdry relic of its former self, Cirque du Soleil is trying to bring back the daredevilry, sophisticated choreography, and sense of theater a great circus can deliver. In one ring it combines traditional acts–clowns, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, and contortionists among others–with original music, dramatic lighting, fanciful costumes, and stylized choreography.

Cirque du Soleil’s month-long run here two years ago started out drawing sparse crowds and ended with full houses. This time communications director Jean Heon wants to ensure larger audiences right from the start. Regular visits to major U.S. markets are essential to Cirque du Soleil’s growth, and Chicago–with it’s large, sophisticated, and affluent population–is a major stop on Cirque du Soleil’s U.S. route and the only one in the midwest. The not-for-profit company was incorporated in Montreal in 1984, and it started out touring for five or so months a year, which is what the weather allowed in Canada. But the founders soon realized that to develop the show they envisioned, they’d have to adopt a 12-month tour schedule; that way they could sign the best acts to full-year contracts and take in enough money to maintain the show’s high production values.

Cirque du Soleil made its U.S. landfall in September 1987 in Los Angeles. It has been praised by most U.S. critics for its efforts to elevate the circus experience, but Heon and his team aren’t content to let the critics sell their show for them. They conduct regular surveys to gauge audience response and discover more about customer demographics. Heon knows, for instance, that the typical visitor is between 22 and 44, affluent, and well educated.

But in this acutely cost-conscious era, ticket pricing is one area where potential audiences must be reeducated. Tickets for the current production range from $12.50 to $35.50, making the top ticket $3 higher than the most expensive ticket for an off-Loop hit such as Lend Me a Tenor and considerably more than a typical Ringling Brothers ducat. Heon says the prices are necessary to cover expenses and are justified by the production’s high quality.

“This is like a Broadway show,” explains Heon, “and it’s costly to put on.” Approximately 89 percent of the circus’s operating budget comes from ticket and souvenir merchandise revenue, with the remainder coming from grants and corporate sponsorships. Because the circus is still relatively new to the U.S., Heon says it has been tough trying to line up the same kinds of sponsorship here. He hopes more will be forthcoming.

The new production was titled Nouvelle Experience to make sure Chicagoans who saw Cirque du Soleil on its last visit know this is a completely new show. With its spacious new $600,000 tent–it has a thermostat-controlled air circulation system and must be hydraulically raised at each new site–the circus was able to add a flying trapeze act for the first time and boost seating capacity from 1,750 to 2,500. The extra seats will allow it to offer more tickets at the lower end of the price scale without adversely affecting income.

Lucky Bet

Restaurateur Donny Greco knows as well as anybody how risky the dining business is, so he must be hoping his new venture, Club Lucky, will live up to its name. Greco, one of three principal investors in the restaurant, scheduled to open later this month at 1824 W. Wabansia, was previously a minority partner in the Sweet Bean Cafe, the funky coffeehouse and bistro at 1112 N. State that was sold by the principal owner just as it was becoming profitable. Club Lucky won’t bear much resemblance to Sweet Bean; it’ll be a 40s-style supper club with old-fashioned Italian cooking and a jazz band on weekends. Greco’s partners are Robert Paladino, formerly a co-owner of O’Fame, and entrepreneur Jim Higgins. Club Lucky is using the site of an old Polish tavern and banquet hall in Bucktown, and Greco thinks the food and entertainment will have to be good to get people to trek that far west. For the first few months at least, he plans to do much of the cooking himself.

China Club Cautiously Opens Its Doors

The China Club is still scheduled to open August 7 at 616 W. Fulton, but with a few changes in the game plan. The club will be open Wednesday through Saturday only instead of the seven-day schedule originally announced. “We decided to start conservatively and build the club traffic,” said a club spokesman. And the on-site restaurant won’t be ready by the club opening; as of earlier this week China Club executives were still deciding whether to go with American or Italian fare.

Ross’s Loss

Diana Ross’s popularity in Chicago apparently isn’t as huge as Jam Productions anticipated. Last week, Jam yanked Ross from the World Music Theatre, where she was scheduled to play a single night on August 11 as part of a tour to promote her latest album, The Force Behind the Power. The concert will be moved to either the Arie Crown or the Chicago Theatre, where Ross last performed in the summer of 1989. “Her show works better in a theater setting,” said one Jam executive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Guy Tessier.