17 January, 2013

Reborn circus juggles mega-bucks

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday January 17, 2013 

The circus is coming to town! When I was a kid my mate's mother had a milk bar. The visiting circus would give free tickets to shops for putting a poster in the window. Then we likely lads would wheedle and whine till she had passed the tickets on to us.

The marketing of circuses has changed a lot since those days. In the mid 20th century circuses, like cinemas, were devastated by the attack of television. While the movies fought their way back up through money, glitz and multiplexes, it was harder for circuses.

Animal rights campaigns, hostile councils, and the demands for celebrity standards "like the telly", plus the rising costs of a labour-intensive business, squashed many a small operation.

But another circus model was evolving. A new street-theatre energy gave birth to the likes of Circus Oz in 1978, and in 1984, in Montreal, the new king-pin to be: Cirque du Soleil.

It brought together theatre, fantasy, graphics, ballet, a modern music track - and sensational skills in juggling, tumbling, flying - everything except the animals. They, sad to say, have been locked back in their zoos and can no longer join the circus.

The whole profession has been reborn. Today Cirque de Soleil has 20 shows - some under the big top, some permanently housed, some as arena spectaculars. And this year their estimated turnover will be close to a billion dollars. Now you're talking "corporation".

Finn Taylor is an Eltham boy who ran away to the circus. These days he is a vice president at Cirque headquarters in Montreal. From selling popcorn his job has grown to managing some of the most challenging tasks in the organisation, the touring shows.

For example, right now he is responsible for the Michael Jackson World Tour, in Moscow. It's January. Any takers for that job?

Having been to Australia seven times in 14 years, the Cirque settles in here comfortably and knows it will fill the seats. "Australia is one of the best markets," says Taylor. "Per capita we're the second best in the world."

But there are no plans for a permanent show here. "That's a big leap that requires massive tourism traffic,"  explains Taylor. He might have added that a tourist town like Las Vegas has seven Cirque shows - in theatres built specially by the mega casinos for hundreds of millions of dollars. Once one of them had one, they all had to have one.

The show touring Australia is unique, as is each of the 20. This is called Ovo, a fantasy world of magical insects. As colourful and vivid as all the other creations, you are guaranteed to see sights and feats you have never seen before.

Australians are great lovers of circus and have welcomed Cirque seven times, for some of their biggest shows. But we also make a significant contribution to the profession as a breeding ground for young tumblers.

The National Institute of Circus Arts offers a three-year bachelor's degree and two-year VCE. The Institute is housed in its own $10 million National Circus Centre at the Prahran campus of Swinburne University.

This year Circus Oz will move in to their own building in Collingwood, which includes extensive facilities and a permanent spiegeltent.

Guy Laliberte was a 24 years old accordion player and stilt walker when he birthed Cirque du Soleil. Now he is a space tourist and World Series Poker champion with a personal worth of $2.6 billion. So never let it be said that there is no more money to be made from the ancient art of circus.


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