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Cirque du Soleil creates quirky Canada vision

2010. 8 June

by D'Arcy Doran
( At Canada's prism-shaped World Expo pavilion in Shanghai, dayglo-suited businessmen juggle bowling pins, royal guards march in "bearskin" hats made of flowers and hockey players zoom on roller blades.

After going into orbit last year when founder Guy Laliberte orchestrated a multimedia show from the International Space Station featuring U2, Cirque du Soleil is re-imagining its homeland for the millions of Chinese visiting Expo.

the millions of Chinese visiting Expo.

"We like these kinds of challenges. That's one of the great things about this company: you can challenge us with crazy things," executive producer Jacques Methe told AFP during a visit to survey the work in Shanghai.

Canada's collaboration with Cirque du Soleil marks the first time it has commissioned a private company to create a pavilion and cultural programme at a World Expo.

For the company, which has grown from a ragtag troupe of street performers in 1984 to a 5,000-employee entertainment giant presenting 20 circus shows simultaneously around the world, it is the biggest step yet in a new direction: designing and creating stand-alone venues separate from its performances.

Cirque du Soleil, which has long designed its own theatres, is now applying its creativity to bars, galleries and restaurants such as the Beatles-themed Revolution Lounge at the MGM Mirage hotel in Las Vegas.

"We are expanding this kind of activity. It will not replace our core business, needless to say, but we're very interested in diversifying into this," Methe said.

The company is playing the role of creator and curator for the 56-million-US-dollar pavilion, which has been receiving about 30,000 visitors a day since Expo opened on May 1.

Cirque brought together acrobats, architects, and filmmakers to bring its ideas to life, assembling an eclectic line-up of dancers, musicians and visual artists for the ongoing cultural programming.

It also brought in Canadian corporate heavyweights like Blackberry maker Research In Motion, transportation giant Bombardier, conglomerate Power Corp and mining company Teck as sponsors to help finance it all, Methe said.

"Given our reputation and our track record, we have access to the best guys in the world in all fields. That opens very luxurious possibilities for us," he said.

To create the pavilion, which has red cedar slats fanning out in triangles to suggest Canada's emblematic maple leaves, Cirque sought help from Montreal architecture firm Saia Barbarese Topouzanov.

It enlisted music video directors Felix and Paul for an animated film featuring a Cirque character flying whimsical contraptions across Canada -- which visitors control by pedalling stationary bicycles.

The creative process begins with gathering "people that you would not expect" to throw out ideas, Methe said -- a musical score might start with a composer or an office secretary.

"Cirque's approach is if you have great ideas and you have been doing all sorts of interesting things in a certain field maybe you can join us and bring this out of the box approach to something else," he said.

The Cirque characters who interact with Expo visitors sprang from national motifs -- nature, hockey and royal regiments, said Veronique Dussault, who creates Cirque events.

"At the beginning it's a drawing. Then with guards for example, you just add the idea putting in flowers and the rifles become confetti cannons," she said. "We're just wrapping poetry around the message we want to bring here."

Cirque performers mingle with the crowd at the pavilion on a regular basis as it would be impossible to do full performances for the duration of the six-month Expo, Methe says.

But acrobats from "Zaia", Cirque's Macau show, did appear at the first of six gala Canadian cultural events planned during Expo.

Ottawa is not the first to ask Cirque to reinterpret its story.

Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr -- along with Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison -- as well as the estates of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson have turned to Cirque to create colourful shows and multimedia experiences.

"Canada looked at us as a creative company -- as somebody who had a very different outlook -- and trusted us," Cirque spokeswoman Renee-Claude Menard said.