Paul Solman reports on the phenomenal success of a fantastic circus troupe.
PAUL SOLMAN: Every day, 29-year- old Brazilian Juliana Neves gets dressed and heads straight to work... Straight up. Neves claims hers is the greatest job on earth, flying 60 feet in the air on nothing but a banner of blue silk.
JULIANA NEVES: I think one of the magical aspects of circus is that risk of death that's right there. So people come watch us, and in conscience I think you have that feeling, "oh, my God, she can fall, if she falls she can die." I think that's what is fascinating about circus, and I like that.
PAUL SOLMAN: The circus Neves stars in is the latest spectacle of one of the world's most spectacular business success stories, Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. In 16 short years, the sun circus has morphed from street troupe to mega firm, with separate shows now packing big tops in Asia, Europe, and North America, permanent shows in Disney World and Biloxi, Mississippi, and two more in Las Vegas, including a water circus called Au, which sells out a theater of 1,600 ten shows a week, $100 a ticket. But how do you go from passing the hat to grossing several hundred million dollars a year? To former fire-eater and stilt- walker Guy Laliberte, Cirque's co- founder and president, the first secret of success was repackaging.
GUY LALIBERTE: People had to say we had to reinvent circus. We didn't reinvent the circus: We packaged it in a much more modern way, but basically we took an art form which is known, with a lot of dust on it, where people had basically forget that it could be something else than what they knew about, and we basically organized for ourselves a creative platform.
PAUL SOLMAN: Part of the "something else" was a more economical circus: No animals, one ring, so the tent could go up just about anywhere. Then came the product inside the tent: Physical feats, packaged as multimedia extravaganza. Bernard Petiot is in charge of training.
BERNARD PETIOT: It's a combination of the acrobatic background mixed with artistic performance. So we've got to show them how to be on the stage, how to interact with the public, how to follow the music.
PAUL SOLMAN: Case in point, 29- year-old Victor, who looks like nothing I used to see in Ringling Brothers. His act is not so much about how many balls he can keep in the air as using the balls to strut more primal stuff. Still, Kee says the rules of juggling haven't changed.
VIKTOR KEE: Don't hit another object. Second rule, never drop. And third, keep going.
PAUL SOLMAN: No matter what happens.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, trust me, basic juggling is not that hard.
VIKTOR KEE: That's better than before.
PAUL SOLMAN: But to be near perfect, it helps to start practicing, as he did, at age 11, and to keep practicing every day of your life.
PAUL SOLMAN: I don't think that's going to be in the cards here…
PAUL SOLMAN: If the old foot-flip seems an impossible dream for some of us, it's no more outlandish than the idea 16 years ago that a quirky circus could be a real money maker.
GUY LALIBERTE: You have to understand one thing: The first 50 bankers who we went to see just laughed at our face. You know, we didn't even have a clown nose on our nose, trying to get a loan, and everybody laughed at us.
PAUL SOLMAN: So Laliberte and his fellow street workers appealed to an investor of last resort -- the Quebec government, which gave the troop 1.5 million Canadian dollars to buy equipment. It was 1987, and Laliberte decided to roll the dice, spend it all on one make-or-break performance at an arts festival in California; no fee, just a promise of top billing.
GUY LALIBERTE: When first we went in LA, you know, we had no money to put gasoline in our truck to come back if we failed down there.
PAUL SOLMAN: You literally couldn't have gotten back?
GUY LALIBERTE: Basically not. We went through our last penny in order to go down there, and we risked everything.
PAUL SOLMAN: Reporter: The risk paid off. Audiences loved them. So did the critics. The phenomenon was off and running. The Cirque is now a major Montreal asset, having built its own headquarters on a former garbage dump. Another building is in the works. And this is one of Quebec province's fastest growing employers, with 700 workers in Canada, 2,100 worldwide, including artisans of all stripes, from fabric painters to the sewing crew. The costume shop alone employs 250 -- the circus stunts so hard on the fabrics that the costumes wear out within weeks. There's a face cast of every performer so the headgear can be fitted in Montreal instead of the road, and though the key to the show are the performers, Laliberte sees virtually no constraints on the talent he can put to work.
GUY LALIBERTE: There are 6 billion, 7 billion people out there; the planet is full of jewels -- full of raw diamonds.
PAUL SOLMAN: But how hard is it to actually make it under the big top? I broached the subject with the silk flier, Juliana Neves.
JULIANA NEVES: For gymnasts, their bodies are ready, you just have to learn a new skill. So that's easier. But if you start from zero to do a fabric number, I would say it would take you at least three years.
PAUL SOLMAN: But not anybody can do it. If you tried to teach me to do something like that...
JULIANA NEVES: Yeah, I could teach you. Yeah, everybody can do it. Not the triple somersault, for example.
PAUL SOLMAN: The circus amazes in part by playing on natural human fears. Our species is not hard-wired, for instance, to fly 60 feet above the ground, or even to stand that high, as I was reminded at the cirque training facility.
PAUL SOLMAN: Feel how wet my hands are.
TRAINER: Oh, yeah.
PAUL SOLMAN: On the other hand, anyone can learn to overcome such resistance, if compelled to, and to prepare, if you're up on the flying trapeze, for the occasional return to earth.
TRAINER: Oh, you've done judo before, right, yeah?
PAUL SOLMAN: Yeah.
PAUL SOLMAN: Of course there are pitfalls every step of the way.
TRAINER: We'll use that as a warm-up, and we'll have you swing on bungee.
PAUL SOLMAN: It really hurts.
PAUL SOLMAN: One illusion of the circus is to camouflage the discomfort that, for example, these Chinese acrobats feel, their corsets well hidden, but necessary for stunts like these. Trainer Petiot thought it wise to reassure his new charge, however.
PAUL SOLMAN: How dangerous is this?
BERNARD PETIOT: Very dangerous. Could be not too much, or a lot. Okay, but let's consider that performing in circus is also projecting an image of high risk.
PAUL SOLMAN: So real risk, the illusion of risk, government money, and sophisticated marketing have all contributed to the cirque's success, but more important, perhaps, this seems to be globalization at its best, performers and audiences both thriving and utterly international.
TRAINER: Slowly down.
PAUL SOLMAN: Even calisthenics are run in English, Chinese, and Russian. Laliberte says the international nature of the show is the raison d'etre of the Cirque Du Soleil.
GUY LALIBERTE: You can have all kinds of people forgetting about where they come from, forgetting their political difference, forgetting about their difference of color, and just being entertained and enjoy the same thing in the same moment.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, even the ubiquitous songs of the cirque are in a made-up, Latin-sounding language made to transcend national boundaries. But some critics find this music generic and think that in trying to appeal to everyone Cirque De Soleil is becoming the McDonald's of circus, serving up the lowest- common-denominator fare that has lost touch with its street roots. So we asked those on the street itself, performers at Denver's annual Busker Festival. Karen Quest, who circles the globe scaring up audiences, says most buskers, performers who live off the kindness of strangers, are happy on the street, but would move indoors if the cirque came calling.
KAREN QUEST: It has brought circus to a lot of people. It's taken it to some levels that are amazing. But the western arts, I think, you know, they haven't tapped into any western artists yet.
PERFORMER: I'm going to begin the show with style and elegance…
PAUL SOLMAN: Canadian Bob Palmer is also impressed by the cirque, but thinks, as it's gone corporate, it's lost something.
FLYIN' BOB PALMER: The whole point of street performance is to interact with the audience. Not just "I'm the performer, you're the audience," no. Everybody becomes part of the show. I've done my show thousands of times, but every time it's different because I never know what my audience members are going to do. We don't want everything to be perfectly controlled. We invite chaos into the show.
PAUL SOLMAN: So is corporate conservatism stifling the risks that have propelled cirque de Soleil to such dizzying heights? No, says Laliberte. He says he keeps the company in private hands, sharing profits with the employees, precisely so it will keep sticking its neck out joyfully.
GUY LALIBERTE: 16 years out, I still want to think that I'm playing business.
PAUL SOLMAN: Playing business?
GUY LALIBERTE: Business is difficult. But it could be approached two ways: Seriously, or with the same way you're doing your job, with entertainment aspect, with pleasure, with fun. And we decided to try to make it as fun that we do our creativity.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is that why people, when they see it, are so amazed by it? Because nobody can imagine doing this. Our day at the circus was over. Ahh! But that hurts. And I at the end of my tethers, trying over and over to do just one gymnastic maneuver. The mind was willing, the body genetically reluctant. Until at last... Oh, my lord. Small wonder audiences the world over spend big-time money to see big-time artists do what so many of us can't.