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45 Degrees, once a department but now a subsidiary of Cirque du Soleil, will perform at the weekend’s NBA all-star game in Toronto. (Mark Blinch For the Globe and Mail)
45 Degrees, once a department but now a subsidiary of Cirque du Soleil, will perform at the weekend’s NBA all-star game in Toronto. (Mark Blinch For the Globe and Mail)

Cirque du Soleil’s growth strategy on solid footing Add to ...

Cirque du Soleil’s growth strategy under its new private equity owners centres in part on pushing the expansion of an in-house production business whose latest show uses no performers at all.

The name of the unit is 45 Degrees, Cirque du Soleil’s corporate events and special projects division. Earlier this month, a show it produced for the Futuroscope leisure park opened in France. The novelty: Creators use a series of projections mixed with water and sound effects to tell a story without a single circus performer.

There will be none of the traditional trapeze artists and contortionists the celebrated Cirque is known for in the 300 shows for Futuroscope. No jugglers or fire breathers. Just one actress walking around a 75,000-square-foot water stage and a whole lot of ingenuity and technology. It’s the first time the Cirque has developed a show without any circus performers, says 45 Degrees head Yasmine Khalil.

“[This is the type of] vision we have of developing new types of content and pushing a little bit the limits of our creativity,” Ms. Khalil said in an interview ahead of another show the special events producer is putting on this weekend for the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto. That show, a five-minute spectacle during player introductions, will feature acrobats and dancers.

Seven months after private equity firm TPG Capital took control of Cirque du Soleil with minority partners Fosun Capital Group and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec in a $1.5-billion deal, the famed circus troupe has mapped out its strongest prospects for growth. One piece is jumping into new geographies, including Asia. The other is leveraging the Cirque brand and talent into money-making opportunities outside the scope of its core arena and touring shows.

Enter 45 Degrees. Started about 15 years ago as Cirque’s marketing arm, the special events producer was spun out in 2014 as part of Cirque founder Guy Laliberté’s effort to recalibrate resources after a dismal financial performance two years earlier. With stated sales of between $25-million and $30-million for 2015, the wholly owned subsidiary is now aiming to quadruple that to at least $100-million by 2021. If it gets there, it would become a much larger part of Cirque’s overall business and profitability.

In its infancy, the production house organized Cirque du Soleil show launches and staged private performances for the troupe’s sponsors. When the team created a performance for the Academy Awards in 2002, the business really took off.

“I think what people saw there was the ability we had to create something from scratch and not just send in an act, a juggler, but actually take a theme, take somebody else’s message and objective and turn it into a performance,” Ms. Khalil said.

Soon the phone started ringing constantly. Microsoft Corp. tapped 45 Degrees for the launch of its Kinect device. Fiat wanted help promoting its Bravo car. Even Andorra came calling; the group created an exclusive show for the Pyrenees principality to help bring in tourists during its slower summer months.

The company now gets about 1,500 requests a year big and small, of which it rejects 90 per cent. Its minimum contract price, negotiated with clients, is about $400,000. Other gigs have included a two-hour opening ceremony show for the Pan Am games in Toronto and the half-time show at the 2012 Super Bowl.

If there’s a problem with the business, it’s that it has largely relied on a series of one-time events, said Mitch Garber, Cirque’s chairman. That’s starting to change, as Ms. Khalil strikes longer-term deals, such as the one for a continuing dinner theatre show for Mexican resort operator Grupo Vidanta and a separate agreement with cruise line MSC Cruises.

“If she can duplicate a recurring revenue stream and keep the major global events, then I think you have a business that will stand very solidly on its own,” Mr. Garber said. “We don’t shy away from the fact that we need to increase profit and grow the [Cirque’s overall business].”

More than a profit opportunity, 45 Degrees is also a kind of incubator where Cirque can try out performers and ideas for its larger shows, said Patrick Leroux, a Concordia University professor who founded a Montreal working group on circus research. As with Cirque’s other subsidiaries, such as multimedia design firm 4U2C, it feeds into and draws from the larger Cirque mother ship, Mr. Leroux said.

“In the long run, I think that this allows for a greater diversity of artistic and economic activity within the Cirque du Soleil group. They don’t have to rely on that one show doing really well. They now have various things going on.”

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