Cirque du Soleil is renowned for the startling feats of its acrobats and high-wire artists. But it’s the corporate side that has pulled off its most unlikely stunt yet – getting Canada’s most famous cultural export on stage inside the forbidding red walls of the Kremlin.
Since Feb. 4, the State Kremlin Palace, a building that once housed the more sedate performances of Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, has been packed each night with Russian audiences who come to see Zarkana, a Broadway-meets-the-Big-Top production that includes such eye-popping stunts as the “flying triple trapeze” and the “wheel of death.” If Lenin’s corpse weren’t on display a few hundred metres away on Red Square, you’d wonder if he was spinning too.
For Cirque du Soleil Inc., showing Zarkana inside the Kremlin means unparalleled exposure in Russia, a market it has targeted as the right fit – because of its huge size, rich theatrical tradition and emerging middle class – for a major expansion.
Getting inside the Kremlin is a big step, even for a company that has already established itself as one of the few truly globally-known Canadian brands. With about $1-billion in annual revenue, and 5,000 employees worldwide, it represents a significant cultural export for a country that can boast of few iconic brands beyond the BlackBerry and Four Seasons Hotels. More than 100 million people in 40 countries have seen Cirque du Soleil shows over the past 2½ decades.
From its roots in Quebec street theatre in the mid-1980s, Cirque du Soleil began looking outward by taking its shows on the road to English Canada, then the United States, where it found a big following in California and Las Vegas.
The permanent shows in Las Vegas – which constitute close to half the company’s business – put the United States at the top of the company’s markets, although it is also very active in many other countries. “Japan is huge – we’re going there every second year for 18 months every time we go,” said chief executive officer Daniel Lamarre. “Spain is huge – we’re travelling in five different cities in Spain. London is a big city for us. Paris is also very important for us. And I would say Moscow is right up there.”
Indeed, Russia now ranks among the top five countries for Cirque du Soleil, along with the United States, Japan, Spain and Brazil.
To break into the Russian market, in 2008 the company created a subsidiary called Cirque du Soleil Rus and opened a permanent Moscow office. In the first three years, the company invested $42-million in the country and sold over 700,000 tickets to the touring shows Varekai, Corteo and Saltimbanco.
But it was the three-month, $57-million Russian production of Zarkana – which required a feat of engineering to get it inside through the narrow 15th century Kremlin gates – that cemented Russia as its fastest-growing market. It’s a startling success in a country where just 2 per cent of the population knew what Cirque du Soleil was in 2008.
Mr. Lamarre says there are two reasons the leap into Russia has worked as well as it has. The first was a decision to hire an all-Russian staff for the Moscow office, people that knew the environment the company would be operating in. (The performers were already more than 20 per cent Russian, a testimony to the strong circus tradition in the country.) “We cannot pretend as Canadians that we understand every single culture there is in every single country,” Mr. Lamarre said. “So we work with Americans when we’re in Las Vegas, which is more than normal, and it’s just as normal that we work with Russians when we’re in Russia.”
Mr. Lamarre’s other move was to reach out to a pair of veteran Russia hands, the father-and-son team of George and Craig Cohon, who agreed to become 25 per cent partners in Cirque du Soleil Rus.
The Cohons aren’t actually Russians, but they’ve been doing business here long enough to almost qualify. The elder Mr. Cohon is famous as the man who brought McDonald’s restaurants to Moscow in 1990, the last days of the Soviet Union. Mr. Lamarre had served on the board of McDonald’s Canada, and was impressed by George Cohon’s accomplishment in Russia, “but, more importantly, how much he loved that country and how much he was involved.”