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Visiting the rehearsals for Delirium, the latest Cirque du Soleil show, which premieres on Thursday, means travelling beyond the outskirts of Montreal, to Mirabel, the city's now-retired airport. Past the fleet of FedEx planes and left of the Transat hangar, the Cirque troupe is dancing and singing their way through their new show. The traditional space at Cirque du Soleil headquarters, as it turns out, just wasn't humongous enough.

In addition to its vast new rehearsal space, Cirque du Soleil, Quebec's greatest cultural export, is facing another challenge. For this show, the circus famous for its wildly inventive acrobatics, is dropping its high-wire act, abandoning the tent and moving into an arena-venue music-and-dance spectacle.

It's a first for the Cirque. Instead of their traditional tent space, they will be headlining at places like Montreal's Bell Centre, where Delirium kicks off. Think of it as a bit of box-office compression: The ticket-sale numbers that used to take weeks to accrue will now take a few evenings. Any given night in the Cirque's traditional big tent would mean a capacity of 2,500 tickets; by comparison, one night at Montreal's Bell Centre means 12,000. The Montreal gig will kick off the first leg of a North American tour, one that will include Albany, N.Y. Columbus, Ohio, and finally Toronto, on Feb. 20.

The Cirque's partner in the show is Live Nation (formerly known as Clear Channel Entertainment), which will be taking care of the heavy promotion for Delirium.

This new, bigger approach points to a long-standing dilemma faced by Cirque creative types, one identified by founder and chief executive officer Guy Laliberté in an interview granted to this reporter in 2001.

"In 1984, when I first started the company, I said our success will come when we manage to balance the artistic aspect of our work and the commerce aspect of it," he said at the time. "And I really believe that we have -- this is one of our greatest achievements, to balance these two. They're naturally not together."

Laliberté has tried to continue taking risks, while pumping up those things the Cirque does best. It is a pretty astonishing success story -- indeed, the Cirque seems to perfectly embody the term cultural industry.

When Delirium launches, it will be the 12th show the Cirque has up and running (seven touring and five in permanent venues). The Cirque now lords over Las Vegas, with massive ticket sales for their hugely popular shows there. And this June will see the Vegas premiere of their 13th show, based entirely on the music of the Beatles -- a dream of Laliberté, who was good friends with late Beatle George Harrison. (How the Cirque's New Age aesthetic will mesh with the Beatles' music remains to be seen.) And Jonathan Hochwald, executive VP of creative development for Live Nation, has sung the praises of Cirque, calling them the "Pixar of live entertainment," arguing further that the troupe has never had a show that didn't work.

The Cirque's live shows have proven extremely successful, but some of their other ventures haven't entirely worked. In 1998, regular Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone was given the chance to create a film adaptation of the popular live Cirque show Alegria. The film didn't fare well at the box office and was deemed a dismal critical failure -- what worked on stage, as it turned out, did not translate to the big screen. The Cirque has not made a feature film since.

As well, in 2001, Laliberté was talking up the idea of a Cirque boutique hotel, in which acrobats and circus performers would deliver room service. Perhaps thankfully, within two years the Cirque announced that that particular concept had been shelved.

And even their live shows, though untouchable in terms of ticket sales, have had their detractors, with some dismissing the Cirque's style as New Age kitsch. After seeing the Cirque show Dralion in 1999, one Montreal critic accused the Cirque of being "a three-ring version of Celine Dion."

With Delirium, the hope appears to be that a concoction of the old and new -- taking music from past Cirque successes and melding it with a new storyline, choreography and design -- will keep things fresh while appeasing their fan base.

Inspiration for the show was born after Montreal-based directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, veterans of the international multimedia stage-show milieu, staged a Cirque show last summer during the Montreal International Jazz Festival. When Laliberté saw that show, he approached the creative team about doing Delirium, a show based on an anthology of musical compositions from previous Cirque shows.

Lemieux and Pilon said they were thrilled at the prospect. "Choosing from 21 years of such incredible shows," Lemieux says. "Can you imagine? We started by choosing our top 40, and then had to eliminate -- no easy process. We ended up with our top 20."

Then came the process of creating a narrative thread. "This show was different, in that we were arriving at the story after we had the music," Pilon says. "Our theme was the loss of individuality in such a technological world. Our central character, who walks on stilts, was trying to find a way to ground himself in a world that's more and more technological, more virtual." Inspirational models for the show range from Alice in Wonderland to The Little Prince, The Wizard of Oz and the work ofFrench poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

"The show is about this character's search for identity after he leaves his planet," explains Lemieux. "His planet is very straight, very conformist. He's a poet -- he flies away and then finds himself elsewhere. Then he must return to the planet, after being in a dreamscape, to teach others what he has learned."

As far as the plot goes, there doesn't seem to be much stylistic deviation from previous Cirque shows. (The troupe has never been famous for gritty realism, after all.) But the venue shift and absence of acrobats is something that might concern Cirque purists. A sense of intimacy has often accompanied their shows, which have taken place in relatively smaller confines (certainly compared to an airport hangar). Now, 44 dancers and musicians will manoeuvre on a massive stage, with audience members on both sides of the platform. Huge screens will allow for projection of Imax-size images during the dance numbers.

Despite any cynicism one might have about the Cirque, witnessing their rehearsal process means getting caught up in their act. Watching the performers run through an energetic rehearsal, it's impossible not to be drawn into their movements, as they strut across a mammoth stage to an African-inspired tribal beat.

"This is like the extreme-sports version of the circus," says Lemieux. "Just call us the extreme circus."

"Putting on a show like this is always scary," says Pilon. "Of course we're nervous. We're doing all of the elements of this show as we go along, from conception to costumes to choreography. This show really will be quite different -- creating it has been very unique as well."

"We're still breaking the mould," adds Lemieux. "That's part of the fun, part of the challenge of doing a production with the Cirque."

Special to The Globe and Mail