A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #5 - WEEK OF JULY 7-13, 2014

Exile Rom-Com Stable

As You Like It (Canadian Stage)

High Park Amphitheatre, 1873 Bloor Street West

Thursday, July 3; 8 p.m.

Theatre Review

Since their double-bill Shakespeare in High Park season of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew proved so popular last year, Canadian Stage does it again for its 32nd season and in marking the Immortal Bard’s 450th birth anniversary in the urban park space starting with the light romantic-comedy As You Like It around its usual formula of court intrigues, gender benders and identity politics staying stable to warrant attention.

Under the thumb of his brother Jaques (Michael Man) for far too long, Orlando de Boys (Alexander Plouffe) rebels not only in being held back by him and under the dictatorial dukedom of Duke Frederick (Omar Alex Khan), that he is banished into exile in the Forest of Arden after fairly defeating Frederick’s champion wrestler (Emilo Vieira) in a match.

Lady of the court Roselind (Amy Rutherford), the daughter of the previously deposed duke, has fallen for Orlando and is too sent packing for the woods by her uncle to which her loyal cousin Celia (Chala Hunter) and court jester Touchstone (Sean Dixon) go in search of Orlando and her father Duke Senior (Beau Dixon), the rightful ruler of the land, in the guise of a male in the hopes to find them both.

As Orlando comes across the good Duke Senior’s encampment with his faithful servant Ada (Shauna Black) in tow, it turns into a ball of confusion for everyone involved from lusty shepherds (also Khan and Black) abound in the forest and lovers and brothers looking to find one another all searching for love and redemption.

Veteran Factory Theatre director Nigel Shawn Williams maintains a certain level of even laughs, physical and otherwise, for As You Like It and the cast is boisterous in all of its actions in looking at the changing natures of humans within their surroundings trying to make the best out of their situations and/or lot in life, as so well demonstrated by Gwenlyn Cumyn as the exiled duke’s disenchanted wife Lady Jody being a highlight here.

While it’s supposed to take place in France as the original play, resetting it in 1950s France is a bit of a befuddling loss. Despite Lindsay Anne Black’s decent period costuming, it feels unnecessary and an unfortunate waste as to pertain how it connects to all of this.

Julia Tribe’s minimalist set design makes for a nice downplay and original songs and score by Sam Sholdice accompanies the play’s atmosphere and fun all in its 90 minute run and animated delivery worth sitting through.

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As You Like It runs through August 30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays, PWYC ($20 suggested). Info: call 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com.

Cirque Boldly Going at 30

A character from Cirque du Soleil's KURIOS show celebrating the Montréal-based entertainment company's 30th anniversary, June 16, 2014.

Arts Feature

At a youngish 30 that it quietly marks this year, even a behemoth like Cirque du Soleil can be humbled as the Québec-based contemporary circus learned in these past few years when it boldly engaged on a highly ambitious expansion of their entertainment empire around 2007 during a global recession.

Started with the now-retired residency shows in Asia (ZED in Tokyo; ZAIA in Macao), Los Angeles (the film-themed IRIS) and Las Vegas’ Viva ELVIS, plus three attempts to conquer New York with Wintuk and Zarkana with mixed results, with the latter being sent to Vegas to replace the Presley show, as well as the mega-flop Banana Shpeel (in my opinion wasn’t that bad, but it could have been better); all these ventures cost them at a loss of C$110 million.

And on top of all that, Cirque had to lay off 400 employees last year, as well as an unannounced cutting of performers from the Vegas shows and no longer offering support allowances for their touring shows that enabled performers’ families to travel with them, which made the company one of the top entertainment groups to work for.

But, as stated earlier, the Canadian neo-circus isn’t too big to reflect on those lessons as their larger-than-life founder and guide Guy Laliberté once said: “If we can preserve it, Cirque du Soleil has a future. If we get too greedy, if we forget to be humble or become arrogant, then we put ourselves in danger.”

When Laliberté handed the reins of running Cirque over to now President and CEO Daniel Lamarre around 2006, the grand ringmaster went about his business with his global water conservation pet project ONE DROP Foundation, raising his five children and his well-publicized Poetic Social Mission space trip in 2009 to raise awareness for ONE DROP, he felt he left his beloved company that he helped create in the Quebec Eastern township busker festivals in the early 1980s in capable hands without him, with the occasional over-the-shoulder glances at their shows.

But after the series of show closures and his Istithmar World Capital and Nakheel PJSC partners in Dubai’s financial woes that followed in the Great Recession (and at one time, planned a residency show in the Middle Eastern state), Laliberté decided to look at the books again around mid-2012. While Cirque was and still in the green, profits weren’t looking too swift, he recalls. There was out of control spending in some sections of the company, in particular of those treating Cirque like their own personal piggybanks for their own means – and according to some, were a bit dubious – and too much concentration was spent on show creativity and revenue and not enough on their profitability.

To stop the bleeding and save Cirque’s reputation, Laliberté secretly bought back the half of 20% share he sold to his Dubai partners in 2008 and began the layoffs. “I realized that if we didn’t commit to a serious shift in direction,” he said, “we would hit a wall. We fell into the trap of thinking we could do all things entertainment-related. In the end, you realize that you don’t always have the internal expertise and that people can’t deliver on their promises.”

“At one point,” Laliberté ruefully added, “I had too many intellectuals making business decisions.”

Vice President of Creative Content Gilles Ste-Croix, who himself was one of Cirque’s very first performers and co-founders along with Daniel Gauthier in 1984 concurs. “If you have a very good artistic product it’s very well,” he said, “but you have to have a good business management (plan). We like to think there has to be a 75 percent satisfaction [with a show] and below that we don’t think it’s worth it. Of course we can hold on and make the return and the money and everything, but at the end of everything you know we only have our brand [to rely on].”

“We must not be too pretentious,” Ste-Croix adds, “we have to be humble.”

Cirque du Soleil's Micheal Jackson tribute shows, THE IMMORTAL World Tour (left) and ONE (right).

The good news is that Cirque’s fortunes artistically and financially are starting to improve. Launching their Michael Jackson tributes, the touring THE IMMORTAL World Tour and its Vegas residency ONE; in 2011 and 2013 respectively and 2012’s Amaluna has been helping out matters, even though IMMORTAL’s high production costs and the paying out of royalties to the Jackson estate have been a bit of a drain on them money-wise.

For their 30th anniversary year they have two new shows on the books: the touring steampunk-inspired KURIOS that opened at their Montréal home base April 24 before embarking onto its world tour to Québec City and Toronto; and a permanent in-the-round show at the Mexican resort of Riveria Maya, JOYÀ, set to open on November 8.

Construction of the residency show JOYÀ's Vidanta Theater on the Riveria Maya in Mexico.

Being their first dinner theatre project since 1997’s Pomp Duck and Circumstance, JOYÀ is about an alchemist and his granddaughter embarking on a transformative quest to uncover the secrets of life, created by award-winning Québécois stage director Martin Genest as situated in its 600-seat venue reflecting the region’s Yucatan jungle with its palapa-style thatch roofing housing.

As unique as their other 19 shows worldwide, Lamarre stated that, “We were asked four years ago by (time-share hotel partner) Grupo Vidanta to imagine something different, something new, something unprecedented for this destination. We hope that our show will create a destination attraction for our audiences that will reflect the culture and magic of Mexico.”

Still unafraid to look toward new frontiers, Cirque recently started a new division to create theatrical properties in smaller venues with Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, to be headed by veteran impresario Scott Zeiger, who created successful runs of The Lion King and Rock of Ages in Las Vegas and world tours of Jersey Boys.

“(Zeiger’s) extensive experience in this segment of the entertainment industry is a huge asset,” Lamarre said. “We are thrilled that he has accepted the invitation to join (Cirque). His outstanding reputation and credibility…are based on his past successes with (companies) Clear Channel, SFX and [as co-founder of] BASE Entertainment.”

“This new venture for Cirque is very exciting for me,” Zeiger stated, “I’m hopeful that what we’re going to bring [to the division is] much more closely resembles traditional Broadway shows…and brings to the table circus artistry and Cirque’s, not just acts, but aesthetic and design.”

And they’re going Hollywood again, sort of. Just recently they announced a new live touring arena show based on the Jim Cameron blockbuster science-fiction epic Avatar, expected to run in late 2015 just prior to their forthcoming sequels in 2016 to 2018, a deal cut with the Canadian-born Cameron before the first film ever made it to the screen.

Left to right: Filmmaker James Cameron and Cirque CEO/President Daniel Lamarre at the C2MTL 2014 Media Conference.

“Our relationship with Jim Cameron began with my visit at his Avatar cutting room,” Lamarre said at the Cirque-sponsored Commerce + Creativity Conference on May 29 – also known as C2MTL – in Montréal, along with Cameron. “I am thrilled that almost five years later, Cirque du Soleil will be able to explore the very inspirational Avatar realm for the live stage. This will mark our second creative project with Jim [after their Andrew Adamson-directed Worlds Away 3-D film in 2012], and I believe it will be as stimulating for both our creative forces.”

“Over the years, I have discovered the extraordinary talents and imaginations of both the artists and the creative forces behind Cirque du Soleil,” said Cameron. “I know we share the common goal of bringing audiences to another level of entertainment experiences. I look forward to doing just that on this project.”

Cirque's other enterprises includes nightclubs, fashion and fitness (left-right: LIGHT Nightclub in Las Vegas; a "Cripcion" T-shirt from Desigual and a Jukari workout session in Madrid).

Also within that time they’ve clandestinely gone beyond their stages in putting their brand and styles on the Jukari gym programme with Reebok; fashion and apparel with Desigual and the hospitality scene through their Sandbox Hospitality Group with nightclubs REVOLUTION, The Gold Lounge and LIGHT, all set nearby their Vegas operations.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like Cirque’s learned much from past errors, especially with them going back into the theatrical game after Banana Shpeel. And Worlds Away wasn’t exactly a box-office hit, what with mixed reviews and only drawing in $32 million but enough to make back its $25 million production costs. Yet look a little bit closer and one will find they’re not as bold with their bravado as they were not long ago.

“We understand that with each new show, the expectation of the public gets higher and the risk for us gets bigger and bigger,” said Lamarre when opening ONE last year. “That is why we are taking it with a lot of humility.”

Ste-Croix himself admitted that the company bit off more that it could chew in the 2008-2011 period when critics and fans complained about the quality of some of its shows. “The idea [now] is to polish each show like a jewel until it becomes a diamond and lasts forever,” he remarked. “We lost some of that in that growth.”

As Michel Crête, a renowned set designer on many of Cirque’s shows; can attest they allow the audiences to come up with their take on the creative process. “We would have a press conference in which we’d describe our process,” he said, “and people would go…looking for things [in that show]. But that’s crazy. The audience shouldn’t be forced to look for our motivations. Audience members should show up with their own personal backgrounds and get what they want out of the show.”

And there it lies behind Cirque’s mystique and magic they’ve upheld for three decades on, readying to not only take their audiences to different realms as well as themselves being the Canadian ambassadors of goodwill they’ve hard earned since their Baie-Saint-Paul salad days, while moving and looking forward to the next thirty years.

“We’re not afraid of risking what was our success yesterday in order to explore some new field,” Laliberté contends. “We’re adventurous. We like the challenge of unknown territory, unknown artistic field and that’s what stimulates us.”

(Revised article; originally published in The Outreach Connection, March 3, 2014)

KURIOS Coming

A scene from KURIOS and its creator/director Michel Laprise (inset).

Theatre Preview

Steampunk, meet Cirque du Soleil.

In marking three decades of entertaining over 150 million worldwide, the Québécois neo-circus rolls out KURIOS – The Cabinet of Curiosities, currently playing at their Montréal home; sets to make its Toronto stopover this August at the Port Lands on the theme of the boundless human imagination.

For their 35th show Cirque introduces Michel Laprise, who looks like a novice after hiring superstar directors like Robert Lapage, Diane Paulus and François Girard to create their productions, yet he’s a more weathered stagehand as one wouldn’t suspect.

Working as a talent scout for the company in 2000 after nine years as an actor, director and artistic director on the Québec scene and moving onto its special events section in 2006 to direct Madonna’s 2012 Superbowl halftime show and her MDNA World Tour later, it was Cirque’s 2008 Québec City 400th anniversary show that got him noticed.

“It was where (Cirque founder/guide) Guy (Laliberté) told me he’d like to give me a chance to do a full-scale Cirque show one day,” Laprise recalled. At first was hired to do an extreme sports-themed arena show for Cirque that eventually got cancelled, the estimated $28-million KURIOS gets its ideas from the late-19th century period and authors Jules Verne to H.G. Wells.

“Because it was an era when everything was possible,” the director explained. “This era became an inspiration for this show because I think we need optimism [these days]. I’m a happy camper. Nice things happen to me. I think we live in a world of abundance and we have to remind ourselves of that.”

KURIOS steps into the laboratory of the protagonist scientist known as The Seeker, who invents a time machine but instead of travelling to a new world, bizarre and worldly characters enter his to interact and show him a completely different perspective of looking at things.

Joining the production crew are Cirque veterans set/props designer Stéphane Roy, choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Susan Gaudreau to sound designers Jacques Boucher and Jean-Michel Caron; but Yamon Okur helping out in the choreography and composer Raphaël Beau, with returnees Bob & Bill, are first-timers.

“What we want to do with KURIOS is to create a world that people will not only be immersed, but will be welcomed into this world,” states Laprise. “I want the (audience) to believe…that it (had) always existed. It’s not just a show; it’s more than a show. I feel so privileged, because the audience will know [certain circus] disciplines.

“It used to be like a few years ago (they) would probably know juggling. Now people know what is balancing, what is contortion…so now we can play with them. We can change perception about them and the audience will enjoy it even more.”

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KURIOS runs August 28-October 19 @ Port Lands (51 Commissioners); a September 19 charity show benefits the Toronto homeless kids group Horizons for Youth. Tickets/info: 1-800-450-1480 or cirquedusoleil.com or 416-781-9898 x27 or horizonsforyouth.org for benefit show.

(Revised article; originally published in The Outreach Connection, May 8, 2014)