Feiler Faster

The biggest crisis in the entertainment business that you’ve never heard of, and may not even care about, is the crisis of finding circus acts. This problem has fascinated me since my year as a circus clown some years back. One huge problem is that Eastern European countries had state sponsored circuses, and that supply has mostly dried up with the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Cirque du Soleil mostly trains its own, but now it’s having problems filling unique slots, which explains why more and more if its shows have boring, same-y acts, more like visual wallpaper than memorable show stoppers.

As Cirque du Soleil rolls through its 23rd year and prepares to expand to 22 shows by the end of 2010, from 14 today, it has become one of Canada’s marquee cultural exports and a $620 million–a–year business. Cirque du Soleil shows will appear in 24 countries this year, drawing nearly 10 million people.
Scouts like Ms. Giasson will travel the world, scour the Internet and vet thousands of unsolicited applications to fill 500 new roles. In their quest, they have created a database of 20,000 potential performers. Among them: 24 giants (including a Ukrainian who is 8 foot 2), 23 whistlers, 466 contortionists, 14 pickpockets, 35 skateboarders, 1,278 clowns, eight dislocation artists and 73 people classified simply as small.
But a problem arises when talent is truly unique and either difficult or impossible to replace. If, for example, one enters the words “giant” and “opera” into the database, only one name pops up: Victorino Antonio Lujan, a 39–year–old Argentinian who stands just shy of seven feet and weighs about 400 pounds.
Benoit Laroche, a casting adviser in Montreal, ran across Mr. Lujan taking up two seats at a circus in Buenos Aires in 1999. Mr. Laroche asked him whether he was an artist, thinking he might be a circus performer. “He said, ’Yes, I am an opera singer,’” recalls Mr. Laroche, who knew instantly he had found a potential star.
Still, it took six years before Mr. Lujan ended up in a show, paired with a diminutive soprano.
Working with such singular talent forces Cirque to walk a tightrope. The artistic side is always looking for new acts. The business side wants to make sure they aren’t irreplaceable.

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