Big-top comeback? Cirque du Soleil brings Luzia to Toronto amid global expansion plans

Unveiling Luzia, its latest eye-popping artistic confection, Cirque du Soleil says it is refocusing on live shows — its "bread and butter" — while also moving forward on its ambitious menu of expansion projects worldwide.

'We'll never go in the direction that our fans will disagree with,' says CEO Daniel Lamarre

Cirque du Soleil's latest show Luzia is its first to be directed by a Canadian woman, Brigitte Poupart. (Laurence Labat/Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi/2016 Cirque du Soleil)

It's back to the basics for Cirque du Soleil.

Unveiling Luzia, its latest eye-popping artistic confection, Cirque du Soleil says it is refocusing on live shows — its "bread and butter" — while also moving forward on its ambitious menu of expansion projects worldwide.

At one time, the Quebec-based entertainment giant could seemingly do no wrong.

However, it has faced a host of challenges in recent years. There have been bad reviews, high-profile flops and concerns about oversaturation in its second home of Las Vegas, as well as financial woes tied to rapid expansion, significant layoffs and the headline-grabbing sale of a majority stake to U.S. and Chinese investment firms in 2015.

Luzia's back-to-basics artistic mentality, coupled with director Brigitte Poupart's background in theatre, film and TV, seems to answer criticism of recent Cirque creations, including the high-profile Paramour, its attempt at an original Broadway musical. 

"They sort of reached the saturation point in Las Vegas for the types of shows they've been doing there since the '90s, and there's only so many tent shows they can create over the year, so they're trying to branch out into other areas of entertainment," Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck told CBC News. 

Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberté dons a red clown nose among other Cirque characters at ceremonies unveiling his Hollywood Walk of Fame star in November 2010. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

"It makes sense for them to try and do new things if they want to continue on as an entertainment conglomerate. In order for them to succeed in those other fields, they need to bring in outside experts and not assume that they know what they're doing."

Some of Cirque's biggest successes, he added, have involved established musical brands, like the Beatles and Michael Jackson, or experienced theatre creators, such as Robert Lepage or Diane Paulus.

Global expansion

A theme park in Mexico, a kids show for Netflix and a deal with the National Football League for an interactive fan experience in Times Square are all currently on the table, but "Cirque du Soleil remains first and foremost a live show organization and it will remain forever our bread and butter," according to Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre.

But might the company's global expansion plans be spreading its creative juices a little thin?

There [are] 30,000 troops of circus in China, so we are not going to impress them with a circus show.- Daniel Lamarre, Cirque du Soleil CEO

"That's a valid concern we have," Lamarre said, but "we'll never go in the direction that our fans will disagree with." 

Branching out beyond the kind of shows for which the Cirque is widely known is necessary to appeal to and retain its worldwide audience. For instance, the company is further exploring the "dinner and a show" concept after recent success with Joya in Mexico's Riviera Maya, Lamarre said.

Luzia debuts in Toronto on Thursday after its premiere in Montreal. (Cirque du Soleil)

"There [are] 30,000 troops of circus in China," he pointed out, "so we are not going to impress them with a circus show." 

'You see people, that's the main thing'

Inspired by Mexican culture, Luzia debuts in Toronto this week after Cirque's customary premiere in Montreal. 

'I went back to something more raw about circus...You see people, that's the main thing,' said Luzia director Brigitte Poupart. (Cirque du Soleil)

"I wanted something intimate, to break the fourth wall, immersive, emotional, [to show] humanity onstage, community," said Quebec actress, writer and theatre creator Poupart of her goals for the new production, which is also the company's first directed by a Canadian woman.

"I went back to something more raw about circus. That's what we see: acrobatics. The set is really pure — not that much elements, makeup and costumes," she said. "You see people, that's the main thing."

Beyond the dazzling feats, however, Poupart has helped Luzia's performers infuse their amazing displays with a deeper artistry, said Benjamin Courtenay, who earned raves while the show played Montreal.

"This show especially, what we've really dug into is not only acrobatic — high-level acrobatics — but also a very touching sort of scene, stuff that comes at you a little emotionally and can make you feel something." 

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt