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Cirque du Soleil takes its high-flying act to Russia

Performers from Cirque Du Soleil take part in a dress rehearsal of the show Zarkana in Moscow's Kremlin Palace.

STAFF/ANTON GOLUBEV/REUTERS

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.

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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."

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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."

When Mr. Lamarre called George Cohon for advice, he found out that Craig Cohon – just 29 years old at the time – had followed his father by opening the first Coca-Cola factory in Russia. "I said to myself, 'Those are the right people to guide me there.' "

The Cohons traded on the trust and relationships they established to pave the way for Cirque's entry into Russia, and eventually its audacious arrival inside the Kremlin walls. "You have to believe in this country. I learned that from my dad with McDonald's. You have to absolutely believe in this country and its people. You have to say what you're going to do, and do it. And you have to push all the systems to make sure it happens," Craig Cohon, vice-chairman of Cirque du Soleil Rus, explains while taking a break from the heat at the Sanduniy Banya, a historic Russian-style sauna where much of Moscow's most sensitive business really gets done.

During a pause between sessions of getting slapped with oak branches – all part of the Russian banya experience – Mr. Cohon picks up his mobile phone and demonstrates how pushing the system is done. "Young woman, have you seen Cirque du Soleil yet?" he says as a greeting. The woman on the other end of the line, oblivious to Mr. Cohon's near-nudity, is an aide in the Kremlin's property management department.

"Good, glad you enjoyed the show. Is Vladimir Igorevich there? Tell him it's Craig Georgyevich. I only want to speak to Vladimir Igorevich."

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It's all said in Russian, and in the way Russians like to be addressed, referring to both Vladimir Kozhin, the head of the Kremlin property administration, and himself in the Russian style: given name, then patronymic. Women are addressed flatteringly as " dyevushka"– young woman – no matter their age.

A few minutes later, Mr. Cohon is offering free Zarkana tickets to the shocked sauna attendants. "You never know who knows someone else, and who's going to say something to someone that will either help you or hurt you," he explains.

Such generosity is also, perhaps, how you avoid having to pay bribes in Russia, ranked by Transparency International as the country most notorious for corporate corruption. But Mr. Cohon says he's never had to make a payout.

Other than Zarkana's trapeze artists, it's the Kremlin's Mr. Kozhin who arguably took the biggest risk of all by opening the gates of the red castle to clowns and jugglers. "It was not a simple decision, I can tell you that. This is not just a big hall in the centre of a city, it's the official residence of the Russian President," Mr. Kozhin said in his office, which overlooks a corner of Red Square. "There were many skeptics."

Initially, Mr. Kozhin was among those who thought the show might be inappropriate for such a historic location. But he says a trip to see Cirque's permanent home in Las Vegas – and a conversation with veteran Cirque contributor Pavel Brun (who now works on Celine Dion's show there) – convinced him otherwise. "The decision we took, I think, was the right one," he says now, with the government drawing nightly revenues from a building that often sits empty for months at a time. "This experiment, if we can call it that, has succeeded. Never before has any company had performances for such a long period on the Kremlin Palace."

Even Mr. Cohon admits to being amazed that some 5,000 circus-goers were allowed inside the Kremlin walls in the midst of a presidential election campaign marred by allegations of intimidation and fraud. The vote saw Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister, sparking the largest anti-government protests in Moscow since the early 1990s.

A substantive edit helped keep Cirque clear of the politics. Zarkana's themes of love and revolution (which get lost amid the incredible feats of athleticism that are naturally the show's real draw) might have been deemed provocative in the current environment had Cirque du Soleil put on the same version of the show that they did at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

But instead of having the lead characters open and close the show by singing "all we need is a revolution!" – as they did in English during Zarkana's New York run – Cirque du Soleil replaced the show's dialogue and song lyrics with an invented language. (The non-word "revolna" is now sung where "revolution" had been in the original script.)

"Dan [Lamarre]and I were sensitive. We're not going to do anything stupid. This is the president's theatre. It's like playing inside the White House," Mr. Cohon said.

The often unpredictable nature of Russian politics is nothing new to Mr. Cohon and his father. Together, they've stayed in Russia through the fall of the Soviet Union, the showdown in 1993 that saw tanks fire on the Russian prime minister's office, the 1998 financial crisis, the rise of Vladimir Putin and the bombings and incidents of mass hostage-takings that at times made Moscow a very unsafe place to be in the early 2000s.

Such instability has scared many Canadian companies away from the Russian market – prompting Mr. Putin to complain about missed opportunities during a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. But Cirque du Soleil and their new business partners both relish and look beyond the unpredictability.

"I'm drawn to [Russia]because of the opportunities, I'm drawn to it because of the challenges, I'm drawn to it because of the ability to have a vision and make it happen, I'm drawn to it because of the people and the excitement and by the lack of rules and by all the rules," Craig Cohon smiles. "And if you're going to be in an unstable place, you may as well enjoy it."

Maybe it's the high-risk nature of the show they put on, but Mr. Lamarre says the company will expand, rather than limit, its exposure to Russia. "It's a long-term commitment to Russia," he said.

And the next target market won't be any easier to crack. "We're spending a lot of time right now doing in China what we did in Russia, which is talking to a lot of people and exploring the market. We hope for a big breakthrough in China soon. That's certainly our main priority now."

So what would be the Chinese equivalent of performing in the Kremlin Palace? The Forbidden City?

Mr. Lamarre thinks the current Zarkana run is one circus trick that will be hard to replicate. "I don't know that there's an equivalent of the Kremlin theatre anywhere in the world."

With files from reporter Richard Blackwell

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McDONALD'S RUSSIAN INVASION

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George Cohon's initial foray into the Soviet Union has become the stuff of legend, and is often seen as a symbolic breakthrough that helped open the door of the Soviet empire to Western business.

Mr. Cohon, a Chicago lawyer, brought the first McDonald's restaurants to Canada in the late 1960s, and moved to Toronto with his family. Then, during the Montreal Olympics in 1976, he met up with some Soviet delegates and kept in touch with them.

That prompted him to start the wheels in motion to take the fast-food concept to Moscow where, he thought, the Russian diet of meat, bread, potatoes and milk would be a good match for McDonald's menu.

But it took more than a decade, and incredible persistence, for Mr. Cohon to persuade Soviet officials to give him the nod to open up in Moscow.

In 1988, after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a law to allow foreign companies to own up to 49 per cent of Soviet-based operations, Mr. Cohon finally signed a joint venture with the city of Moscow. Two years later, on Jan. 31, 1990, the first McDonald's opened on Pushkin Square, accompanied by a worldwide media frenzy.

The first day, with an enormous lineup snaking out the door, the restaurant served more than 30,000 people. The outlet went on to become the busiest McDonald's on the planet.

McDonald's well-oiled operation is also credited with helping to modernize Russia's food production and distribution system, because the company sourced its raw food from local farmers and opened a huge processing plant just outside Moscow.

It was three years before the second McDonald's opened in Moscow, but by 1996 there were eight, and that year the company began its expansion beyond the city with its first outlet in St. Petersburg.

Since then, the doors have opened to many more foreign investments, including Cirque du Soleil's latest venture. Now, there are more than 300 McDonald's in Russia.

Richard Blackwell

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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