Franco Dragone is the creative director of the first two Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, Mystere and “O”, and thus the man largely responsible for the dramatic change in the entertainment landscape that has occurred over the last twenty years. Of course, as with any significant change in Las Vegas over the last twenty years, Steve Wynn played a pivotal role in this transformation, as he was the man that brought Franco Dragone to Las Vegas to produce both shows.

Franco Dragone is Cirque du Soleil’s Original Vegas Creative Director

Franco Dragone is a most unlikely person to have ended up as a major player in Vegas entertainment. Dragone was born  in Cairano, Italy in 1952 and moved to Belgium at age seven. He studied acting at the Belgian Royal Conservatory and was drawn to commedia dell’arte, his early work had a strong political bent. In the early 1980s Dragone was working in Canada, and his work attracted the attention of Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, in Montreal. Dragone was soon directing Cirque shows that were attracting attention far beyond Montreal. Part of Dragone’s innovation was combining featured acts like acrobats with themed peripheral performers. As Chris Jones states in his article Frank Dragone At The Limits Of Las Vegas

(Dragone) has a knack for making an audience feel that something important is taking place before their eyes

Steve Wynn Invites Franco Dragone to Las Vegas

Perhaps having this knack was part of the reason Steve Wynn invited Dragone to Las Vegas to create Mystere, which opened at Treasure Island in 1993, and is still playing to a full house twice daily five days a week. Wynn’s initial reaction to Dragone’s creation was less than enthusiastic, he  called it “boring like a German Opera”. Mystere is the purest expression of a Cirque du Soleil show, the staging is minimalist compared to future Vegas productions, and there is no plot line or dialogue to distract from the spectacle.

Mystere is a Big Success in Las Vegas

The success of Mystere led to a second, and far more expensive collaboration between Wynn and Dragone, when Wynn built a custom $80 million theatre to house Dragone’s next Cirque du Soleil show, “O”. The water-themed show utilizes an elaborate stage that can be transformed from a pool deep enough for high divers to a faux sand beach, and everything in between. “O”, like Mystere, is a show with no plot line or dialogue, but as Chris Jones says in his essay:

Dragone had figured out a way to burrow into the psyche of a broad spectrum of the general public. Audiences may not feel like they understand the whole thing, but they tend to understand with unusual ease that this is also a piece designed to work on their collective subconscious.

Whether referring to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious or some other unprovable theory, there is something about Cirque du Soleil shows that begs this type of discourse, and of course leads directly to The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate. The Great Debate is a spoof  of academic symposium where obtuse theories and sesquipedalian  speakers are the norm.  (The debate is held once a year at the University of Chicago, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.) As enjoyable as Cirque shows are, they have a slightly pretentious after-taste.

The Great Debate featuring Ted Cohen, Philosophy Professor and member of the Committee on Art and Design at U of Chicago is particularly germane. (The audio of the Debate is available here)

it is—is predicated upon this prior conception. Most modern art is like this: you must know in advance what the artist thought he was doing if you are to make sense of his art.

I’m sure there are countless “Mystere” and “O” audience members that have thought as they walked out of the show, the only way I can make sense of this show is if Franco Dragone sat down next to me and explained to me what he thought he was doing! Even if you ignore the inherent problems of a show devoid of plot, the individual  acts lack any real  Ah ha moments. Many of the acts, if not most, offer spectacular feats of acrobatic and gymnastic skill and are thrilling to watch, like a great fireworks display. However, like a great fireworks display, where one spectacular rocket burst just leads to another, no enduring connection is made with the audience.

Mummenschanz versus Cirque du Soleil

Mummenschanz, is another show that relies on non-verbal communication to thrill the audience, and is filled with Ah ha moments. The audience is forced to stay intellectually engaged  to get the full impact of the show, Cirque du Soleil allows for a much more passive audience experience.

After Mystere and “O” Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil amicably parted ways. Dragone stayed in Vegas and sprinkled his magic dust on Celine Dion’s elaborately staged show at Caesars Palace. Working with Celine Dion’s catalog of mostly non-narrative songs presented a real challenge to Dragone.

Obviously,  I could not interpret the songs literally. If I did, the show would have been ” I love you, I love you, I love you. I had to find the metaphors behind them.

There can be little doubt that some of the huge success of Celine Dion’s show was attributable to Dragone’s creative choreography. As a matter of fact Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil have become the dominant entertainment form in Las Vegas, even Vegas magicians feel the need to add a little, or a lot, of the magic dust to their shows. Magician Criss Angel, of Mindfreak fame,  added substantial Cirque du Soleil elements to his show at Luxor. Twenty years ago a Beatles tribute show would have been four guys and perhaps an large screen projector, is now Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE at the Mirage. A forthcoming Elvis production is en route at CityCenter. Neither of these shows have Franco Dragone’s direct involvement, although I’m sure his influence is still felt.

Franco Dragone and Steve Wynn Join Forces Again with Le Reve

Franco Dragone’s final project, at least for now, is Le Reve: A Small Collection of Imperfect Dreams at Wynn. Le Reve is another water show, like “O”, with the added complication that it is performed theater in the round, where no audience member is more than forty feet from the stage. Unlike “O” the show has a darker tone. As Chris Jones states in his essay:

Long-time admirers of the director can’t help but wonder if Dragone has finally met his limits in Vegas. His new creative darkness, perhaps, is testing the artistic boundaries of a casino show aimed at satisfying a mass market of vacationers.

The most interesting quote in Chris Jones essay is by Franco Dragone himself, “I can’t do gibberish any more, now, everyone does gibberish” What is one to make of that?

Franco Dragone Has Forever Changed the Las Vegas Entertainment Landscape

There is no doubt that Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil have forever changed the entertainment landscape in Las Vegas, not only by the shows they have running on the Strip, but also by other shows that might have never been given a chance if not for Cirques huge success. I doubt Blue Man Group would be in Vegas without Cirque or perhaps Penn & Teller, two shows with a non-traditional Vegas appeal. I’m still waiting for Mummenschanz to join the Vegas entertainment lineup.

2 Responses to “Franco Dragone, Cirque du Soleil and The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate”

  1. [...] essays on Vegas Mavens: Franco Drgaone and Cirque du Soleil November 19th, 2010 | Tags: Donald Holder, Elton John, Garth Fagan, Julie Taymor, Lebo M, The Lion [...]

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