Circus Show Down In the Exotic East

This article originally appeared in Circus Girl Magazine

I am returning to Beijing from Macau as I write this. My lifestyle and career affords me many privileges and one of my favorites is the ability to visit good friends all around the world. Macau is China’s legal gambling territory. According to USA Today, Macau has been leading the gambling revenue stakes against Las Vegas since 2007. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that Macau is home to two of the largest custom-built theaters for circus and spectacle shows in China. I was lucky enough to see both, although I had originally intended to review them separately, I was struck by how differently the shows were produced and marketed to Chinese audiences as well as how it had ultimately affected the shows’ audiences. I wanted to understand why.

Cirque Du Soleil’s “Zaia” housed in the Venetian Hotel has now been running for 3 years. According to the Macau Times Daily the show had such low audience numbers for their 1800 seat venue that rumors of its closure started to appear in the local media (2010). This rumor was later dispelled by Jerry Nadal Senior Vice-President for resident shows of Cirque du Soleil. I also cited from observation of an audience size of approximately 40% on the day that I attended.
Dragone’s “House of Dancing Water” is housed in the City of Dreams hotel and has been running for just over 1 year. On both nights I attended, the show had sold out. Further talking with staff and crew I was told that not only was it the average audience size but when there had been a show cancellation and long show pauses it had caused major troubles to refund or rebook a fully sold out house.
Both multi-million dollar shows have custom made theatres, incredibly talented performers, spectacular rigging teams and great aesthetics. They are also well situated in high-end hotels and casinos with the support of professional marketing teams. Additionally, both Zaia and House of Dancing Water use thematic Chinese elements or performance pieces with in their productions. From a producing point of view Cirque de Soleil’s “Zaia” sticks to Soleil’s successful recipe of a young girl’s journey into a fantastic world and returning from it with a new appreciation of her world. In its design, construction and presentation, it’s very much what I would consider a “circus show” in the new circus genre.

House of Dancing Water is staged as a melodramatic love story with a hero, an anti-hero, and a damsel in distress. An archetypal story, one that a Chinese (and Western) audiences intuitively understand; especially when compared to main land China’s soap opera TV shows. Cirque de Solei’s Zaia, on the other hand, follows an unfamiliar European storyline, one that is not as accessible to Chinese audiences.

House of Dancing Water is billed as a “spectacle”, not as an acrobatics show. While Zaia is a “circus show” with acrobatic elements (including Chinese acrobats) on a marketing stand point for the Chinese audience members I spoke with in-line felt that combined with the reputation of the House of Dancing Water venue and that it wasn’t just an acrobatics show seemed to be a swaying point to attend Dragone’s show over Soleil’s.
House of Dancing Water is show cased in an extraordinarily unique venue. As mentioned before it also has the reputation of the most expensive shows in China, giving it a luxury status; an extremely important value in a developing Chinese culture. In addition, the emphasis on the appearance of home-grown (although the company is not Chinese owned, the show was built and developed in Macau) would, therefore, make it difficult for Cirque de Soleil to compete against it. Even with its glowing international reputation and its custom designed theater. This part of my observation is contrary to my previous opinions of Chinese audiences and their perceived love of luxury western products and services. Perhaps it is demonstrative of a new developing consumer?

In summary, each show, in its own right, is fantastic and I would thoroughly recommend seeing them both. It seems, however, that Dragone has the edge on the marketing mix and producing elements to create a sold out show for Chinese audiences. Both shows will certainly stay in my memory as incredible performances. This Circus Girl now understands that there is a whole lot more to achieving a full house and audience appeal in a foreign market. ?