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Cirque du Soleil Returns to the Oscars — 10 Years After Almost Burning the Place Down

The last time Cirque du Soleil appeared on the Oscar stage, the Kodak Theater nearly went up in flames

Cirque du Soleil will be returning to the Academy Awards, just in time to mark the 10th anniversary of the time they set the Oscar stage on fire.

The French-Canadian circus troupe will perform "a wholly unique and exclusive performance" at the 84th Oscar show, producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer announced on Friday. The performance will include more than 50 Cirque artists from around the world, the largest group of performers ever assembled for a single act.

Cirque du SoleilComposer Danny Elfman, who wrote the music for the Cirque show "IRIS," which plays at the Kodak Theater during the 11 months when the Oscars are not being staged, will supply music for the performance.

And one imagines that now that the adventurous and imaginative circus troupe has settled into the Kodak, the rehearsal process will go a little more smoothly than it did last time.

Cirque du Soleil first came to the Oscars in 2001, when the late producer Laura Ziskin booked them to perform at the first Academy Awards to be staged in the brand-new Kodak Theater.

Like the new performance, that one was a multi-performer extravaganza, using 29 Cirque artists from five different shows. It involved acrobats, clowns and trapeze artists hanging from the top of the theater, all keyed to film footage that was supposed to echo the acts being performed on the stage.

During the Friday night rehearsals two days before the show, though, things were rough. Aerialist Yuri Maiorov tried out a stunt that had him soaring in an arc out over the audience – but the act had to be scaled back when he kept landing hard in the audience, in the vicinity of where Nicole Kidman would be sitting.

Cirque du SoleilAnother performer spun hoops around her body and then flung them into the crowd, where a colleague standing in the aisle was supposed to catch them. But during one of the rehearsals, one hoop crashed squarely on the seat card bearing Julia Roberts' name.

"If Julia Roberts was sitting there," the performer, Nathan Henderson, insisted afterwards, "I definitely  would have caught it."

But the biggest problem came with a stunt that involved Cirque artist Mike Brown, who lit a heavy round torch attached to a chain, and then spun it in circles just a few inches above the stage.

The first time he tried it, when three fire marshals watching attentively, the stage continued to burn for several seconds after Brown extinguished his torch. It left a scorched ring on the stage some 20 feet in diameter, and destroyed 17 of the shiny blue tiles that covered the Kodak stage.

When the show's longtime associate producer, Michael Seligman, walked to the stage, director Lou Horvitz came on the p.a. system. "Michael Seligman, your insurance broker is on line one," he joked.

In the audience, Oscar show officials hastily conferred with Cirque personnel, who said there was "something in your paint" that caused the stage to burn.

"Yeah," snapped designer J. Michael Riva, who had sent Cirque samples of the floor weeks earlier. "It's called lacquer."

The circus troupe offered to bring in a different fire act from one of its other shows, but that wouldn't have matched the footage on the rear screen, which was a glowing ring  from "The Lord of the Rings."

Seligman suggested laying a false floor over the real floor, and then removing that when the act ended, but there were serious questions about whether it could be done in time.

The night ended with Laura Ziskin retreating to her hotel room in the nearby Renaissance Hotel, and calling her partner Alvin Sargent.

"I said, 'I am suicidal,'" she told me later. "I had more crap, more junk in that show. That was the first time we were seeing it all, and we couldn’t get through it."

Cirque du Soleil Oscar bowBut over the next two days, it somehow all came together. Riva agreed to lay a round mat over his floor, which prevented the stage from burning. At dress rehearsal on Saturday night, the performance was one of the most spectacular things I'd ever seen on an Oscar stage — though I wondered how Horvitz was going to be able to capture its impact on camera.

And on Oscar night, the performance won a rousing standing ovation inside the theater — including cheers from Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, who survived the act unscathed by flung hoops or falling bodies.

Afterwards, stagehands and crew members breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Fuck, it's over," said one. "Time for a deep breath and a big cocktail."

Months later, Academy president Frank Pierson, who had hired Ziskin, looked back on the show, which had gone wildly overtime and over budget. "She bit off an awful lot, but I personally loved the show," he said of Ziskin.

"The only thing I think was a mistake was the Cirque du Soleil sequence. It was beautiful, it was wonderful in the theater, but it meant nothing on the tube. And it was lengthy, and very, very expensive."

That Oscar show received seven Emmy nominations. It won in one category, choreography – an award that went to Debra Brown, who designed the Cirque du Soleil number. Years later, Cirque created the film-themed show "IRIS," and became permanent residents on the stage they once set on fire.

And now they're back at the Oscars.

(Photos by AMPAS)