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Franco Dragone: ‘I never sold my soul to the devil’

He is in dire straits due to corona and a judicial investigation. But the Walloon artistic entrepreneur and ex-Cirque du Soleil director refuses to accept this. Breakfast with De Tijd.

“Do you have a moment?” Franco Dragone (68) secluded himself in his office for a while to have his face painted before starting the breakfast conversation. For the Italian-Belgian director, who became known worldwide with his mega spectacles for Cirque du Soleil and then went solo with his own productions, the show must go on.

Breakfast with De Tijd

La Louvière, 9 a.m., at the Tailleur de Rêves costume workshop. We talk live stream shows, affairs and motivations with former Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone.

The corona virus halted all his theater productions last year. The turnover that his group generated in 2019, some 50 million dollars, was decimated. Not only in Chinese cities such as Wuxi, Chengdu and Chongxing, where new productions started, but also in the Lido in Paris. And in the Dubai Opera House, where permanent spectacles such as ‘Paris Merveille’ and ‘La Perle’ have attracted thousands of spectators for years.

Dragone receives us in an inconspicuous building in the center of the Walloon industrial city of La Louvière. This is where the studio where he designs his theater costumes is located. Except for a few employees, the building has been vacated. “We have had to say goodbye to almost everyone,” he says as we sit down at a conference table with a bowl of croissants and butter cakes. ‘We now work as a nomadic company. The only employees still active are illustrators and designers. They operate independently, project by project. ‘

Despite all the corona perils, the Walloon theater director did not give up. ‘In December I directed a live stream show in the opera of Parma from my desk here, with top Italian artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Zucchero and Cecilia Bartoli. A magical experience. For that event, more than 70,000 unique tickets were sold in a hundred countries. An estimated 200,000 people watched, both live and postponed, which is an incredible amount for a virtual spectacle with classical music. ‘ The British streaming pioneer Driift took care of the production, who organized similar events for artists such as Nick Cave and Laura Marling.

© Kristof Vadino

“Worth repeating,” says Dragone. ‘I have now mastered the technique of streaming. There is certainly still something to do with it. ‘ In June, he wants to set up an online event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Lido in Paris. ‘We will call on the South Korean streaming platform Kiswe for that spectacle. The illusion that we can create with that technology is enormous. It will be seen all over the world. ‘

Yet he does not believe that virtual events will ever replace real spectacles. ‘Yesterday I had a Zoom conversation with the illusionist Criss Angel, with whom I want to work out a new spectacle in Las Vegas. Deadmau5, a well-known deejay in the US, is also involved. For the first time in gambling town history, all streets, hotels and theaters have been closed. The halls are empty. But you feel a lot of resilience and grimness. So I am optimistic. Las Vegas reinvents itself every ten years. Various players in the culture sector will fight to regain their place in the live entertainment market. ‘

I started making theater on the street, I refuse to end up there again.

Although according to him it will not be a return to the old normal. ‘Mega spectacles, as we saw them in the nineties and early 2000s, will only be repeated gradually. I am talking about productions that cost several hundred million euros, and for which you build a new theater with all kinds of props and technological gadgets from scratch. That market has become extremely competitive. There aren’t that many megalomaniac benefactors who want to invest money in that anymore. ‘ (laughs)

In concrete terms, he is thinking of the water spectacle ‘Le Rêve’, which premiered in Las Vegas in 2005. That show cost, including the theater, about 110 million dollars (85 million euros at the time). It consisted of a series of daring special effects choreographies set in and around a pool, and was funded by real estate broker Steve Wynn. 300 people worked on the preparation.

Possibly even bigger was the deal that Dragone struck in 2011 with Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin, the owner of China’s largest real estate group, Dalian Wanda Group. It involved 250 million euros that was pumped into the construction of a huge theater in the center of Wuhan, the city where the corona virus broke out. Another six theaters were added in various Chinese cities, worth a total of 1.5 billion euros. Dragone had to roll out six spectacle shows for this. “We were set for the next twenty years,” he says.

© Kristof Vadino

But things did not go as planned. In Wuhan, the halls were by no means sold out. The demand for spectacle shows turned out to be much less than in gambling cities such as Macao and Las Vegas. Dragone also wanted to keep designing the Chinese costumes in La Louvière, which helped find work for some 150 craftsmen. ‘That local anchoring was a good thing, but it also put a lot of pressure on the boiler. Expats had to come back and forth all the time, and there was a constant lack of working capital to keep everything running. ‘

The dream of becoming a leader in the Chinese live entertainment market shattered. The group was in financial straits and had to apply for judicial reorganization. In addition, the artistic entrepreneur came into the crosshairs of the Mons public prosecutor’s office, which accused him of tax fraud, money laundering and corruption and requested the referral to the criminal court last summer.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable in jet-set circles or with nouveaux riches.

There is a brief silence when the topic is raised. Dragone looks at the butter cakes and croissants left untouched on the table and sighs. “I remember that day as if it were yesterday: December 16, 2012. I was in the investigating judge’s office and he said,” Mr. Dragone, I want to start by congratulating you for all you have done in the region. ” But that same man did indict me after nine years of investigation. Nine years! It’s a scandal. That case should have been completed much earlier. ‘

The public prosecutor’s office tracked down millions of euros in royalties that had been repatriated to Belgium in the form of dividends via an offshore company. Dragone is also suspected of bribing a former board member of the SRIW investment fund, the Walloon Gimv, with a view to financing by the Walloon government.

‘We can talk openly about anything. No topic is taboo, ‘he says. ‘But I cannot fully explain this affair to you because I do not control the matter. I am not an economist or a manager. I had to call on consultants to manage the group. Perhaps I have been too naive or too careless about this. I can only formally tell you that no violations have been committed. ‘

The whole affair has wrecked him, he says. ‘Do you know that while we are talking here today, the AXA bank is closing the account of my personal company Créations du Dragon? The local bank manager may not know what it is about. He only applies a rule of compliance because he saw a red light flashing. That is the harm this inquest has caused. It jeopardizes everything I have built. I call it a directed assassination attempt. ‘

Dragone does not deny that his mega spectacles were a money machine with a lot of prestige involved. ‘Yes, there was the megalomania of those who always wanted bigger shows. But I never sold my soul to the devil. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood where a franc was a franc. When I was seven, I emigrated to this region, where my father went to work in the mines. Throwing money through the window was not right. I’ve always felt uncomfortable in jet-set circles or with nouveaux riches. I have been invited on private yachts and have flown private jets. But money has never been an end in itself. ‘

It was something else that drove him. ‘I have always opposed what is forced upon us in a poor city like La Louvière: la misère acceptée. I hate that defeatism. It’s so deep in the subconscious of the people here, it revolves me. In a study, the ULB calculated that with our studio we have created 140 sustainable jobs in the region, and an added value of 158 million euros. I am proud of that, although corona has now completely destroyed that. The film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg has been here, and I talked to Sting at this table. I am not only proud that I met these people, but also that they wanted to come here, to a place that some describe as the cancer of Wallonia. ‘

He pauses for a moment, looks at the bowl of butter cakes again, takes one now and smiles. ‘I started making theater on the street. That was a great period. But I will do everything I can to avoid ending up on the street again. ‘

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