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Canadian clowns occupy the Kremlin

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Cirque de Soleil's Zarkana will play at the Kremlin until April
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Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana will play at the Kremlin until April

The headline on the Russian news broadcast read: “Canadian clowns to be first foreign occupiers of Kremlin since Napoleon.”

It’s been 200 years since Napoleon’s Grande Armée took the Kremlin in Moscow, and this week, Canada did indeed send in the clowns; Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic rock opera, Zarkana, opens Saturday in the 6,000-seat theatre inside the Kremlin walls where it will reside until April.

“This is the theatre of the president,” says Craig Cohon, vice-chairman of Cirque du Soleil Russia. “You have to stop and shake yourself — it’s pretty exciting.”

This singular event is the culmination of Cirque’s campaign to bring its art to the former Soviet Union with the help of Canadian father-and-son team George and Craig Cohon, who launched McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in Russia, respectively. In 2008, they partnered with the Montreal company to create Cirque du Soleil Rus.

It took George 14 years to bring McDonald’s to Russia in 1990 (the location in Pushkin Square served 30,000 customers on its first day). It took his son three and a half years to set up Coca-Cola’s first operations in Russia in the early ‘90s.

With Cirque, “we moved in right away,” the 74-year-old founder of McDonald’s Canada and McDonald’s Russia says with a light chuckle.

“I got a call from Daniel Lamarre, the CEO of Cirque du Soleil. What he said was, ‘George, one of the main markets that we are not into is Russia. You, of course, brought McDonald’s there. Your son brought Coke there. Would you like to think about getting involved with us?’ ”

Cohon discussed the venture with his son with whom he had never worked before. “We’re very competitive by nature so I think we bring out the best in each other,” he says. Craig added that his father will call him five times a day: “How are your numbers?” “Bigger than your numbers at McDonald’s,” Craig said with mock bravado.

Cohen’s other son, Mark, is commissioner of the Canadian Football League.

Russia has a long circus tradition. The Old Moscow Circus was founded in 1880. By 1990, there were 70 permanent circus buildings and dozens of traveling circuses. About 30% of Cirque’s artists are Russian or Ukrainian. However, Cirque du Soleil’s spectacle is something different. It doesn’t, for instance, employ lions, bears or monkeys.

“I realize that they didn’t know what it was so we had to do a real job of explaining it — whether it was showing them videos or taking them to Vegas,” George says. “But once they understood what it was, it was something that really fit.”

In the past two and a half years, Cirque’s Corteo, Varekai and Saltimbanco have toured five cities in Russia and the Ukraine. Zarkana, which tells the story of Zark, a magician who searches for his love, debuted last year at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The elaborate production  — its digital technology and whimsical costumes, sets and props are unloaded from 65 trucks — was written by Quebec filmmaker François Girard (Silk, The Red Violin) with music by Elton John’s protégé Nick Littlemore.

It is, as the Cohons call it, “Cirque on steroids.”

The occasion seems an appropriate way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of a trading relationship between Canada and Russia. Meanwhile, George and Craig Cohon, who have earned the nickname “the Flying Cohons,” are looking forward to celebrating in the Kremlin once again. George held a gala there on Jan. 31, 1990, to mark the opening of Russia’s first McDonald’s.

“Some 22 years later, we’re back in there with the opening of Zarkana,” George says. “The celebration is going to be in the same room.”

For more on Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana, visit

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