Updated June 21, 2020 - 6:27 pm
Two men who changed the trajectory of entertainment in Las Vegas, Guy Laliberté and Franco Dragone, still share a creative passion. They are forever linked by their history in Cirque du Soleil.
But they are not connected financially.
This is a critical reminder as Laliberté attempts to reclaim ownership of the financially beleaguered Cirque, while Dragone attempts to fend off tax-fraud charges in Belgium. Separately, both artistic visionaries have described Dragone’s backing of Laliberté’s ownership push as “moral support” as Dragone faces a legal battle likely to stretch through the year.
Dragone has been under investigation for international tax fraud and money laundering charges for a period covering 2005-2012. Last week, the Belgian business publication Le Viv L’Express reported the country’s prosecutor’s office has brought charges against six people, including Dragone, in a case of tax fraud and money laundering.
Reached over the weekend in Belgium, Dragone aggressively rebutted the reports, saying, “I deny in all respects the tax facts alleged against me by the prosecution. It is important to emphasize that the indictment is directed against me and a heritage company, to the exclusion of all the other companies of the Dragone group.”
The ING Bank Belgium, a leading international asset management institution, is also named in the complex fraud allegations.
Dragone added, “I will reply point by point as soon as Belgian law allows me.” The case is to be heard this fall.
Those revelations, and Dragone’s recent comments about supporting Laliberté’s attempt to buy back Cirque, have led Laliberté to clear up Dragone’s involvement in his empire:
“Franco Dragone is not part of the Guy Laliberté consortium for the acquisition of Cirque,” Laliberté spokeswoman Anne Dongois said in an email statement Saturday.
Dangois compared Dragone’s support of Laliberté to that of renowned Canadian playwright, director and actor Robert Lepage, who helped create “Ka” at MGM Grand and also the touring show “Totem.”
Lepage also hails from Laliberté’s and Cirque’s home province of Quebec. Along with fellow performer Gilles Ste-Croix, Laliberté grew Cirque from a troupe of street performers into an international production empire, and also the Strip’s dominant production company. In 2015, Laliberté sold off his majority interest to investors led by TPG Capital. He shed his remaining stock in February, becoming a billionaire in the process.
Now Laliberté wants to “save the Cirque,” as he says, and is something of a fan favorite in the international artistic community to pull off the purchase.
“Guy did indeed receive Dragone’s support, like that of Robert Lepage and several other artisans, who contributed to the great success of the Circus,” Dongois said, as “Circus” in this instance refers to Cirque. “Guy does not count on Franco to revive the Circus – Guy counts on himself. In short, the accusations made against Franco have no connection with Guy.”
The reports from Belgium specify that Dragone is accused of laundering millions in royalties, notably by using front companies in tax havens. These funds are said to have been collected by Dragone on shows he has directed for 25 years, including those in Las Vegas.
Dragone conceived and directed “Mystere” and “O” when Laliberte ran Cirque, and later Celine Dion’s “A New Day …” at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and “Le Reve” at Wynn Las Vegas. More recently, he created “The House of Dancing Water” in Macao’s City of Dreams resort. The production reopened with COVID-19 protocols in April, but has again shut down for lax ticket sales and is set to return next January.
In an interview this month, Dragone had voiced his support of Laliberté’s attempt to regain control of Cirque. He reiterated Sunday that his investment was strictly as an artistic backer, saying, “I confirm that Guy has received my moral support and my promise of a possible artistic engagement. At no time was there any question of financial involvement on my part in the takeover consortium that Guy Laliberté worked to set up.”
This month, Dragone has resurfaced — digitally and philanthropically — in Las Vegas. He has established the “Las Vegas Creators United” YouTube conversation series, which supports The Composers Showcase of Las Vegas Entertainment Relief Fund.
The series launched June 12, with Planet Hollywood headliner Criss Angel interviewing Dragone in a Zoom chat.
TCS co-founder Keith Thompson is tracking the news out of Belgium. As he says, “Whatever Dragone’s issues may be, they have nothing to do with The Composers Showcase and our non-profit or our efforts to help the Las Vegas Entertainment community.”
Laliberté himself was the first to disclose any connection between his Cirque strategy and Dragone. The Cirque co-founder told a national audience on Radio-Canada that Dragone had helped convince him to take a run at the circus company.
In an appearance on May 25, Laliberté said, “Supporters I had from the Cirque community, Franco Dragone, Robert Lepage called me, ‘Guy, we will be there, with you, to help this new generation. You have to be there.’ ”
But as we are reminded, it was just a pep talk. And you can take that to the bank.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.