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‘Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy’ performers come out singing, dancing, juggling and contorting

BY STEVE ROTHAUS
srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Neil Goldberg, founder and artistic director of Pompano Beach-based Cirque Dreams, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and never quite fit in.

“They wanted me to be a lawyer. I come from that typical Jewish family. Four siblings. My older brother is a doctor, my younger brother is in finance. My sister married a successful entrepreneur. And I came out singing and dancing and painting and producing,” he says. “That was my thing.”

On Tuesday, Goldberg gets to do his thing at home: Cirque Dreams, an international entertainment brand with 13 companies, settles into the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for a six-day run. Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy has been performed more than 2,000 times since 2007, including a monthlong run at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

It’s an elaborate production, to say the least. “There are 25 cast members on stage; obviously another dozen technical managers behind the scenes,” Goldberg says. “The unique thing people will find with the show: These 25 artists in two hours perform 16 acts. It’s quite a thing for people to see visually.”

The Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy website describes the show as a “theatrical, acrobatic and musical adventure” featuring aerialists, contortionists, acrobats, jugglers and musicians.

Goldberg, 60, says his own acrobatic days are mostly behind him. “I feel like I’m 30, but sometimes my bones remind me, when I’m on my hands and knees and bouncing on a trampoline, my bones remind me. At night it’s Aleve and hot baths.”

After he graduated from college about 40 years ago, Goldberg moved from his native New York to South Florida.

“Most people know me by my former company, Parties by Neil,” Goldberg says. “In the 1980s, I produced, besides thousands of bar mitzvahs and weddings, openings of Bloomingdales and the original Joe Robbie Stadium.” He also created “hospitality villages” for two Super Bowls in Miami.

He drifted further from his Orthodox Jewish roots, working most Friday nights and Saturdays and serving non-kosher food at parties and events.

“I had to come to terms with my own inner beliefs and my aspirations,” he says.

By the early 1990s, Goldberg had “a lot of corporate clients.”

“IBM hired me to produce an international entertainment show for one of the high-end conferences at the Breakers in Palm Beach,” he says.

To cast the show, Goldberg says, he traveled the world searching for talent. The result: Cirque Du Monde, his first acrobatic extravaganza, which he describes as “a blending of circus, theater and imagination.”

Goldberg then launched his first touring show, Cirque Ingenieux. Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based show-business Goliath, sued him in 1996, claiming trademark infringement.

“That battle lasted six years. I prevailed,” Goldberg says. “What most people don’t know today, there are so many companies that use the word ‘Cirque’ in their titles. It’s only the result of my sustaining that lawsuit and prevailing. Everyone else ran for the hills or disappeared. No one wanted to take on the battle. It’s a generic word. The French for ‘circus.’ It would be like someone trying to copywrite the word ‘circus.’”

Cirque Dreams is a privately owned “global brand that has sold multimillion dollars worth of tickets throughout the world,” Goldberg says.

His Dream Studios in Pompano Beach is a 25,000-square-foot complex with 30 full-time employees, including seamstresses, designers and a full costume and wardrobe plant. There is a 10,000-square-foot stage where performers “rehearse and tech the shows,” he says.

“We have full-time coaches and choreographers. All of our administration is done in the complex. We are our own in-house travel agency. Besides acquiring visas from 20 different countries on a yearly basis, we’re moving hundreds of people a week. We also employ full-time sales people in charge of business development and brand partnerships.”

Cirque Dreams & Dinner has become a permanent show aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Epic and Breakaway ships. This summer, Cirque Dreams Splashtastic is being performed at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in San Francisco.

Goldberg, who is single with a grown son and daughter and two young granddaughters, started the Neil Goldberg Dream Foundation in 2009. “We look for artistic, youthful organizations around the country that need financial support,” he says.

Last week, 36 Florida children ages 10 through 15 participated in the Cirque Dreams Kid Time two-day camp at the Broward Center.

“There are eight different teachers giving about a dozen master classes, including the state school of contortion in Mongolia and the Moscow Circus,” Goldberg says. “It’s quite immersive. Last night, when they left they looked like wrung-out hand cloths. They were dripping wet. It was very cute to see them all.”

Kalli Rogers, 15, a 10th grader at Cooper City High, said she had “an amazing experience” at camp. “I got to meet the Contortion Sisters.”

The Contortion Sisters of Mongolia, (Erdensuvd Dunn and Buyankhishig Ganbaatar) are longtime performers of Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy who in June competed on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

“It looks so cool, said Sophia McDonald, 9, a fourth-grader at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church & School who learned to juggle and hula hoop at camp.

Kellie Kessling, 11, of Davie, won a competition to perform this week in Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy at Broward Center.

“I’m going to be performing as a grasshopper,” says Kellie, a sixth grader at Franklin Academy in Cooper City.

Kellie says her postive attitude helped with the competition. “I used to say all the time I can’t, but my dance teacher told me not to and it helps me get better and better every day.”

Goldberg, who led the camp auditions, says he knew almost immediately Kellie would be the chosen performer.

“In the first day of the camp, within the first couple of hours, her spirit captured my attention,” Goldberg says. “By the end of the program, this kid was like a dynamo. Her stage presence, Her personality. When she spoke at the end, that was a director’s dream.”

Goldberg, who divides time between homes in Pompano Beach, Fort Myers and Manhattan, said he has no regrets not being on stage himself.

“I really have no desire to do it. I’m shy. I know it doesn’t come across that way because of the empire I built,” he says. “Performing for the sake of performing for people to clap or be entertained, that really isn’t my thing.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy”

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: Tickets $34.50 to $74.50. www.browardcenter.org or 954-462-0222

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