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Cirque Du Soleil: resilience and passion

“To be creative is to make yourself vulnerable. It’s human nature to hesitate to let our ideas and emotions flow with the kind of abandon necessary for true innovation unless we feel we can trust the people around us. That’s why it’s so important, in any creative endeavor, to establish a safe harbor “,writes Daniel Lamarre, in his book “Balancing Acts”.

In an interview, Mr. Lamarre shared with us how, as CEO of Cirque du Soleil, he experienced one of the most difficult and unpredictable moments of this iconic company, and how surrounding yourself with the right people proved to be a foolproof strategy when creativity, passion and commitment are combined.

 

As Cirque du Soleil celebrates its 39th anniversary this year, what are the main challenges you face?

Obviously, we've been through a lot in the wake of the pandemic, but we're now in recovery mode and, much to our surprise, people are coming to Cirque du Soleil more than ever. We just broke an all-time record in Montreal last summer, selling some 300,000 tickets. Tonight, for example, there will be 44 shows in different parts of the world, and now we have to work on a strategic plan to see how we're going to be able to maintain good growth. 

 

What kind of challenges do you face now that we're immersed in a digital age and everyone is more present on social media? 

Mr. Lamarre: There are two answers to your question. The first is that, because of the content of our shows, we obviously have to introduce more and more new technologies. People come to Cirque du Soleil to see human performance, and technology can support human performance. In terms of marketing, this is a huge change, because we used to reach our fans through traditional media. Today, we've gone digital. We have a strong presence on all social media platforms. We've developed our own YouTube channel. During the pandemic, it was social media that saved us, and we developed "Cirque Connect". Every week, we presented new content during the pandemic, so much so that by the end of the pandemic, we had reached 70 million views. That's how we were able to keep the brand alive, and today we're still very present with our fans through social media. 

We know that you have training programs for children and teenagers, for example "Les Petits Rois" for autistic children. Do you have any other training programs

Mr. Lamarre: We have an international program called Cirque du Monde to help young people who have problems, who are on the street and don't know what to do. And what we've discovered through the implementation of this program is that if I teach you circus arts, it will restore your self-esteem and you'll go back to school. So it's not about taking you to Cirque du Soleil. It's about getting you back to school. After 20 years of running this program, it works and we're very proud of it. We started in Brazil, and then expanded internationally. We are now present in 25 countries. In each country, we have monitors and trainers who don't wait for the children to come to them; they go out and find them in the street.

 

Does Cirque du Soleil have a program to promote aesthetic and cultural activity in cities with more social and economic problems?

Mr. Lamarre: Yes, in every city we visit, we organize special shows as part of a sort of charity evening to raise funds. We travel to over 450 cities around the world, some of which have poor neighborhoods, and we also like to collaborate with local organizations.

 

We know that inclusion and respect for diversity are part of our corporate values. How do you manage to eliminate discrimination?

Mr. Lamarre: We have our own internal program, run by Marie-Noël, head of the human resources department. First of all, 53% of Cirque employees are women. At management level, the proportion is about 50-50, which is a good thing. At executive level, we are now at 40-60, with the aim of reaching 50-50, which would be more than normal. But this is about gender equity. At the other end of the scale, we make sure that, for example, in our Montreal community, in Saint-Michel, there are a lot of African-Americans; since we're very involved in this community, we help them as much as we can and give them priority in terms of employment. To do this, we have an internal inclusion committee and we make sure that all communities are well represented. We've also created an introductory arts program for children, which has opened up their minds. And for me, it's very gratifying to do this because we see first-hand the impact of what we do.

 

We know that the year of the pandemic was a blow to the circus industry. How did Cirque Du Soleil overcome this challenge? 

Mr. Lamarre: First of all, we didn't go bankrupt. We protected ourselves from bankruptcy. Obviously, it was a very difficult period for us, because we had to deal with bankers, accountants and lawyers. For several months, it wasn't much fun, but because of the strength of the brand, the bankers and new investors were willing to invest in the company, and today they're very happy they did, because they got their money back and are now owners of a great company. So the results have been amazing, given the difficult situation we were in.

 

Why didn't you give up? What enabled you to cope with the crisis? What kept you going?

Mr. Lamarre: The employees. It was difficult, because the press wasn't always kind to us. I remember my wife saying to me, "Why are you doing this to yourself? And I remember one morning, when I arrived, there were two employees from our wardrobe department who were packing up and going home. They saw me in the hallway and said, Mr. Lamarre, you're not going to give up, are you? " I couldn't abandon ship. 15 months was a long time... I remember people talking to me as if I had cancer: "Oh, Daniel, how are you? " You know, like I was sick. My answer was always the same: "We're going to get better! "

 

At the time of the pandemic, some 4,000 people lost their jobs. What percentage of them returned to work?

Mr. Lamarre: We're back at the same level. Obviously, not all of them are back, because some have found other jobs. But I would say that the vast majority of our employees are back. That was my goal. That was the ultimate goal. What I saw, and what's still happening today, is that people are leaving their other jobs now that Cirque is back and solid and stronger. Our balance sheet is much healthier. And we're selling more tickets than ever. And probably in the next two years, we'll be opening more resident shows than ever. And residencies are what keep the company going. 

What show are you currently presenting in Mexico, and how have the Mexican people reacted to Cirque du Soleil? 

Mr. Lamarre: In Mexico, we have a resident show, in Riviera Maya. It's called Joya. It's been around for 10 years. And soon there will be a new show in Puerto Vallarta. In Mexico, they love us. It's incredible. Everywhere we go, because we tour in Mexico City, of course, and in many other cities in Mexico. And it's a big success every time we go. And Joya is almost sold out every night in Riviera Maya, which is great. I've always said that there's a kind of similarity between French-Canadian culture and Mexican culture. It's a bit of a Latin American phenomenon, which can be found in Spain, for example, and Brazil. 

When you have a permanent exhibition, do you hire local technicians and artists?

Mr. Lamarre: First of all, 100% of the technicians are local and we train them, because the work of our technicians is very specialized, so we have to train people to do it. As for the artists, I'd say 60% are foreigners, because people like to see the international flavor of Cirque. But for the group acts and some of the other acts, we'll hire local people and train them locally too.

 

Based on your experience as CEO of Cirque du Soleil, what's the part you're most proud of and where do you see the company in the next five years?

Mr. Lamarre: First of all, I'm proud of having saved the company. I talk about it as if it were ten years ago, but it's very recent. For 15 months, only three people came to work in this big building: Stéphane Lefebvre, who is now the company's CEO, the legal guy and me. We met up every morning, seven days a week, not knowing if we were going to succeed. What pushed us... you know, the first thing to understand is that there are very few artists in the world who can make a decent living from their passion. And what I'm most proud of is being able to provide work for 2,000 artists, and more every year, that can make a living from their passion. For me, this is the ultimate goal of my life, my objective. I love it! The best thing we did was, while they were at home, we were in constant contact with them, telling them to keep training, because we'd be back. And the most gratifying thing for us was that when we reopened our shows, they were ready, because they were training in very creative ways, making a gym in their basement or in their garage, getting together and training together. It was very gratifying. And I can't tell you how excited I was when we reopened our first "O" show in Las Vegas. It was gratifying and we haven't stopped celebrating since, because all we do is reopen shows and create new ones.

We saw that you've already published your book " Balancing acts ". Why did you decide to write it, and what is its purpose? 

Mr. Lamarre: In all my years at Cirque du Soleil, I've had the opportunity to work with some incredible creators, like Guy Laliberté, our founder, James Cameron, Robert Lepage, The Beatles... When I joined Cirque 22 years ago, I was a traditional businessman. But by observing their creativity, I opened my mind and pushed back the limits of my personal creativity. And that's what I want to share with people, what I've learned from working with the best creators in the world. Funnily enough, I was just about to launch my book when the pandemic hit. So I called the publisher and said: I'm not going to launch a book at this time, when the company is closed. The publisher had a good idea. He said, "Daniel, I understand. But why don't you keep writing during the pandemic? If the company comes back, your book will be even more interesting. " So I used the book to tell the story of how we got through this incredibly difficult situation. The book has been launched in Korea, Belgium, Paris and Barcelona, where a publisher wants to publish it in Spanish. It has already been translated into Korean. It's very satisfying to see that it has attracted interest outside Montreal.

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