The astonishing second act of Cirque du Soleil

Goodbye poor reviews, early closures and falling profits—hello new owners. Inside the renaissance of Canada’s most creative company

Performer at Cirque du Soleil’s Montreal rehearsal space.

(Roger LeMoyne)

Up high in the air inside the Cirque du Soleil headquarters, trained staff step gingerly on taut metal wires. “Each cord can support 2,000 pounds,” says technical whiz David Charbonneau, reassuringly, but numbers are little comfort. Standing up here is enough to make your stomach lurch—nothing but a grid of thin cables, spaced a fist’s width apart, lie between your feet and the polished concrete more than five storeys below.

“You have to make sure nothing is in your pockets,” says Charbonneau, Cirque’s chief of technical services for creative spaces. “If just a coin fell, it could really hurt someone.”

It is not the acrobats, however, who walk these wires, but the unseen riggers who operate the pulleys and ropes that hoist Cirque performers up into the air, swinging them high above the crowd. The wire lattice “floor” gives them a clear view of every complex move in the show. They practice here, in the hangar-like Studio A/B in the Cirque du Soleil International Headquarters in Montreal, a space big enough to accommodate the entire stage of the company’s trademark blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau. Performers run through each death-defying trick knowing everything will be exactly in the same place on opening night.

It’s here, in an out-of-the-way borough a 40-minute drive from downtown Montreal, that one of Canada’s greatest companies makes its magic. Before shows can be unveiled in front of audiences in Tokyo, Las Vegas and the Mayan Riviera, every gasp-inducing trick and routine is scripted and practiced in this sprawling complex, which president and CEO Daniel Lamarre calls Cirque’s “secret weapon.”

The company itself has rebounded since a couple of years ago, when some wondered whether Cirque’s days of world domination were numbered. Unchecked expansion and failed experiments, such as its 2009 vaudeville foray Banana Shpeel, resulted in poor reviews, early closures and falling profits. The horrific death of one of its aerialists on stage in June 2013—its first ever—marked a nadir for a company that values its people above all.

After 400 layoffs in January 2013 and some soul-searching, a leaner, more sober Cirque has emerged. In July, Guy Laliberté, the company co-founder who remained its majority shareholder, sold a reported 60% stake to U.S. private equity investor TPG Capital and 20% to Shanghai-based Fosun Capital Group. The move gives Cirque not just money, but new toeholds in Silicon Valley and the entertainment market in China, respectively. The last new touring show, 2014’s steampunk-inflected Kurios, has sold more than a million tickets to date, breaking sales records and winning the most enthusiastic reviews in years.

All that could be the prelude to its new arena show, scheduled for unveiling this December in Montreal. Toruk: The First Flight, based on James Cameron’s Avatar universe, will literally be huge—the first arena show to use almost the entire surface of a hockey rink rather than just one end. It will feature flying aliens and large-scale digital projections from the roof onto the set below. In this case, Cirque’s cavernous rehearsal spaces in Montreal were too small; Toruk had to rehearse partly on-site in Bossier City, Louisiana, where it will be showing previews.

For 31 years, Cirque du Soleil has been that unlikely thing: a Canadian company that takes genuine risks. Missteps or no, it remains a roughly billion-dollar business, selling 15 million tickets in 2014. In an age glutted with digital entertainment, Cirque enjoys an advantage—a live spectacle can’t be pirated. But each trick that bedazzles the crowd only heightens the pressure to keep innovating. “Show after show, the expectation is getting higher and higher,” says the short and barrel-chested Lamarre during a tour of the studio.

Cirque also works hard to maintain its je ne sais quoi. Just as a Pixar movie is always recognizable as Pixar, Cirque du Soleil must remain consistent in its otherworldliness, from the challenge of tossing blue aliens through the treetops in Toruk to the comedy and pathos of a clown chasing an elusive spotlight across the stage in the 13-year-old Varekai. “When the theatre door closes, when the tent doors are laced, we have to make sure the audience is transported to another place,” says Diane Quinn, senior vice president of creative and artistic operations. “If we haven’t done that, we haven’t done our job. Even if it’s [a performer’s] 400th show that year, we still have to provide that freshness.”

Lamarre says his job is ultimately that: finding yet a new way to make the world say, “Oh my God, they got me again.”

Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre

Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre. (Roger LeMoyne)

The Cirque du Soleil headquarters stand on the site of a former quarry-turned-landfill in Montreal’s Saint-Michel area which, when the building opened in 1997, was among the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. The enormous grey building could be anything—until you notice the sculpture of a leathery, old hobo clown shoe at the entrance, which hearkens back to Cirque’s roots in small-town Quebec street theatre.

In the early 1980s, Laliberté, along with Gilles Ste-Croix and others who would become the company’s leaders, was working as a busker in the small artist town of Baie-Saint-Paul. There, the group founded Le Club des Talons Hauts (The High Heels Club), a non-profit that promoted stilt-walking, fire-breathing, juggling and accordions—and dreamed of founding a touring circus.

Even then, Laliberté was tenacious in gaining leverage for the group. Cirque du Soleil first gained government funding not through arts subsidies but through job-creation programs. The story goes that when they failed to get funding from the minister of cultural affairs at the time, Laliberté went to the capital and personally convinced Premier René Lévesque to give the group a grant.

Cirque first toured outside of Canada in 1987, and kept expanding. Needing a central home and rehearsal space, it built its headquarters in 1997, then doubled its size in 2001 to bring its costume-makers under the same roof. The building is home to its creative studios (“the Studio” to staff)—a creativity factory where costumed clowns and acrobats walk the halls. Its workshops produce the 16,000 hats, wigs, shoes, costumes and props needed for its shows. For several weeks this summer, the Studio’s 1,200 staff became accustomed to seeing performers from the new Avatar-themed show wander the halls wearing long, blue tails. Their coaches made the artists wear the appendages until they felt natural, a precaution to reduce the chance of becoming tangled in mid-air. The Studio is also where the company’s finance magicians and logistics wizards crunch numbers to ensure the Cirque’s 18 concurrent shows around the world go on—on time and on budget. Because the clowns and the suits eat lunch in the same cafeteria, neither forgets the other exists—a dual emphasis that helps the company maintain the delicate balance between unbridled creativity and down-to-earth business sense.

The people employed here could staff the United Nations, representing more than 50 countries. Publicist Marie-Noëlle Caron, a 13-year Cirque veteran, met her husband here—not an unusual story, she says. But as fun and feel-good as it can be working at Cirque, it’s not for those uncomfortable with having their job reinvented daily. “You need to stay on your toes,” she says. “Some people love it, some don’t.”

The company employs about 4,000 staff, down from a high of 5,000 in 2009. Keeping the company under a single roof helps Cirque control once-ballooning costs as it performs market research for new shows. “People here understand that in order to have the luxury of creating the best shows, we need to do it in a financial environment that makes sense,” says Lamarre.
While the sale this year touched off concerns about Quebec losing the brand—and calls from politicians to keep ownership in the province—Lamarre says the Studio isn’t going anywhere. The area isn’t expensive, and Cirque benefits from Montreal’s unique creative economy. Moreover, the new owners are private equity groups, not Disney. They have no interest in messing with Cirque’s vision. “One thing I said to the new owners of this organization: We don’t touch the creative and the production people,” says Lamarre. “They’re the people who are going to continue to make us successful.”

Down the hall from the largest, football field–sized training rooms is the more modest Studio E. While a song by the Black Keys blares on the speakers, acrobats in shorts and T-shirts get in position around a curved contraption called a Russian swing. Serving as the machine’s engine is a six-foot-five, muscular guy with tattoos—the “pusher”—who pulls the long, suspended platform back over his head, gives it a heave, then hops on one end. He works the swing like a see-saw, using his weight to pump it higher. His smaller, lithe partner—the “flyer”—slips a safety harness on over his Pirates of the Caribbean T-shirt and hops onto the free end. Once the swing reaches its height, he leaps off, flipping into a triple somersault and landing hands-first on a mattress. The pair quickly get back into place and do it all over again.

It’s just another day at a company that demands near-perfection. Bad reviews of recent years underscored what happens when it attempts too much spectacle too fast. What Cirque does can’t be punched out on a clock; it takes the time that it takes. So the flyer, British gymnast Sam Sturt, must get airborne like this hundreds of times in Studio E before his trick is ready for the stage, where there will be neither mattress nor safety harness. They must get it right nine times out of 10, he says—hands landing exactly in place—before the act can appear in the multi-acrobat flying climax of the touring show Varekai. Even then, a team of artistic directors will critique each performance every single night.

Sturt is here to get back in shape after breaking his tibia during practice six months ago. Despite stringent safety measures, injuries are common (the company says they’re less rampant than in most pro sports). The company doesn’t pressure performers to rehab quickly. With a constant stream of fungible performers and a few irreplaceable “names,” its artists can afford to take time to heal. Cirque’s casting department is proactive, keeping files on stars in competitive sports everywhere, from gymnastics to synchronized swimming. When the still-young athletes’ careers begin to wane, Cirque reps approach them through coaches and athletic federations. Sturt, who is just 23 years old, is already on his second career, having competed internationally as a gymnast.

Others are destined for Cirque early. “I saw a Cirque show when I was 13 on television and fell in love…full chills on the arms,” says Elizabeth Ann Williams, a 25-year-old acrobat from upstate New York with the flowing hair and perfect face of a Disney princess—and bulging biceps that look as though they could crush steel. A gymnast from age four, she studied ballet and modern dance so she could add grace to her moves in the hopes of one day trying out for Cirque.

“We don’t necessarily go for gold medallists in the Olympics,” explains Caron. “It’s not enough to do their tricks perfectly. They need to have an artistic side.” The stiff finishing pose of an Olympic routine would land like a thud in a Cirque show. It would lack emotion.

To find athletes with artists’ souls, the casting department asks auditioning acrobats to do something odd: sing a song. If they hit the notes—cool, a singing acrobat. But even if they can’t carry a tune, the fact they gave it a shot shows self-confidence and a willingness to adapt. A refusal is a red flag.

More challenging than attracting artists is moving them across borders. Cirque has a 10-person immigration department that processes a jaw-dropping 4,000–5,000 work visas each year. Getting artists to Montreal is the easy part, says head of immigration Tim Morson. With most shows spending only one-eighth of their time in Canada, the hard part is cranking out multiple visas for Cirque artists—who may be Polish, Russian, Chinese or French—as they tour.

When the performers do land in Montreal, Cirque puts them up in a dorm-like training residence across the street. The Cirque artists are a little like X-Men, and the Studio is like Professor Xavier’s academy. The training facilities boast extreme toys that allow genetically gifted specimens to safely practice their craft, while welcome teams assist foreign artists by explaining the vagaries of Montreal transit and Canadian ATMs. They have physiotherapists, nutritionists, Pilates instructors and sports psychologists on call. There’s even a program to help aging acrobats transition to less-punishing roles such as clowns or coaches. Their oldest employee is an 83-year-old clown in the Las Vegas show Mystère.

Performers learn to apply their own makeup—and they have their heads 3-D scanned. Cirque keeps eerily perfect replicas of its active artists’ craniums so they can be fitted for hats, masks and wigs from afar. A well-fitting costume is a safe costume. In mid-air, a bodysuit that rides up or falls over the eyes could mean disaster.

Performer at Cirque’s rehearsal space

(Roger LeMoyne)

The heads reside in unsettling rows deep in the Workshops, a self-contained factory employing 300 staff. There are no assembly-line methods. In the hat and wig department, an artisan sits at a table, inserting one hair at a time into a mesh cap. The technique takes time, but the care sends a signal to the artists that excellence is valued. These days, the costume department is busy putting final touches on the characters for Toruk and the big, bright room is filled with mannequins stretched with blue, skin-tight Avatar costumes with macramé loincloths.

Toruk promises to be a smart addition to the Cirque program. The company has successfully revivified its brand with partnerships in existing properties like Michael Jackson and the Beatles. But rather than trot out a live version of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Toruk’s narrative takes place 5,000 years before the events in the movie. “Jim is going to launch three new Avatar movies in the next four years,” says Lamarre. “Our show can tour for the next four years and be timeless.” And since Avatar was one of China’s top-grossing films ever, Cirque hopes Toruk will help it crack into the country of 1.35 billion when it tours there in 2017, building the audience for a permanent show by 2018.

Inside a little side room of the Workshops is the cramped, glittering Matériauthèque—the costume inspiration zone. Hung in rows is a library of thousands of fabric swatches that glow in the dark, that have polka dots, that are brocade, velvet, see-through. There are shelves of feathers, bristles, tentacles. A 3D printer spits out costume prototypes—one shelf is littered with chain mail. Someone has made a hat out of zip ties.

In his third-floor office, above the worker elves who are making sure a squillion things are just so, Daniel Lamarre has just returned from a week touring China. Recent panic about the country’s flagging economy hasn’t fazed him. The country has a moneyed middle class of some 300 million, he says, and it’s a more fertile place for entertainment than it was in 2012, when Cirque prematurely closed its show Zaia in Macau.

“What I’m hearing now in China is that live entertainment is going to become in two or three years what the movie business has become [there],” says Lamarre. Cirque has chosen Hangzhou, with its reputation as a cultural hub, as the site of a new theatre and its first permanent Chinese show. “When you visit a ‘second-tier city,’ as they call it, it’s three times the size of Montreal….I would be disappointed if, in five years, I don’t have three more permanent shows in China.” He believes there are about 10 Chinese cities where Cirque could tour, adding an additional year of touring to all his productions. He says all this will help raise operating earnings to $350 million a year by 2019, which would be double what it was in 2014.

Fosun, which bought a minority stake, will provide deeper access to Chinese hotels, real estate and lifestyle partners. Cirque will work to incorporate local cultural angles to its shows, an effort that will involve far more than translating dialogue into Chinese. Yet with nearly 20% of Cirque’s artists already hailing from China, Lamarre doesn’t see it as a foreign culture.

Whatever new voice the company finds will be deeply inflected with a French-Canadian accent. Quebec businessman Mitch Garber is chair of Cirque’s new board of directors. Another board member is Christian Dubé of the pension-fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which bought a 10% share of Cirque. Small stakes from TPG’s share were acquired by 21 Cirque executives, including Lamarre—a strategy, he says, designed to make sure everyone’s interests align.

A former TV exec, Lamarre joined Cirque in 2000 as its president and chief operating officer before becoming CEO. He represents the business side of Cirque, the left brain that balances its right brain. Laliberté still serves as the creative lobe, retaining not only 10% of the company but also an advisory role. Alongside him is the flamboyant Jean-François Bouchard, Cirque’s rising creative guru. Known at the company for his keen visual intelligence, teenage excitement about new ideas and taste in shoes, Bouchard has attracted a new coterie of young staff over the past three years.

Among them is Melissa Thompson, a soft-spoken young woman with silver sneakers and a background in visual arts. She is on a team of five responsible for incubating new shows. It’s an art grad’s dream job: attend exhibits, watch new shows and think up the thematic and emotional core ideas that could undergird the next arena blockbuster. With all the pressure on Cirque to innovate, the creatives in the company work hard, but are cushioned from major bottom-line anxiety. “I get to work in that magical time before budgets,” she says. Older shows, too, are getting updates, adding more hip-hop and quickening their pace to ensure they feel current for the YouTube generation.

How will Cirque maintain its high-wire balance between creative freedom and profit under foreign ownership? “The famous line from Guy was, ‘We’re a private company. That gives us the freedom to grow, as we didn’t have pressure to make quarterly earnings.’ I think that’s kind of gone now,” says Robert David, professor of strategic management at McGill, who has followed the company from its early days. “They’ve got hard-nosed investors who are going to want a return.” The company will still enjoy geographic growth, he says, but it won’t be driven by wild product innovation of the sort seen in O, its underwater show—it will be driven by exporting and tweaking existing ideas.

Yet Cirque has always used existing ideas, says Benoit Mathieu, vice-president of costumes and creative spaces. Like Apple, it borrows and improves. Cirque didn’t invent the famed Wheel of Death, which shocked audiences in Kooza, he says—but it was hung from wires rather than anchored to the ground, making it look more dangerous.

Back down in Studio E, Williams grips a pair of aerial rings above her, presses up and rotates seamlessly into a handstand. Two weeks ago, she had never even touched the rings. Now, she’s spending an hour and a half a day training to replace someone on the touring show Totem, which is currently halfway around the world in Australia. She’ll be there in two weeks, and she’ll be ready. Cirque will make sure of it. It’s also updating her role to spotlight her dance talents.

That’s one of the mottos at Cirque: “The show is alive.” New artists are expected to not just fill old roles—but to leave their fingerprints on them.

In a third-floor boardroom wallpapered with drawings, a model of a stage sits in the corner, a huge sun-like circle in the centre. It’s Cirque’s new big top show for 2016, its name still under wraps. Whether it will break box office records, no one knows. But like everything else about Cirque du Soleil, it’s going to evolve.