Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 1 of 12: “The Early Years”

Today a consultant in creativity and event marketing, Jean David was one of the pioneers of Cirque du Soleil, where he led the marketing department for 15 years (from 1984-1999), introducing the magic of the Grand Chapiteau to the whole world. During his tenure, David distinguished himself through innovative methods by commercializing the Big Top and introducing its magic to other cultures on four continents.

A man of vision but also a determined entrepreneur, Jean David acted as Vice President of Entertainment, Sales & Marketing at the WYNN Hotel in Las Vegas before moving to India for 18 months, where he led a pre-feasibility study for the creation of an innovative project: the Mumbai International Creative Center, an international resort centered around the theme of creativity.

In his 2005 book – “Quel Cirque!” (“What a Cirque!”) – David offered his views on leadership and revealed the innovative qualities that contributed to Cirque du Soleil’s enormous success in marketing, management, creation and exploration. There was only one problem… it was written in his native French. Thankfully, David himself translated and web-published an English-language version of his book and we’ve collected the relevant Cirque-related chapters for this 12-part series.

Jean David’s “Quel Cirque” is a fantastic read and as Cirque du Soleil celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, we thought this would be the perfect year to share these texts with you!

# # #

I was born in Quebec City, the fourth in a family of six children with five boys and the eldest a girl. My parents had to work hard to make ends meet. We led a simple life, content with the few things we had. All in all, life was beautiful. When I was six or seven years of age, life, people, and events seemed like a mystery to me. I would look through the living room window at the houses across the street and think: “Those people must be really intelligent.”

One morning, curiosity got the better of me, and I ventured across the street. I had a chat with them and found out they weren’t different from me or the people I knew. Like many children, I wanted to understand everything. What was life about? Why were there subjects nobody mentioned? What were they? Why couldn’t they be explained? I was sure it was possible. Life was full of wonder.

My childhood was calm and uneventful. One summer, I spent a few days with my godfather and godmother, Brian and Hélène Blais, in the village of Baie-Saint-Paul. Uncle Brian, an engineer, was working on the construction of the new hospital. The couple lived in a modest home near the pier. While I was there something wonderful happened: the circus came to town, pitching its tent a stone’s throw from the house. What could be more thrilling for a little boy? A world of wonderment. In the eyes of an adult it was a simple enough occurrence, but for me, it would take on new meaning 20 years later.

When I was 14, as I walked to school through Limoilou, a working-class district in Quebec City, I looked at the apartment buildings along the way. The people in there must be geniuses, I thought. But what did geniuses look like? Would I recognize them if I saw them on the street. Like many of my mates, I was more interested in the schoolyard than in the classroom. Everything seemed more stimulating, concrete, and real outside with my friends. And I didn’t take homework seriously. I had my own ideas about how I wanted to spend my time. My curiosity was insatiable.

And I was never really shy. When school let out, I sometimes wandered around the school basement, peering into the rooms to see what was going on. I saw lots of people talking things over and preparing for the next day. I tried to listen in. I wanted to be involved, to participate, and to make a contribution. It was like a game, combining daring and youthful determination. It was a challenge. Something was going on, and I wanted to be in on it.

A teacher told us that people use only 10% of their brain capacity. There must be lots of things to discover, I thought. Fantastic! Just think what we could do if we used 100%. My friends and I had a good time imagining all the fun we’d have: we’d become invisible, we’d read people’s minds, and we’d talk to the animals.

Like most people, the teacher thought that as we used only 10% of our capacity, we could hardly imagine what human beings would be like if they used their maximum potential. It was only logical. We weren’t intelligent enough to conceive of a truly intelligent person. As I was a teenager, I came up with an analogy: our brain is like a computer that is as big as the Empire State Building, but we’re only using the basement.

I concluded that our understanding of human beings and society was based on a limited use of our intellectual capacity. No wonder there were so many problems in the world! I was convinced that the future would hold the answers to a multitude of questions. For me the future meant the year 2000!

When I was 17 years old, I studied Communications at Jonquière College. It was a remarkable if somewhat truncated year. One of our teachers Yves Doré really impressed us. It was an extraordinary learning experience. He taught us about Marshall McLuhan and his theory of the global village. He introduced us to a whole new world: the extensions of man, brain hemisphere specialization, mental imagery, initiation in the technique of collage, dissonance, redundancy, the notion of subjectivity … At last, I’d found something stimulating, something that could really challenge me! In that brief period of time, for a variety of reasons, mainly due to my personality, I started to participate in student activities. I was chosen student representative on the department’s educational committee.

At one of the committee meetings, the head of the department, singling out Yves Doré, admonished teachers to concentrate on the curriculum and make sure not to let students get them off topic. When we went to work in the media, he said, our future bosses certainly would not be brain surgeons or college professors and they would take a dim view of us if we seem smarter than they were. Worst still, he added, we would risk compromising the good name of the department and of the college. Imagine that! The department was in crisis, and I was fed up. Why should I attend classes? At best, I’d end up with a worthless diploma. So I quit before the end of the first year. I was a dropout and proud to be. Even today, I notice, the dropout rate is pretty high.

A few months after I left college, an extraordinary book entitled Les ZooGep camp de concentrations (Éditions Tribales, 1973) recounting the events that highlighted that year at college appeared. The author was none other than Yves Doré, who had left the department by then. The work was done in collaboration with illustrator Serge Bureau, a former student. An excerpt from the book reads as follows: “In my mind the disgust young people feel towards school has two main causes first the academic institutions are administered by administrators who administrate for the sake of administrating the administered and even that they do badly.” (Cf. Dr Girouard, Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe).

“The second cause is even more appalling. In the past 25 years, the West has undergone an important Mutation but few adults (not even teachers) are aware of it. Today’s schools were designed by Westerners of the old school (Mgr. Parent, Soeur Roquet). It’s as if the schools are trying in vain to educate a generation of young people who, in fact, no longer exist. And the young people who do exist are forced to live in cages at the ZOO (ZooGONDAIRE, ZooGEP, ZooNIVERSITÉ) were their trainers reward them with diplomas for grimacing and carrying on like monkeys. I call this GENOCIDE.”

Published 30 years ago, the book is still relevant. I recommend it to students, teachers, and administrators at every level of every educational system in the land. I never went back to school. For a long time I proudly kept the word “dropout” in the Academic Background section of my résumé. When I left college there were two things I was sure of: first, I loved communications and I had chosen the right career; second, I didn’t know very much and I had a lot to learn.

By quitting school, I was refusing to play the role of an idiot that society wanted to assign me. I decided to do things my way. I went into business. Some friends and I founded MODUX Communications Inc., a small agency involved in advertising (to earn a living) and communications research (to learn about life).

And, oddly enough, I went into politics. When I was just a little kid, my paternal grandfather got a kick out of standing me up on the dining-room table and telling me to “make a speech.” One day, you’ll be Prime Minister, he said. With this early conditioning it’s hardly surprising that I jumped at the chance to get into politics. I certainly wasn’t bashful. I wasn’t afraid to express my opinion. At 17, I was named the first chairman of the Quebec Liberal Party’s youth commission. Robert Bourassa was the Liberal leader at the time. The winds of change were blowing through society, and the feeling was that everything was possible.

I loved the cut and thrust of political debate. Organizing meetings and participating in something grand was exhilarating. In those days, I was far more active at the grassroots level than in conference rooms or ministers’ suites. In the 1973 election campaign, I served on the provincial speakers committee, a flying squad of speakers who undertook a variety of assignments.

Once I was addressing an audience of nearly a thousand people in Cabano, in the Bas-du-Fleuve region of Quebec. My job was to warm up the room for a Cabinet minister who was speaking next. My talk was supposed to last 20 minutes, but after only ten, I went blank. Worse still, I felt completely empty inside. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I was just regurgitating other people’s ideas. So much for the presentation; so much for my political career! Within months I’d handed in my resignation, swearing that the next time I got into politics, I’d know what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was years before I could bring myself to speak in public again.

In those days, mass communications and new phenomena fascinated me. I was intrigued by anything to do with mental pictures. I couldn’t learn enough about these topics. I was a voracious reader; I consumed everything I could lay my hands on. A recent discovery that nearly caused a revolution among thinkers fired my imagination. It concerned the idea that the hemispheres of the brain are specialized for the performance of different tasks. The brain is divided into two hemispheres popularly known as the left brain and the right brain. According to the theory, the left brain is rational and logical; it thinks in concepts; it is objective. The right brain is intuitive and emotional; it thinks in images; it is subjective.

If an object is viewed by the two hemispheres, you could say that the right brain, viewing it from the inside, perceives a sphere; the left brain, viewing it from the outside, perceives a cube. Similarly, the left brain perceives time as past, present, and future while the right brain perceives it as infinite, omnipresent, even compressed. This is a simple way of presenting an extremely complex process.

Déjà vu, the feeling of having already experienced the present moment or situation, also captured my attention. Every time I had this feeling a multitude of questions arose. What did it mean? I often dismissed it as a fragment of a dream. And I found this somewhat disconcerting. I was searching for a meaning, some association. What consequences could it have? But then, the feeling would fade away, and nothing but a vague impression remained. I was left wanting more.

Déjà vu loomed large in my mind. The feeling occurred frequently. Each time, the same questions and doubts resurfaced. It was troubling. But then, I told myself that, after all, I was young and a bit of a dreamer. Since I was preoccupied with déjà vu, it was only natural that I experienced the feeling more and more. Finally I grew tired of wrestling with unanswerable questions. They were all very interesting, but they didn’t lead anywhere.

Since I hadn’t found a rational explanation of déjà vu, I tried to come up with my own. I concluded that déjà vu is nothing more than “psychic fart.” Just as our digestive system occasionally gives rise to flatulence, the brain too gives rise to psychic flatulence. As strange as it may seem, once I came up with the idea, my concerns vanished. Better still, so did déjà vu … I learned it was possible to eliminate false problems.

At 20 years of age, I still couldn’t understand why no one could explain how the brain functioned and our thought process worked. It would make a wonderful theme for a TV series: The Brain Connection! I thought it odd how this fundamental aspect of human beings was shrouded in silence, treated as if it were taboo. Silence allowed every sort of belief to exist. I understood that our society and the world in general were out of whack, governed by arbitrary notions mainly to do with the world economic order and with other factors in which I had no confidence.

I had a funny feeling that the human species had somehow gone astray. It seemed really odd to find myself in a world that was so profoundly lost. How could you know where you’re going when you don’t know where you come from? There had to be some explanation! Some religions and belief systems taught us to abandon all attempt to understand. This didn’t satisfy me. We have a head on our shoulders. So why not use it to understand what’s going on?

I must have been 21 or 22 years old when it first occurred to me that truth must not be confined within us; it must be manifested in the world around us and actualized in reality. This is a principle that I have lived by.

What do you believe in?