Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 11 of 12: “At the Summit”

Early in the spring of 1995, we got a call from Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, asking us to perform at the G7 conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a little inconvenient. Normally Cirque du Soleil didn’t take part in special events. Besides, it would mean quickly putting together a show with artists and technicians, setting up a big top, and rehearsing so that we could offer a quality product. The operation would also entail marshalling considerable human and material resources. It would also require much work and organization. Still, we knew that the seven world leaders represented countries that had the majority of our customers, so we thought we should make a special effort. And it was our prime minister making the request.

After assessing the feasibility of the project, we were inclined to accept. But there was an ethical issue about the government picking up the tab. It was no secret that Canadians were heavily taxed. Citizens might question the relevance of spending over a million dollars for the project. We didn’t relish the idea of finding ourselves in the midst of a controversy. So we accepted to do the project on one condition: the private sector had to foot the bill. And we weren’t fooling! After a little back-and-forth, the government agreed. Two Canadian corporations, Bombardier and Air Canada, undertook to sponsor the event and share the expenses.

The Halifax summit offered us a splendid opportunity to conduct a vast public relations operation with the 3,000 journalists gathered from around the world to cover the event. I assembled a team consisting of publicity staff from our Montreal headquarters and from our North American, Asian, and European divisions. So we could communicate in French, English, Spanish, German, and Japanese. We were in the media centre. As a result of this successful operation we came away with a better grasp of the international reach and scope of our activities.

Undoubtedly, for us the highlight of the summit was meeting the G7 leaders. Forty-five minutes before the show began, a cocktail party was held in a tent adjacent to the big top. Our sponsors, Guy Laliberté, Daniel Gauthier, his wife Hélène Dufresne, and I were invited to join the leaders, and their finance and foreign affairs ministers. This brief event turned out to be very interesting!

We chatted with John Major and Helmut Kohl. President Clinton confided to us that at their first session, Prime Minister Chrétien had distributed the event program and everyone was delighted to learn that Cirque du Soleil would be performing. Bill Clinton also described us to the other leaders because he was the only one who had seen a show. In fact, he’d seen two of them.

Meeting French President Jacques Chirac was even more interesting. After exchanging greetings, Mr. Chirac asked us why we weren’t performing in France on a regular basis. I replied that we’d been venue hunting in Paris for a long time, but that none of the sites proposed by city bureaucrats met our criteria. When I mentioned that we’d called his office when he was still the mayor of Paris, he admitted that he’d heard of our request and said he was sorry he hadn’t given our project the attention it deserved. He reminded us that he was involved in a presidential campaign and that he had a full schedule. He was kind enough to encourage us to contact the bureaucrats again. Thanks, Mr. President!

People You Meet

As the proverb goes: “Traveling forms youth!” The world is round, so we might as well travel around it. I like to think that the average lifespan of human beings should be as long as it would take to cross all the continents on foot!

I’m a people person; I enjoy meeting them, and talking to them. Very early on, when I was still in my early twenties, I found out that business trips were far more stimulating than tourist trips. When you’re a tourist in a foreign country, your contact with people is always too brief: taxi drivers, hotel janitors, restaurant employees and clerks are generally friendly enough but they’re busy doing their jobs.

When I travel on business, I meet many people in a profession that I love. I spend hours listening, discussing, negotiating, and trying to understand. I have to get my point of view across while finding some common ground for agreement. This vital professional exercise has given me much satisfaction. It gives me the opportunity to get to know people from very different cultures. Such diversity and surprising similarity! You could never have such an enriching experience as a mere tourist.

In my travels around the world, I’ve been lucky enough to meet extraordinary people involved in a multitude of interests and pursuits. I’ve tried to get to know them as well as I can and to see what makes them stand out. I’ve made many friends. Often, these relationships were of brief duration because of distances and commitments, but in no way did time diminish the quality of our friendship. I’ve learned that human beings have much in common, that they share the same legacy, and that they’ll be facing the same challenges in the future. We’re all headed in the same direction.

Daring to Dare

Hong Kong is an island, a metropolis, a place right out of an adventure tale. One day, we found ourselves in this little beehive of activity with our big top in magnificent Victoria Park, an incredible site in the heart of the city. To say the least, the project was ambitious. You can well imagine that we didn’t pitch our tent there without a lot of preparation. Fortunately we had the support of Swire Properties; without them I’m not sure we would have come to the island.

Our installation and preparations coincided with Hong Kong’s retrocession to Chinese sovereignty. A feeling of exuberance marked the countdown; the atmosphere was electric. It was also a period of uncertainty. Some people feared that they were witnessing the final days of freedom, but most were optimistic, confident that Beijing would want to reap the benefits of the island’s booming economy.

Our show received an extraordinary welcome. Our VIP service catering to customers desiring more personalized treatment proved to be very popular on the island. Our experience in Hong Kong marked another stage in our development since it was the first time we performed before predominantly Chinese audiences. We were rather proud of the fact.


Our first visit to Washington attracted a great deal of interest. We were doing business with the Abe Pollen group. A major local producer, involved in a multitude of activities, gave us a lot of support. Washington is a fascinating and dynamic city. As the nation’s capital, it is governed by a plethora of rules and regulations. Pollen and the Canadian embassy helped us set up on the Mall, an area of great historical significance. An expanse of parkland in the center of the city within walking distance of the White House, the Mall stretches from the Lincoln memorial to the US Capitol. Senators could observe us from their windows.

To comply with the regulation banning commercial activity on the Mall, we set up ticketing on the adjacent street, about 20 yards from the reception tent. It was a bold move. We liked to take chances. Besides in terms of location, the place met our requirements.

Cirque set such high occupancy objectives that we took pains to find the most coveted venue, offering the most visibility. In so doing, the company differed from traditional circuses, which usually set up in the suburbs for economic reasons.

For the Washington premiere on the Mall esplanade, the big top overflowed with the who’s who in American politics. In addition there were ambassadors, financiers and, of course, the cultural elite. It was also the first time AT&T acted as our major sponsor. For the occasion, the giant corporation had invited every key business associate in Washington.

As usual there was an intermission. In the reception tent, we had installed a raised floor. The Mall’s esplanade was made of grass, so we needed a floor to protect the public in case of rain. Just before the second half began, when most of the spectators were coming back to the big top, the floor collapsed. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and most of the witnesses to the accident were either Cirque du Soleil or AT&T employees.

There was no drama and no diplomatic incident. No ambassador or senator disappeared under the floor. Within minutes, a bevy of technicians, led by Richard Bouthillier, the big top and technical expert, set to work rebuilding the entire floor. It was a race against time. The second part of the show lasted only 50 minutes and spectators would be passing through the reception tent to exit the site. We had quite a scare but it all worked out in the end. The premiere was a huge success; the reviews were excellent. Noting the location of the big top opposite the Capitol, the journalists commented that now there were two circuses on The Mall.

Room For Everyone

New York is a huge city that has something for every taste. It was an important stage in our quest to conquer the American market. In fact, a documentary entitled, Un cirque en Amérique (A Circus in America), recounting these pivotal events in Cirque du Soleil was directed by Montreal journalist Nathalie Petrowski and produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

There is no shortage of competition for the entertainment dollar in New York. So the circuses tried to avoid direct competition. The operators were careful not to hurt the others. We even exchanged tour plans. The idea was very simple: avoid putting anyone at risk. Yet one day, circus-goers could choose between Ringling Brothers at Madison Square Garden, the Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center, and Cirque du Soleil in Barry Park opposite Wall Street.

Many people feared the worst, but in the end, none of the circuses suffered by this strange encounter of the three kinds. After all, the shows addressed different clienteles. Their advertising campaigns were a study in contrast. They crossed each other’s path but they didn’t compete. In describing the situation, journalists remarked that the three companies complemented one another. The circuses had clearly demonstrated that the market could accommodate a few circuses, especially in New York.

Thirst for Renewal

Producers whether they were American, Japanese, German, French, Dutch or English, often asked me whether we had other artists, troupes or cultural products to offer them. The entertainment world has an insatiable appetite for innovative products of quality. Paradoxically, in the global village the entertainment industry is becoming homogenized.

Yet, globalization also has its positive sides. It also permits the expression and the manifestation of the world’s cultures. Huge corporations were involved in the formation of vast strategic alliances in the 1990s, the deployment of major communication networks and the rapid development of the Internet. Facilitating the emergence of new cultural content was essential to the survival of these corporations.

People are more educated and better informed than ever before. They’re becoming increasingly discerning about their entertainment. For over 20 years, every Western society has witnessed declining interest in, even a rejection of values espoused by traditional institutions. Instead, there has been a growing emphasis on personal ethics.

These rules or standards of personal conduct are in keeping with individual aspirations principally related to the need to have true quality of life. Around the world, people are also increasingly critical of the omnipresence of American culture. But Hollywood has yet to understand that if you keep hammering the same nail, you’ll end up damaging the building.

Everywhere on the planet, there’s a need for renewal and a clear desire to be exposed to other cultures. Culture is the lifeblood of our soul. We must create a new business dynamic based on both individual and group expression for the betterment of society. Indeed the future of society is inextricably linked to the fostering of its citizens’ creative potential. Can it be done?

Ultimate Branding

The most valuable asset a company can possess is to be perceived to be an innovative enterprise by the public — innovation is the ultimate branding. And observers are unanimous that Cirque du Soleil is innovative. A reputation for innovation opens many doors. People believe you have the capacity to meet any number of their needs.

Cirque du Soleil’s experience in Las Vegas and with Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida is a vivid illustration of the power of innovation. In the early 1990s, the Las Vegas market was undergoing rapid growth. This adult destination drew millions of tourists every year. But the clientele had evolved. Gaming aficionados had gotten married; they’d taken time to have children. Sure, they wanted to keep visiting Vegas, but they wanted to bring their families. So the hitherto adult destination was seeking to reposition itself to appeal to a new demographic.

To send a clear message that the town had truly changed, promoters proposed a diversity of projects. One of these involved boldly innovative Cirque du Soleil whose product matched the spirit of renewal sweeping Las Vegas. No sooner said than done; Cirque du Soleil became a fixture in Vegas.

In the late 1990s, on the other side of the United States, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida was in full expansion. Millions of tourists were flocking to it every year. Unlike Vegas, Walt Disney World, a family destination, wanted to enhance its appeal to the adult clientele. Having built immense infrastructures to accommodate major conferences, Disney was now a preferred destination for millions of adults.

These adults who had come without children were looking for suitable entertainment. The Disney people proposed a variety of projects. They called on Cirque du Soleil who offered the ideal product to meet their needs. They provided Cirque permanent residency in the Downtown Disney section. No sooner said than done; Cirque du Soleil became a fixture in Orlando.

Disney and Vegas, pursuing two very different positioning objectives, found one solution: Cirque du Soleil. Such is the power of innovation!

Beware the Technocrats

People often ask me, “What are the biggest problems Cirque du Soleil has faced?” Apart from growth, meddling technocrats were our biggest problem. Then just when the company was growing rapidly, the bosses decided to hire management specialists to guide us through the development process. They became consultants or senior executives in the company. They wasted our time in meetings, discussing theories they’d learned by rote at university. Their ideas contributed nothing because they were already obsolete. These technocrats devised five-year plans that just weren’t viable. It was unbelievable!

These so-called experts created a lot of confusion; they were useless. They had complete disregard for our needs. While claiming to work within a system that was already functioning they insisted on imposing their own. They knew nothing about our shows, the public, and the company’s turnover. They couldn’t relate to the raison d’être of the organization. Worse still, they did everything in their power to distance us from it.

The new art of organization: wasting time together. Someday, I’d like to meet the guy who invented it. The technocrats had no idea what we were doing. They did everything in their power to impose their theoretical notions of what a big organization should be, and they did it with the bosses’ backing. Eventually I realized that these consultants had been hired merely to compensate for a lack of confidence and leadership skills on the part of some senior executives.

When you talked to these people, you always came away with the same feeling: “There must be something I haven’t understood.” And suddenly you felt less intelligent than you were when you got up in the morning. Meanwhile, the technocrat was happy as a lark, and went strolling down the halls adorned with works of art to his office to prepare his report. It was my most painful experience at Cirque du Soleil, and I know there were others who felt the same. Unfortunately, you find these technocrats throughout society.

What’s really appalling is that they’re products of our educational system. They leave our universities with the blessing of their thesis director and the education minister. Our educational system must be in sorry shape to inflict individuals with so little humanity on the job market. There’s a fascinating book by Patricia Pitcher that explains the role these individuals play in organizations. The title: Artists, Craftsmen and Technocrats. Read it and then you’ll be able to pick them out. The hunt is on!