Jean David’s Quel Cirque, Part 12 of 12: “The Revelator”

From the time Cirque du Soleil began performing in 1984, something fascinating occurred. Many people were moved to tears by the end of every performance. The comments we gathered from spectators were heartfelt and sincere. It was beautiful to see. People were touched by the originality and the simplicity of the spectacle. We were offering an entirely new and original type of show.

In addition, the artists were street entertainers who found themselves on stage before a captive audience. They had mastered the art of interacting with the public. This intimate relationship between artists and public became a defining characteristic of Cirque du Soleil. Its creations left audience enthralled. Everywhere we went, we encountered the same reaction, enthusiasm, and appreciation. It was a marketing manager’s dream. It was really extraordinary to be able to count on such a fantastic product.

In the early years, I spent a good deal of time at the big top. I made it a point to be there when the public arrived and when they left. I wanted to see the people — to meet our spectators, our customers. Time after time we got the same reaction. Who we were and what we were offering the public gradually became clearer in my mind, but I still lacked the words to describe what I saw and felt.

One day, in 1986, I was attending a show in Toronto. Sitting in the last row, my friend and I were observing the performance and the audience reaction. My friend asked me why people everywhere loved our shows. I pointed out that the success was largely due to the artists whose industry and skill had previously gone unrecognized.

There is something noble about public entertainers. They possess energy, spontaneity, freshness and desire. It was as if the troupe was riding a incredibly powerful wave. Our task was to stay on top of the situation and to make sure that everything ran smoothly. It was a little like surfing: when there’s a huge wave and you have to keep from falling off.

Franco Dragone’s arrival as artistic director marked a new era at Cirque du Soleil and gave a new dimension to the shows. Dragone was inspired by the commedia dell’arte — “a form of popular comedy dating back to the Middle Ages, at the time when farces were performed in various regional Italian dialects; professional troupes, composed of minstrels and wandering acrobats, perfected a form of entertainment adapted to the general public.”

Working closely with set designer Michel Crête, costume designer Dominique Lemieux, lighting designer Luc Lafortune, choreographer Debra Brown, along with composers Réné Dupéré and later Benoît Jutras, Franco Dragone instituted a more coherent creative approach. His intent was to give meaning to the artistic experience. Together, the team went on an extraordinary journey, an unparalleled exploration of the human spirit in which each show pushed the limits.

In this creative process, certain characteristics emerged. Language, as such, played no part in the works: no words were spoken, just sounds or phonemes intended to express feelings, emotions, and situations. It was almost like an invented language. The advantage of using sounds was their universality; they were not culture specific; they were universal: audiences everywhere understood them. This approach did much to establish the universality of our product. The same show was performed unchanged in New York, Vienna, Madrid, and Hong Kong.

The artistic team’s commitment to communicate with spectators through emotion soon became a hallmark of Cirque du Soleil. The set design, costumes, lighting, choreography, music, and artistic performance combined to create an atmosphere that gave spectators a heightened sense of participation and conveyed the intent of the artists on stage and every acrobatic stunt in a surreal environment.

During my years at Cirque du Soleil, there was an ongoing discussion between Marketing and the artistic team about the story a show was attempting to depict. Was there a narrative thread? And if so, what was it? Since each new production was an original creation, Marketing never knew in advance what message or story the show intended to convey. Often, we had to wait for the performance in front of the public and media before we could formulate a description.

In marketing, our work included introducing new shows to the press and public. It was a challenge to explain what the work was about. The decor conjured up this, the costumes evoked that, the music transported us to another universe, the acts were breathtaking, and the clowns weren’t always intended to be funny… In my department, the staff grumbled a bit because they wanted something concrete, something they could get their teeth into, but my confidence in the artistic team was unshakable.

Leaving the shows, the spectators often had the same comments: it’s the most wonderful thing we’ve ever seen. The story was extraordinary, incredibly beautiful. I realized that spectators were making up their own story. They invested the spectacle they witnessed with meaning. And that meaning was extremely personal.

Spectators all over the globe left the big top with the feeling that they had taken part in an adventure. Gilles Ste-Croix and my other colleagues on the creative side, never failed to tease me about that! “You see, Jean, the spectators don’t need us to tell them a story; they see and they understand.” To work for Cirque du Soleil, you needed a sense of humor.

I carried out an analysis of audience participation independently of the artistic team. I took the time to analyze the impact of the work on the public from the spectator’s perspective and not as a theater critic trying to explain the work. Understandably, we were inundated with that sort of review. My fascination with the issue of audience participation was very personal, a reflection of my curiosity about the relationship between communications and society. As the years went by, my desire to understand what was really happening grew and I intensified my research and analysis. I thought that the spectator viewing our show was analogous to a visitor at a museum observing of a painting.

Standing before a painting in a museum, we tend to search within us for internal cultural and personal frames of reference. It is a normal response that allows us to assess, appreciate, and appropriate the work. We do it automatically. The need to understand obliges us to identify an occurrence, a situation, a feeling, or an idea in our memory to situate the work. The more abstract, diffuse or vague the object of our attention, the deeper, more arduous the search for a frame of reference. We categorize the object, and invest it with meaning, intimately relating it to our own life story. In doing so, we revisit and, to a certain extent, validate our identity.

Of course, this process is short-lived: only a matter of seconds. We engage in it “unconsciously” every day and in many circumstances. For example, you go to the store and admire a stunning new dress collection. Or you contemplate buying a new car and visit showrooms feasting your eyes on the latest models. It is exactly the same process as when you’re looking at a magnificent painting. You look inside yourself to see what you relate to, to see the object you can really identify with. The example of the museum visit enables us to see this phenomenon more clearly. We can replay the process in our head and analyze the various stages involved.

For Cirque du Soleil spectators, the same phenomenon occurs but it is far more intense. As observers, they are invited to delve inside themselves to give meaning to the spectacle on stage. They are inhabiting an extraordinary game, literally a mind game! The elements and stimuli presented by the artistic team are very broad, quite vague, indefinite enough that they give spectators the chance to imagine for themselves the true meaning of what they’re observing. They are explicitly invited to complete what they’re seeing. The overall artistic effect is a unique, highly intense experience.

Every show directed by Franco Dragone incorporated the notion of a living work of art, in which the spectator’s mind was flooded with a set of highly original stimuli. A plethora of colors in movement, omnipresent music in many tones that shaped the whole experience, a magnificent décor open to interpretation. Characterizing his art were the absence of stars, cultural barriers and competition. Complementing these qualities were the universality of language pushed to the extreme, the keen sense of risk juxtaposed with fear, joy, hope, happiness, anger, melancholy, and the absurd. Dragone’s work appealed to a whole range of emotions in a single instant.

Dragone’s work pushed the boundaries, aiming to stimulate the brain and engage the mind. Thus, the spectators were invited to complete the work; their minds were so stimulated that they had no other choice but to make instant associations between the elements of the show. Thrust into a totally unaccustomed situation, spectators underwent a unique sensory experience.

They were projected into a process in which they had to explore their own feelings and emotions. They played every role, performed every acrobatic feat; they were both the music and the light. In reality, what the spectators saw was a part of themselves that they’d never seen before. No wonder most spectators left the show beaming broadly. That’s why customer satisfaction levels exceeded 90%.

The spectator’s experience takes place at the border between the conscious and the unconscious. Have you ever wondered what you can do in a billionth of a billionth of a second? Well, that’s all it takes to form an idea. Our spectators were captive actors, rather than a captive audience; they had no alternative but to get involved.

Cirque du Soleil made spectators see themselves in an entirely new way, with unprecedented intensity. The word that best encapsulated the Cirque du Soleil experience was “authenticity.” This, I believe, accounted for the enormous popularity of our productions. People were coming to see themselves, to discover themselves.

Of all Cirque du Soleil’s shows, the best, the most complete, the most innovative, and the most captivating was O, performed at Hotel Bellagio in Las Vegas. The show was the last product at the end of the creative process implemented by Franco Dragone and Cirque du Soleil’s artistic team.

In fact, the team exploded within months of O’s delivery. According to the official version, the time had come for them to move on to something new, but in reality, they had attained their ultimate goal. Show after show, the team had gone on a quest in the world of the imaginary, exploring the vast human landscape.

In their decade-long quest, they inventoried nearly the entire range of human emotions. This magnificent journey into the universe of our souls, this investigation of human nature ended abruptly with the creation of O. The work was a celebration of “life, love, and death,” as the official Cirque du Soleil media kit put it. Like the artistic team, senior management also blew apart, swept away by the impact of O, the Revelator, as I like to call it.

I think the word Revelator best describes the show’s effect on the audience. It opens you up, tears away your mask, and invites you to reveal yourself to others. It is a fascinating phenomenon of spectator participation, unique to the Cirque du Soleil experience. O’s impact explains the power of the company’s previous productions. That’s why I’d like to take the time to examine the various aspects of the work.

The interface between spectator and show reaches maximum proportions and the intensity between the two is incredible. For the audience, the overall experience reaches new heights thanks to the nature and force of the elements involved. Like previous Cirque du Soleil shows, O propels spectators on a roller coaster ride of thoughts, feelings and sensations.

But what quickens the senses even more is the presence of water: 1.5 million gallons of it to be exact. In psychology, water symbolizes the unconscious. And in this case, the symbolism takes real and dramatic form. Water consecrates the depth and fluidity of the spectator’s experience.

To fully absorb the experience, spectators delve within themselves for references that will give meaning to their participation; they have no choice; their mind has embarked on an ultimate odyssey. It is astonishing to see spectators’ reactions and body language right from the opening minutes of the show. They are riveted to their seats, awestruck, unsettled by the presentation. There is no returning, they are completely enthralled.

That’s when the Revelator effect begins. Spectators reflexively dig deep inside their resources; but the force of the interface and the fluidity of the elements create a vortex setting off a process of integration and auto-transcription across the spinal column, the nervous system and the unconscious. Spectators grasping for some frame of reference, suddenly plunge into the deepest part of themselves. Amazingly, they become both the lead actor and the only witness of the phenomenon. It’s as if they have been ensnared by their own curiosity and propelled into the heart of an undreamed of event, for which they are absolutely unprepared.

In a way, each spectator is a microcosm of the global village. Integration and auto-transcription combine to provoke what I call “a flooding of the global village.” A deluge of the self. In the process, spectators acknowledge and experience every part of their being. They truly get in touch with themselves and they are obliged to take possession of themselves. They have been literally “possessed” by a completely unexpected form of intelligent life — possessed by themselves. For some people, it comes as quite a surprise. The thought process of the spectators is deployed throughout their organism and acquires a kind of measurable energy mass. The phenomenon can be expressed by the equation: E = GC2. Energy (thought) is equal to gravity projected at the square of the speed of light. I believe it is a unique phenomenon in the world, which merits our attention, because the consequences for the individual and society are, to say the least, unparalleled.

There’s an interesting analogy that helps us understand and assess the impact of the phenomenon. It’s as if the entire universe suddenly acquired a center so it could situate itself, define itself, and find a reference point. Considering the entropic nature of the environment in which we live, I would describe the Revelator effect as a “ staggering reversal.” Each spectator embodies this center, this frame of reference, and must therefore decide whether or not to assume the “responsibility.” In the days, months and years that follow, individuals are impelled to discover and reveal their true identity. So they are driven to take stock because for the first time in their lives they feel empowered.

It’s as if spectators enter an immense mansion full of riches, treasures and ideas. In passing, they discover the owner’s manual containing details about the residence. They’re encouraged to see the many possibilities and advantages available, and they are urged to note the obligations that accrue to their situation. Their impulse is, of course, to do a little internal housecleaning. Then, comes the most difficult part: they decide what they’re going to do with the information they’ve just received. They’re confronted with more and more events that permit less and less latitude. Despite themselves, spectators in turn become revelators of identity, setting off a remarkable chain of events in their environment.

To date, nearly ten million people have seen O and have been exposed to the Revelator. I have always thought that Cirque du Soleil shows had a positive effect on the public, but I must admit that this show goes much further. To a certain extent, it “situates” individuals in their true context and restitutes them to themselves for one brief but intense moment. WOW! Spectators are agape; they leave the theater awestruck. They know something extraordinary and transcendent has occurred, but they’re incapable of describing it since nothing in their cultural and educational background has prepared them for it. I don’t think the casino owners could ever have imagined they would offer their distinguished clientele entertainment like this; it isn’t really described in the program.

The creative process launched and developed by Franco Dragone and the Cirque du Soleil artistic team ended up devising a formidable feedback machine for people in search of authenticity. It’s like the ultimate happening, a mutant factory, a fantastic braingate technology with, in particular, undreamed of effects on our environment.

The Finish Line

In 1987, we signed an agreement-in-principle with Australia’s Sydney Festival, an important cultural event held in January, the middle of the summer down under.

Cirque du Soleil was slated to play there in January 1988. In the previous months, we had been involved in the planning and preparation for our arrival in the Los Angeles market. Meanwhile, at the other end of the globe, the announcement of our participation in the Sydney Festival raised the hackles of Australian trade unions, who saw us as a threat to local jobs. The Australian press reflected the unions’ fears, giving us even greater cause for concern!

Cirque had never performed in Australia before. Furthermore, there was a strong resurgence of protectionism in the country. How could we seriously consider undertaking an operation of such scope in such circumstances? In mid-September, a few days after our triumphant debut in Los Angeles, I went to Melbourne and Sydney to assess the situation, rate the chances of success and try to forge strategic alliances. Given our success in Los Angeles, why should we risk going to Australia? And the union controversy was an excellent pretext for not going. Let’s shelve the project. Game postponed for eleven years!

We returned to Australia as we were setting up the Asian division. Directed by my friend, Hélène Larivée, the division was headquartered in Singapore. Australia was part of a tour plan that initially included Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. We used Saltimbanco to penetrate the market. I dubbed Saltimbanco Cirque du Soleil’s flagship because it opened doors for us in many countries.

The Australian project was ambitious. It was carried out amidst the country’s feverish preparations for the Summer Olympics. We counted on highly qualified and efficient local human resources; they were an extraordinary team. We worked with Michael Edgley and Andrew Guild, the best producers in Australia. The whole operation was a smoothly running model of precision and rigor. We benefited from the vast experience of our local collaborators and our business partners. The tour was a huge success; the audiences were remarkably generous and spontaneous. It was a real pleasure.

The Australian tour was my last professional activity with Cirque du Soleil. Power doesn’t interest me. I’m for individual expression and a free exchange of ideas. After 15 years with the organization, I had to admit that though I had helped build the enterprise it did not belong to me. In fact, it had never belonged to me. As far as the owners were concerned, the values and principles that had guided me along the journey were no longer priorities. On the day before the Australian tour premiered in January 1999, I met with Daniel Gauthier and Guy Laliberté in Sydney. We reached an agreement about the terms of my departure, which I set for June 16, 1999, the date of Cirque du Soleil’s fifteenth anniversary. The end of the journey.

Key to the Future

I don’t have a crystal ball; I can’t predict Cirque du Soleil’s future. I do believe that the company has fulfilled its mission. The company’s most significant undertaking and its greatest contribution was the development of the creative process and the work of the artistic group that led to the production of O. The show was Cirque du Soleil’s crowning achievement. Since then, it has been repeating the formula, trying to use it for all sorts of applications. There’s nothing wrong with this; on the contrary. That’s the way our consumer society operates in the economy of redundancy. The organization set the bar so high that it will take time to come down; unless…

When I left, I suggested that my bosses set up a creativity training and promotion program in the organization. My reasoning was as follows: Cirque du Soleil was considered an innovative enterprise by industry and the public. And what was innovative about Cirque du Soleil? The shows! They didn’t follow up on the idea. What role does creativity play in the company?

Well creativity is central to the daily activities of a core group of individuals: designers and their assistants, a few artisans and that’s about all. The other 2500 employees are involved in drudgery much like the workers in any factory or assembly line in Detroit, Bordeaux, Amman, Manchester, Mexico, Taipei, Melbourne, Calcutta, Tel-Aviv, Kiev, Düsseldorf, Teheran, or Osaka.

Unfortunately, Cirque does little to encourage employee creativity. People are asked to show up, do their job, follow the rules, and that’s enough. Perish the thought that they should exhibit one iota of creativity. And if they did, management wouldn’t know what to do. Sure, the employees take pride in their work and they’re “well-treated.” there are many statistics to prove it.

On the other hand, the organization underestimates the individual employee’s potential for creativity and imagination even though consultants, human resource people, and specialized journals are always talking about Cirque du Soleil’s creativity. It seems to be the hot topic, but no one in senior management is really interested. Certainly, no one dares to take concrete action. The few attempts to improve the situation have been short-lived.

The challenge for every organization is to insure that creativity is at the heart of every activity. Creativity should not be the sole property of a small group of individuals. The following are guidelines for fostering creativity in the work place: establish a climate and design concrete projects that encourage the creative contribution of every employee; support these initiatives with training in creative problem-solving; give employees the tools and the encouragement they need to be creative; stop making pious promises; walk the talk; setup an employee appreciation program; institute not only a new management model, but a genuine communication model; revamp the hierarchical structure and the bonus system to reflect the creative contribution of the employees; dare to provide innovative management by putting the company at the service of every employee. Try this approach and you’ll get results.

Employees are a company’s greatest asset. For an organization to take this into account in its daily life, it takes courage, determination, and leadership. Maybe this is too much to expect of the heads of our modern enterprises. Business leaders certainly haven’t received the training they would need. Companies, including Cirque du Soleil, will find that their biggest challenges lie within their organizations. I’m convinced that companies have a responsibility toward their employees to constantly strive to help them realize their potential. For companies ready to take up this challenge, the future is bright. There can be no better business plan!