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Cirque du Soleil: A Very Different Vision of Teamwork

In this excerpt from their new book, As One: Individual Action, Collective Power, authors Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley examine the artistry and teamwork of Cirque du Soleil. Cirque calls auditions treasure hunting because you never know what kind of talent you’ll find.

Cirque Du Soleil

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A very different vision
The magic and creativity that happens every
night on a Cirque Du Soleil stage has been more than 25
years in the making. After years of dazzling
crowds on the streets of Europe and Quebec as
a teenager, Cirque founder Guy Laliberté
approached the Quebec government to help
sponsor a show called Cirque du Soleil (Circus
of the Sun) in 1984. But Laliberté’s vision of the
circus was going to be very different. He would
mix street entertainment with circus arts, acts
of athleticism, costume, and music.

After a series of ups and downs, Laliberté
took a major gamble by booking an act for the
opening of the Los Angeles Arts Festival. He
says, “I bet everything on that one night… If we
failed, there was no cash for gas to come
home.” Fortunately, the show was a huge hit.
The risk paid off and paved Cirque’s path to
success.

As One

In 1984, Cirque had 73 employees and a single
show. Today, over two decades later, it has 20
shows around the world across five continents,
such as Mystère, Dralion, KOOZA, “O”, OVO,
Saltimbanco, Allegria, Love (based on the
music of The Beatles), Corteo, Quidam and a
new vaudeville act, Banana Shpeel. A team of
4,000 employees represents 40 nationalities,
speaking 25 different languages. Each person
brings something new from their own culture
to the creative process. Lyn Heward, former
president, creative content division, states,
“Brazilian percussion and capoeira, Australian
didgeridoo, Ukrainian and Africa dancing, Wushu,
Peking Opera and Kung Fu have all found their
way into our multidisciplinary shows.”

There is no “cookie cutter” approach to
Cirque–the combined work of the performers,
directors, and backstage crew add up to a show
that’s never been seen before. Multiculturalism,
peace, mythology, joy or isolation, power,
water, color, burlesque, martial arts, and vaudeville
–the endless list of Cirque’s themes toys
with the imagination.

From concept to stage

The success of Cirque du Soleil, however, is not
based on unbridled creativity. The diverse team
brings a wealth of creative ideas to the initial
development phase, but thereafter it’s about
discipline and hard work. Taking a production
from concept to stage takes years. –showing
at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas–took four
years and cost $165 million to conceive, cast,
design, train, and produce.

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First, the theme is created. Sometimes it
emerges from the staff themselves; sometimes
it’s suggested by Laliberté himself. For ,
Laliberté instructed creator Robert Lepage to
craft an epic tale that included martial arts–a
form no other Cirque show had yet explored.

When working with artists to develop a
concept, the frame of reference can be broad.
Acrobat “mentor” André Simard says: “I try to
use a personal approach with every artist to
bring out his or her own energy … We can’t
close any doors. Instead, we let ourselves go
and join in the adventure.” Once there, though,
personal energy is harnessed, used to transform
performers into characters on stage. The creativity,
theme, music, and costumes provide the
context for the visual adventure; the performers
provide the “life.”

Cirque has more than 20,000 artists in its
databank who wish to be performers, and over
half of the recruits are gymnasts. But Cirque
scouts don’t just go after dancers, gymnasts or
athletes. Their huge list is said to include “24
giants, 23 whistlers, 466 contortionists, 14 pickpockets,
35 skateboarders, 1,278 clowns, eight
dislocation artists, and 73 people classified
simply as small.” They have even had a
7-foot tall, 400-pound Argentinian opera singer,
a septuagenarian Danish husband-and-wife
acrobatic team, and an acrobat from Brazil,
who stands 3-feet-10 inches tall.

Recruitment

To achieve a combination of athletic and artistic
perfection, they often recruit the near-great
and accomplished athletes who have competed
in the Olympics or World Championships
teams. Twenty-one of the approximately 1,000
Cirque du Soleil performers are former
Olympians; two won gold medals in synchronized
swimming. From this basis, Cirque can
transform both the athletes’ exceptional tech –
nical skill and drive to succeed and create
circus magic.

Gathered from around the world, these special
performers are pushed to their limits, learning
their craft for up to four months before a
performance. Although auditions are demanding,
people are not hired for who they are, but
for what they may become. Transformation is
the key. Heward states, “Creative transformation
is the most important doorway for us.
We’re trying to find the ‘pearl,’ the hidden
talent in that individual. What is the unique
thing that person brings?”

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At Cirque, it’s all about spontaneity, creativity,
imagination and risk taking–not always
qualities associated with Olympic athletes.
Many gymnasts, athletes, and dancers come
from competitive environments where individual
excellence, instead of team work, is reinforced.
Boris Verkhovsky, Cirque head coach
and trainer notes, “A lot of athletes come from
an environment where they are literally told
when to inhale and when to exhale.”

Training

Before stepping on stage, performers must complete
an intense multi-stage training and immersion
program to hone their acrobatics, artistic
performance, and, importantly, their team skills.

With new productions constantly being
developed and a high annual attrition rate of
20 percent, a key to Cirque’s success has been
the ability to recruit, train, and replace injured
or retiring performers. Scouts from Cirque’s
recruiting team are constantly on the lookout
globally for talent–many of them dedicated to
specific skills. Cirque has a trainer who scouts
out talent in the Mongolian State Circus where
they specialize in contortionists. Athletes who
haven’t achieved the medal are good targets–
the scouts are constantly at Olympic and World
Championship competitions. Talented gymnasts
and dancers are being sought from
around the world to support the creative
machine that is Cirque du Soleil.

At training “boot camps,” new recruits are,
over the course of many weeks, pushed to their
limits. Cirque’s mission: “Turn athletes into
artists and form a cohesive team of brothers.”

The immersion program not only hones
performers’ technical skills, but also develops
their understanding of and connection with
their roles. Cirque’s long-time stage director,
Franco Dragone, aims to get beneath the stereotypes
and self-parodies that often dog young
performers. It’s a visceral exercise to bring forth
the raw emotion and discovery of the character,
and has been described as being “like peeling an
onion to get to the sweet, intense core.”
Another Cirque analogy is that of Michelangelo’s
David: the sculptor simply revealed a figure
who already existed within the stone.

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More than 90 million spectators around the
world have seen a Cirque show. In 2008, Cirque
had sales of $733 million. In a poll of brands
with the most global impact, Cirque ranked
twenty-second–ahead of McDonald’s,
Microsoft, and Disney. Productions have captured
the imaginations of children and adults
in Japan, Brazil, Canada, China, the US,
Barcelona, Russia, Mexico, and Dubai. Live
music, costumes, mood, and stunning visuals
are used to transcend global boundaries and
language barriers to transport audiences to
another world.

Through the creativity and vision of the
production team, and the grace, strength and
flexibility of the people on stage, Cirque continues
to enthrall audiences each and every night.
And whether the company is recruiting contortionists
in Mongolia, martial arts experts in
China, or fire jugglers from Brazil, one thing is
clear: the way it transforms athletes into performers
while continuously reinventing the
medium of the circus is nothing short of magic.

Excerpted from As One: Individual Action, Collective Power by Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) Deloitte, 2011.

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