The lights come up on a Cirque du Soleil show, the music starts and the mesmerizing choreography and the soaring acrobatics that keep each audience member on the edge of their seat begin. Every sense is awakened as audience members are transported by imagination and creativity.
Creativity is the essence of every Cirque du Soleil performance, and it took that same powerful creativity for the 38-year-old company to survive a recession, failing shows, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Survive they did, flourishing in fact under the leadership of then president and CEO Daniel Lamarre — a businessman who learned from the creators surrounding him.
Prior to joining the Cirque family in 2001 as president and chief operating officer of new ventures, this traditional businessman was, by definition, very traditional. That all changed when he joined the circus, thanks in part to a special assistant that founder Guy Laliberté hired for Lamarre.
“I said, ‘Guy, I’m capable of hiring my employees myself.’ He says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. I’ve hired you a clown. Daniel, isn’t that fantastic? You’re going to have your own clown.’ And that’s how it helped me to cut from the traditional business world to the creative world of Cirque du Soleil, by having this clown, Madame Zazou, making fun of me all the time. That was a huge symbol, not only for me, for the entire company, to remind ourselves every day that’s what we do in life. We do entertainment.”
For the next two decades, Lamarre had a front-row seat to creators on a day-to-day basis. He also learned from the partners the company worked with — creative geniuses like The Beatles and James Cameron, to namedrop a few. “Just observing the creativity of those visionaries, of those geniuses, it really helped me to find in myself my own little creativity,” Lamarre said.
Working with George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono (representing the late John Lennon’s interests) for the creative collaboration of “The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil” show was in itself a challenge. The iconic group had never let any other live entertainment company work with their music.
“That was a very tough negotiation because what people don’t know is that each Beatle has a veto right,” Lamarre explained. “So, if Paul, Ringo, George at the time, or Yoko would’ve said, ‘No’ — the party was over. We had to convince them one by one, and the most difficult thing was to establish the trust between the two creative forces. We had to build the trust, and that’s how we finally succeeded in getting their rights and their support.”
Then came 2020. The Cirque team was anticipating another iconic collaboration with Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering — the April 2020 opening in Disney Springs of “Drawn to Life,” a love letter to the art of Disney animation. Lamarre was excited for the opening and was also positioning himself for retirement as his 67th birthday approached. Then in March, the world shut down.
“It changed my life in a few hours,” Lamarre said.
“First, I was thinking of transitioning and giving my job to someone else, and life was good. And then all of a sudden, I couldn’t leave the ship because the pandemic was causing the most important crisis in our history, and I had no choice. In 24 hours, we went from 44 shows to zero shows. From a billion dollars of revenue to no revenue. I had to let go all our employees basically within hours, and then not knowing when we will be able to relaunch the organization. That was by far the toughest challenge in my life.”
With all the shows shut down, Lamarre and staff had to return all of their employees stationed around the world safely back to 39 different home countries, an easy task compared to what was next. To have any hope of surviving, Cirque would have to file for bankruptcy protection and restructure the company. The next months were devoid of performances, and full of meetings with accountants, attorneys, and investors. The goal was settling the company’s $900 million debt to its creditors and infusing many more millions into the corporation so they could move forward whenever that was possible. Enmeshed in legal logistics, Lamarre kept his focus on preserving what he had come to value as the essence of Cirque du Soleil: returning the people and their artistic expression to stages around the world.
“Yes, I had doubts, like anybody would have doubts, but I was trying to get rid of my doubts every day to say, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We’re going to come back’,” Lamarre noted. “And I was visualizing that like a sports person would do. I was visualizing me in a seat watching one of our shows, and I was saying to myself, ‘That’s what I need to do. Not only for me, but for those thousands of employees that want to come back on stage.’”
In the end, the company’s creditors rejected the proposed settlement…because they wanted to buy the company themselves. By November of 2020, a new ownership group was in place, allowing Lamarre and staff to provide payments to laid-off employees and freelancers and begin to stage a comeback. In June of 2021, Cirque relaunched Mystére in Las Vegas, declaring “Intermission is Over!” In November of 2021, “Drawn to Life” opened at Disney Springs. Lamarre’s vision was fulfilled, and he handed over the reins of the company to chief operations officer Stéphane Lefebvre, staying on as executive vice chairman of the board, and committed even more to the importance of creativity in one’s life.
“I think on a day-to-day basis, if you spend time to think about what you want to achieve in life, then your creativity will spark, and then it will have a huge impact on the way you do things,” said Lamarre. “It doesn’t mean that it will change your life overnight, but it will fill it with much more happiness, because then you will be more creative, and then what will happen will be innovation. Then you will create something new that the world was waiting for.”
This article is featured in the December 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.