Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


“I never in my life thought that within 48 hours [would go] of a billion dollars. . . from income to zero income, and there were people who said the debt was too high and this and that. The reality is when you have no income, no matter what your debt is: you have no money. Period. Point.”

Daniel Lamarre knows about high-wire acts – and not just the metaphorical kind. In 20 years as chief operating officer, then CEO, he helped guide Cirque du Soleil through changes in control, the global financial crisis and natural and commercial disasters. He has always managed to keep the Montreal – based circus group’s overall performance on track. Until March 2020.

On what Lamarre now calls “Black Friday,” March 13, 71 Cirque performances around the world have been canceled as governments have tried to stem the spread of coronavirus. “All the tour programs are down, but if Vegas stays open, we’re OK,” Lamarre reassured his wife. The next day, Nevada closed down non-essential businesses and closed the Las Vegas casinos where Cirque had six resident shows indefinitely. “I came back home and I was white,” Lamarre said in a November interview. “I told my wife, ‘This is over.'”

Lamarre tells the story of his and Cirque’s pandemic in Québecois-accented English, with the skill of an experienced ringmaster. But no measure of its brand optimism can disguise the tensions of the past two years. Lamarre had to repatriate the cast and support staff of various tour programs as flights were grounded and borders closed. Less than a week after Black Friday, he had to fire 95 percent of Cirque’s workforce – 4,679 people – by video. He took the company under bankruptcy protection in June 2020 and managed it with a skeleton staff. Two months later, the CEO of one former investor, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, said Cirque was one of the first businesses to close and would be the last to reopen.

Lamarre and his team have already confused that prediction. Two Vegas shows, Mystery and THE, reopened in June 2021. Tour productions come to life again. Lamarre said: “I do not need to rebuild the momentum. The momentum is there. And much more than I expected. Not just the momentum of the public buying tickets, but the momentum of saying we want to be associated with Cirque du Soleil. ”

But coronavirus is still a threat. Lamarre made the remarks two days before the World Health Organization called them highly communicable. Omicron variant in November. Lamarre, who was questioned again before Christmas, was still unsure whether new measures would be introduced in English theaters, possibly threatening the return of Cirque du Soleil to London this week, with his Mexican-inspired show Lucia. Wednesday’s opening at the Royal Albert Hall continues. Around the world, however, Cirque, like its acrobats and crooks, must remain agile. “We’re playing with a lot of different scenarios: what if, and if, and if, and so on,” the Canadian said last month.

Lamarre, now 68, will not be directly responsible for how Cirque juggles with that “what if”. He handed over the post of CEO to Stéphane Lefebvre takes on a new role as executive vice-chairman on 1 December. As chief financial officer, Lefebvre Lamarre helped draft an agreement with creditors in 2020. restructuring Raised $ 375 million in new capital and left the circus under the control of creditors, led by Catalyst Capital, a Canadian private equity group specializing in troubled debt.

Some see the changes as symptomatic of a larger shift that began in 2015 when another buyout group, TPG Capital, gained control of Cirque from his creative drive Guy Laliberté. Patrick Leroux, a professor at Concordia University of Montreal and a circus culture specialist, pays tribute to Lamarre, a former television manager, who led that transition and Cirque’s pre-pandemic growth with a mixture of risk appetite and artistic intuition. Lefebvre, on the other hand, is “very much an administrator and accountant: the right person to withstand the next few waves” of the pandemic, Leroux says.

Lamarre rather emphasizes Lefebvre’s six years imbued with Cirque du Soleil culture, and his “sensitivity to artistic content and creation”. However, he handed over a business whose ambitions were tempered by the sharp experience of pandemic and bankruptcy.

Three questions for Daniel Lamarre

Who is your leadership hero?

Steve Jobs is my leading hero for his dedication to innovation, but also his passion for amazing design.

If you were not a CEO / leader, what would you be?

I would be a personal advisor to politicians, business people and artists and contribute to their success. It’s so rewarding to see people reach their full potential.

What was your first leadership lesson?

My first leadership lesson was the importance of mobilizing employees behind a collective goal – in our case: a new show!

Cirque entered the 2020 crisis with $ 900 million in debt, a legacy of the TPG-led leverage buyout in 2015, based on a strategy that predicts a continued revenue of $ 1 billion a year and an eventual exit through sales or initial public offering. As Lamarre pointed out, it was not the fault itself that closed Cirque. But he added in November that he “will lie [if I said] I would not be more careful [in future], because of course it was so difficult to go through ”.

In those few days in March, Lamarre went from “probably the most exciting job in the world[to]a nightmare ”, which not only wrestled with the financial disaster, but also at one point faced protests from freelancers over Cirque’s failure to meet their $ 1.5 million repayment claims. In his new book Balancing actions, published this month, Lamarre writes that “to save the company, I had to violate the purpose of my life – create jobs for artists”.

Concordia University’s Leroux says the circus world needs “a strong Cirque du Soleil, because it is the engine of the industry”. But even though the freelancers were later paid from a fund set up as part of the debt restructuring, he believes the pandemic has changed the relationship between Cirque and its achievers. Some realized “they did not necessarily want to work for a large corporation”; others struck in search of more autonomy.

Artists perform in Cirque du Soleil's 'Mystère' in Las Vegas.  Lamarre says that on 'Black Friday, when 71 Cirque performances around the world were canceled, he told his wife:' It's over '

Artists perform in Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Mystère’ in Las Vegas. Lamarre says that on ‘Black Friday, when 71 Cirque performances around the world were canceled, he said to his wife:’ It’s over ‘© Cirque du Solei / Getty

Lamarre said Cirque sought to “stay in touch with our artists during the crisis, even if at one point they were not our employees”. He also rejects criticism that the group, which also owns other theater franchises, such as the Blue Man Group, has grown too large and lost its spark. However, the future is as much about “market management” as it is about creativity. Lamarre said in November that he expected Cirque to change the “rhythm” of tour productions, to enable the group to visit the more lucrative “super” markets such as London or Los Angeles more frequently. At the same time, he said Cirque is in demand again, as an entertainment “anchor tenant” for new hotel and leisure developments.

Like an Olympic athlete who envisions himself on stage, Lamarre says he survived the long months after the circus went dark by visualizing himself at the reopening after closing. By the end of November, some 1,000 of the 2,000 or so artists employed by Cirque before 2020 had already joined Cirque’s return, mostly in revivals of established productions. Lamarre reckons Cirque should be ready to premiere brand new shows again in 2023. The probable tone of these new productions is already clear: joy and celebration. “Four or five different groups of creators came back to us and said: ‘We do not want to do a dark show now. We want to be very happy. “



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