“I never thought in my life that within 48 hours, I [would go] from a billion dollars . . . of revenue to zero revenue, and there were people saying that the debt was too high and this and that. The reality is when you have no revenue, it doesn’t matter what your debt is: you have no money. Period. Full stop.”
Daniel Lamarre knows about high-wire acts — and not only the metaphorical kind. In 20 years as chief operating officer then chief executive, he helped lead Cirque du Soleil through changes of control, the global financial crisis, and natural and commercial disasters. He had always managed to keep the Montreal-based circus group’s overall show on the road. Until March 2020.
On what Lamarre now calls “Black Friday”, March 13, 71 Cirque performances around the world were cancelled as governments tried to stem the spread of coronavirus. “All the touring shows are down, but if Vegas remains open, we’re OK,” Lamarre reassured his wife. The next day, Nevada shut down non-essential businesses and the Las Vegas casinos where Cirque had six resident shows running closed indefinitely. “I came back home and I was white,” said Lamarre in a November interview. “I said to my wife, ‘It’s over’.”
Lamarre tells the tale of his and Cirque’s pandemic in Québecois-accented English, with the skill of an experienced ringmaster. But no amount of his trademark optimism can conceal the stress of the past two years. Lamarre had to repatriate the cast and support staff from multiple touring shows as flights were grounded and borders closed. Less than a week after Black Friday, he had to lay off 95 per cent of Cirque’s workforce — 4,679 people — by video. He took the company into bankruptcy protection in June 2020, running it with a skeleton staff. Two months later, the chief executive of one former investor, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, said Cirque had been one of the first businesses to close and would be the last to reopen. Lamarre and his team have already confounded that forecast. Two Vegas shows, Mystère and O, reopened in June 2021. Touring productions are springing back to life. Lamarre said: “I don’t have to rebuild the momentum. The momentum is there. And much more than I expected. Not only 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 those comments two days before the World Health Organization named the highly transmissible Omicron variant in November. Interviewed again before Christmas, Lamarre was still uncertain whether new measures would be imposed on English theatres, potentially threatening the return of Cirque du Soleil to London this week, with its Mexican-inspired show Luzia. Wednesday’s opening at the Royal Albert Hall is set to go ahead. Around the world, though, Cirque, like its acrobats and contortionists, needs to stay agile. “We’re playing with a lot of different scenarios: what if, and if, and if, and so on,” the Canadian said last month. The reality is when you have no revenue, it doesn’t matter what your debt is: you have no money. Period. Full stop
Lamarre, now 68, will not be directly responsible for how Cirque juggles those “what ifs”. He handed over the chief executive job to Stéphane Lefebvre on December 1, taking on a new role as executive vice-chair. As chief financial officer, Lefebvre helped Lamarre piece together a deal with creditors in 2020. The restructuring brought in $375m of new capital and left the circus under the control of creditors led by Catalyst Capital, a Canadian private equity group specialising in distressed debt.
Some see the changes as symptomatic of a wider shift that started in 2015 when another buyout group, TPG Capital, gained control of Cirque from its creative driving force Guy Laliberté. Patrick Leroux, a professor at Montreal’s Concordia University and a specialist in circus culture, pays tribute to Lamarre, a former television executive, who led that transition and Cirque’s pre-pandemic growth with a blend of risk appetite and artistic flair. Lefebvre, by contrast, is “very much an administrator and accountant: the right person to weather the next few waves” of the pandemic, says Leroux.
Lamarre instead emphasises Lefebvre’s six years steeped in Cirque du Soleil culture, and his “sensitivity to artistic content and creation”. He has handed over a business, though, whose ambitions have been tempered by the searing experience of pandemic and bankruptcy.
Cirque went into the crisis of 2020 carrying $900m of debt, a legacy of the TPG-led leveraged buyout in 2015, based on a strategy that forecast continuing revenue of $1bn annually and an eventual exit through sale or initial public offering. As Lamarre pointed out, it was not the debt itself that closed Cirque. But he added in November that he would be “lying [if I said] I wouldn’t be more prudent [in future], because obviously that was so tough to go through”.
In those few days in March, Lamarre went from “probably the most exciting job in the world [to] a nightmare”, not only wrestling with the financial cataclysm but also at one point facing protests from freelancers about Cirque’s failure to meet their demands for $1.5m in back-pay. In his new book Balancing Acts, published this month, Lamarre writes that “to save the company, I had to violate the very purpose of my life — creating jobs for artists”.
Concordia University’s Leroux says the circus world “needs a strong Cirque du Soleil, because it’s 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 performers. Some realised “they didn’t necessarily want to work for a large corporation”; others struck out 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 cancelled, he told his wife, ‘It’s over’ © Cirque du Solei/Getty
Lamarre said Cirque had striven to “keep in touch with our artists all along the crisis, even if at one point they were not our employees”. He also rejects criticism that the group, which also owns other theatrical franchises, such as the Blue Man Group, had grown too big and lost its spark. The future, though, is about “market management” as much as it is about creativity. Lamarre said in November that he expected Cirque to change the “rhythm” of touring productions, to enable the group to visit the more profitable “super” markets such as London or Los Angeles more often. At the same time, he said Cirque was in demand again, as an entertainment “anchor tenant” for new hotel and leisure developments.
Like an Olympic athlete envisaging himself on the podium, Lamarre says he survived the long months after the circus went dark by visualising himself at the post-lockdown reopening. By late November, some 1,000 of the roughly 2,000 artists Cirque employed before 2020 had already joined Cirque’s comeback, mostly in revivals of established productions. Lamarre reckons Cirque should be ready to premiere brand new shows again in 2023. The likely 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 don’t want to do a dark show right now. We want to be very joyful.’”