Cirque du Soleil reorganizes to win over Broadway

By Climent Sabourin, AFP

MONTREAL, Quebec–Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil, acquired last year by Chinese and U.S. investors, has undertaken changes that have been criticized internally but which should allow it to win over Broadway and China. The entertainment giant, founded in Quebec in 1984, was purchased last spring for US$1.5 billion by the U.S. investment fund TPG and China’s Fosun Group, the owner of Club Med. The founder, former Canadian clown Guy Laliberte, has retained a 10 percent stake in the company, while TPG and Fosun control 70 percent and 20 percent of the firm, respectively. The first fallout from this takeover was announced this week by Cirque’s chief executive, Daniel Lamarre. In a letter to the approximately 4,400 employees, he warned that “major changes to the corporate structure” were underway.

In particular, staff are grumbling because now the chief operating office is a corporate lawyer. Two of the company’s longtime leaders, Chief Operating Officer Charles Decarie and Chief Financial Officer Eric Marceau, left the company. “Less comfortable with the new environment,” Lamarre said of their departure. “It is normal when there are changes of ownership that adjustments be made,” he told AFP. The departures have sparked “a great unease internally among managers and among employees” who are not fond of the new direction advocated by management, public broadcaster CBC reported, citing sources in the company.

In particular, the replacement of Decarie by corporate lawyer Jonathan Tetrault, who is more adept at finance than entertainment, irks staff who view their work as performance art. “The Cirque has always been balanced between business and creation, but now everything is focused on business,” an anonymous source close to the matter told Radio-Canada, CBC’s French-language sister station. Lamarre retorted that Cirque du Soleil has reached the global fame it enjoys because of its creativity, not because of the way its business side is run. ‘Avatar’ to Conquer China Evidence of how the new Cirque owners “have bought the company to grow it” is that its payroll has increased 10 percent since the takeover, said Lamarre. The Cirque’s poor financial performance in recent years had led to the dismissal of 1,000 employees as part of a restructuring before last year’s takeover. With a new show unveiled in April in Montreal, and another launched on Broadway on May 25, “We are in a mode where it’s full on at the creation and production,” Lamarre commented. Cirque du Soleil will debut on Broadway in New York with “Par Amour,” but it is especially eying the Chinese market for new shows. “We’re opening an office in Shanghai. China is becoming a priority market for us,” said Lamarre. China has a very old tradition of acrobatic circuses. The market will thus be more difficult to conquer. Inspired by the film “Avatar” from James Cameron, the new show “Toruk” attracted a record crowd at Christmas in Montreal, before it hits the road in the Middle Kingdom in 2017. “Avatar the film was a runaway success in China and we think this is the right show to establish the brand of Cirque du Soleil in China,” says Lamarre.

“Subsequently, we have four, five shows in development, and I hope that in five years we will have a permanent presence of two or three new shows out there,” said Lamarre, who is eager for the Cirque to “cross all cultures and into all markets.”