Lessons from Cirque Du Soleil, a business that takes art seriously

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Vegas was the Cirque Du Soleil shows, Ka and Michael Jackson’s One. Ka was an unbelievable experience while One was an exhaustive visual extravaganza of MJ’s works. Needless to say, I got intrigued by the sets and wanted to know more about the behind-the-scenes.
That’s when I came across this book called The Spark, created by Lyn Heward and written by John U. Bacon. It’s a short read and for its size, the book has so much wisdom in it. I have tried to milk it to the maximum and I will be taking you through my reflective journey of the book through this blog post.
The Spark is a story of Cirque du Soleil’s artists and how they have learned to surrender to their senses, take risks, trust their instincts, and meet new challenges in a nurturing and artistic environment. The artists work together and work alone learning to connect with and touch people in novel ways, by always reinventing themselves.
They aspire to give back to the world in the endless continuum of change, exchange, and renewal; they are catalysts.
The book begins by painting a word picture of what Vegas is all about. If you have stayed in Bellagio, Wynn or Venetian, you will be able to resonate with it completely. The protagonist, Frank goes on to say that the mundane world of marketing and money had brought him to Vegas in the first place.
At least, that’s where I found myself after I left behind the cacophony of the casino, with its blinking lights, rolling dice, and excitement around every corner. As fascinated as I was with the land of chance, I needed to give my senses a brief respite from the spinning wheels of fortune.
As Frank got into the Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole adventure of following the endless maze of doors to the backstage of the Ka show, he had an unmistakable sense that he was getting one step closer to what he was searching for.
My curiosity was aroused in a way it hadn’t been since college when every experience was a new adventure, and I didn’t have to worry about the consequences of my actions the way I did now; my mind seemed alive to the possibilities my surroundings presented.
Self-discovery is one of the concepts the book keeps emphasizing – how the Cirque has helped to recognize lost souls and has helped artists find themselves again. And, if you know what you are looking for, it’s pretty easy to find it. This is exactly why the artists at Cirque love it when they come out for an encore after the show.
When we pull off our masks and hats, we reveal our souls, our humanity; we’re showing the audience that, really, we’re just like you. If we can do this, you can, too.
The book also explores the concept of being instead of doing – how being present is more generous than being productive. Even though every journey inward begins with techniques, it can progress only if we allow ourselves to move beyond the mechanics and into the moment.
A hypnotist, I understand, simply by controlling the timbre of his voice, can lull you into your subconscious until you’ve forgotten all about your guide, so lost are you in the layers of your dreams. And a storyteller, by mastering metaphor, can weave a tale that will change your life.
If we are not used to ‘being’ because of all the ‘doing’, this ‘being experience’ is an uncomfortable deal initially. However, if we are open enough to take it all in, savor the sounds and smells and sensations, it can help us live up to our potential. The protagonist beautifully describes his state of mind regarding this as follows:
The thought of losing my senses – even for just a few minutes – was disconcerting. Maybe it was because so much of my life depended on trying to say the right thing at the right time. The thought of having to sit still and silent, even for half an hour, unsettled me. It made me wonder, how often did I speak just to fill an empty moment, rather than allowing my unvoiced ideas to really take shape?
Everything is more drawn out on stage; everything seems longer. A few seconds seem like a minute – not just to me, but to you too. I take my time, shuffling along, which creates the illusion that I’ve been burning for a long time when it isn’t that long. The rest of the troupe does a great job of distracting the audience with all this fast stuff, which helps to cloud the perception of time. It seems agonizing – to you!
And, that is the difference between being an artist and being a businessman. A Cirque is not like running an assembly line, with people tied away in their cubicles. Everyone is a part of what is being done on stage, and that’s why there are so many regular folks on backstage. This made Frank realize what he was like before he put on that suit of his.
They weren’t merely hitting their marks; they were using their bodies to sculpt stories, to carve ideas out of thin air, to evoke the audience’s emotions. While watching the aerialists scale the nearly vertical revolving platform I’d discovered earlier that day, I had looked down at the small paunch that had developed around my waist over the last few years, the result of too many expensive dinners wooing clients and late nights at the office fueled by fast food.
I noticed that there were no individual stars listed, no name touted above any other. Yet I’d just seen the artists perform feats of athleticism that most of my clients would never dare, even with a multimillion-dollar sports drink endorsement tied to it.
Even when we are doing something, we must do it intentionally. In the context of Cirque, only when the artists know what went wrong, they can put up a great show. Every accident is a creative opportunity in disguise. The Cirque’s surroundings, including constraints on time, budget, and resources, have been proven to help send the artists’ creative energy into overdrive. But it’s not for everyone. Some people prefer more security, more structure, and fewer demands on them to create something special.
Intentional work means never losing sight of the reason for your work – this is one idea any business could benefit from. The only way to find that motivation is to find something you care about enough to build your life around it. Passion is critical to everything we do, and those without it wouldn’t last long. Frank had this realization too.
I was starting to fall back into the same rut I was in before – sleepwalking through life, eyes half open, with no real sense of direction. Why had I chosen my profession in the first place? More important: Why had I decided to live this way?
As much as the Cirque offered freedom for artists, it can sometimes be both the problem and the solution. Combining different skills to elicit a more personal response from the audience is no easy deal.
The emotional labor comes in the form of makeup, providing warm-up and gradually preparing the artists for the transition from daily life to life on stage. It was also, a way to express a more fundamental creativity – makeup reveals another side of the artists to the outside world in addition to concealing their faces and flaws. This transformation makes the audience feel inspired as the artists take their jobs to the next level. That’s how the artists give back to the audience.
Frank recollects that keeping up with the appearance is also, applicable in the business world even though it comes with a cost.
Rather than genuinely working to help our clients, we were frequently too afraid to upset them – and possibly lose them – to give them the honest advice they often needed to hear.
Another theme that the book explores is leading and working in teams. Sometimes, the artists at Cirque had to erase the lines between athletic and artistry, and between groups and individuals.
For most of us, it’s been too long since we’ve played like children! To come across as sincere on the stage, you must be honest in life. It’s important for the audience to feel that we’re all together as a community, with a shared sense of beauty, of joy.
Some people like being a part of a team simply to participate and not to compete.
That is also why it has been so good, so natural, for me to go from being a swimmer to a coach. There’s a difference between wanting to compete and wanting to participate. There’s a difference between being an athlete and being an artist. And now, I am learning about the difference between being a coach and being a teacher. To me, a coach is responsible for motivating the whole team. Well, I can do a motivational speech for a hundred people, but what I really love is a more intimate interaction. And that, to me, is teaching: one-on-one, working with someone on their technique, helping that person understand who he or she is.
If you are an athlete, your coaches tell you ‘do it my way’; the judges tell you if you’re bad or good, according to what they think is right. That is not the way it works at Cirque – here, we tell you to be yourself.
The author concludes with an insight for leading teams effectively.
In this business – in all businesses – your people will rarely work harder than the boss.