Woman acrobat suspended by her ponytail in the air, sitting in lotuslike position
Up in the air: Danila Bim performs a hair suspension in Cirque du Soleil's Twas the Night Before . . . Credit: Kyle Flubacker

Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work (HarperCollins Leadership, January 2022, $28.99) by Daniel Lamarre is a book for those who need creative inspiration. Part business memoir and part self-help/motivational, the appeal of this book will land squarely on the aspiring businessman who needs an icon. It not only celebrates the business braggadocio commonly attributed to male CEOs but also focuses its energy on the business deals of Cirque du Soleil (starting in 2001 when Lamarre arrived) with relatively few musings on the company’s artistic impact in the performing arts—and even less recognition of the creative contributions of its artists, let alone artists outside of the Cirque aesthetic. Apart from a token mention of a female creative (and one POC artist), the mention of almost any woman in the book is often tied to their status as wives (Beatles’ wives included).

Daniel Lamarre was the perfect hype man for the job. In his two decades as CEO, his tone remained optimistic, even during the darkest moments of the pandemic when he paints a picture of himself stalking the lonely halls of headquarters, manifesting a corporate comeback, and tirelessly facilitating the bankruptcy/reinvestment deal to reinstall the shows (and pay the freelance workers demanding their backpay). Though styled as a book to give business folks a boost of the creative, people in the business of circus will find it a fascinating peek behind the curtain of the most iconic circus company. 

In parallel with Cirque’s rebound, the local circus sector is in recovery mode, with Chicago circus schools like Actors Gymnasium, Chicago Center for Dynamic Circus, MSA & Circus Arts, and CircEsteem back in full operation with a variety of classes to suit all ability levels. The circus shows are keeping pace with the re-emerging Chicago theater scene, with companies like Yes Ma’am Circus, Company To X For, and La Vuelta emerging left and right. The Chicago International Puppet Festival ran in January (at the height of Omicron), and Teatro Zinzanni mounted its second cast not long after. A new wall trampoline show, Unspoken, debuted at Aloft in mid-March, and Cirque Us is slated to appear at Aloft with their show RagTag April 1-2, while Physical Theater Festival Chicago returns to full live production mode in July. Perhaps the most significant sign of Chicago’s circus recovery is the inaugural edition of the Chicago Circus & Performing Arts Festival (produced by Yes Ma’am), which will bring local performing artists from circus, burlesque, and physical theater to the Den from April 21-24 for ten different shows. 

In attempting to convey the corporate culture and triumphs of Cirque du Soleil, Lamarre does little to address the plight of smaller companies and festivals like these during the pandemic and recovery, let alone the struggle of circus artists, many of whom were forced to leave the industry due to lack of support. He skips the opportunity to reflect on the future of the sector and wonder: “If variations of the pandemic persist, how will the performing arts world continue to adapt and rebound in order to keep creativity (fueled by its artists) alive?” Creativity is Lamarre’s key word in the book, yet his focus is on the big picture—the business deals and bailouts that keep a corporation robust.

Although Lamarre struggles to reconcile being seen as a business square in a suit (by his artsy circus colleagues) with his own sober image of himself, he admits that the cold realities of running a business often clash with the romantic dream of an artistic company. Like when casting executives make the decision on who to hire based not on their artistry but on whether they might have the stamina for a six-day work week of ten shows. Trained athletes fare better than artists, Lamarre reasons. Wouldn’t it be best to hire the athlete and teach them the art than to hire the artist and train them to be physically resilient? Still, he shows some heart (and internal contradictions), professing that while working for Cirque he considered that his mission in life was to create jobs for artists. 

Lamarre’s bottom line is to be bold, to innovate, to take risks—all qualities well embraced by the circus world and the business world. Using worn-out aphorisms and sports analogies, each chapter invites you to get there by taking creative risks (Run away with the circus!). What emerges is a mantra for management that Lamarre credits as the recipe for Cirque’s success, something like, “Encourage creativity—but monitor creativity.” Yet if his answer is “creativity”—and his definition of the word is “doing business stuff that works,” then what is the actual question?

Maybe this: What does the struggle of a Montreal-based circus company (as told by the CEO) to survive a global pandemic have to do with the Chicago arts scene? Perhaps as a case study for local arts companies (circuses and theaters) to model adaptation and agility? Or maybe for arts consumers to understand how the cost of big business affects the quantity and quality of art, trickling down not to the audience but to the artists (caveat emptor). 

Cirque closed up shop with every venue and producer around the world, laying off nearly 5,000 employees in 2020. Yet, Montreal’s circus community, the government, and advocacy agencies (like En Piste) soon partnered with venues like TOHU (an arts venue right next door to Cirque). Together they supported artists with finances, COVID-safe residency spaces, and online workshops—using government funding. This model repeated itself in some European countries, while many theaters accepted grants and private funding to improve their structure during downtime instead (new seating, better lights, deeper stages, sleeker lobbies). Often, grant money is earmarked for certain segments of the business, like structural improvements—giving the overall business of performance a means to improve while the actual performers themselves struggle.

Right here in Chicago, unemployed performers had few support streams, yet Steppenwolf Theatre installed $54 million worth of improvements during pandemic closures. Executive director Brooke Flanagan spoke in an interview about how difficult it was for the arts industry, and in the same breath explained, “But we’re thrilled that during that time construction was declared an essential service by the governor and we were able to literally see this building rise.” For Steppenwolf, the improvements granted more access to people who are disabled and will provide more opportunities to offer arts education (workshop and classroom spaces). So it did help the local performing community expand impact, even if actors had to search for paychecks elsewhere. 

Cirque Us presents RagTag: A Circus in Stitches, April 1-2 at Aloft Circus Arts.

Perhaps the real question to the answer of creativity should be, “Why do the artists seemingly come last when the future of creativity depends on them?”

In the book, Lamarre seems to agonize over the employees stuck at home, and says Cirque would never risk their health by remounting shows at too fast a pace after such a large work gap. But he wants it both ways, praising the artists who stayed trained up by setting up rigging in their garages, and crediting them for how Cirque was able to so quickly remount their shows. 

Balancing Acts is an entertaining case study. Lamarre’s enthusiasm is contagious—who doesn’t want to ride along on the deals that netted Cirque millions for decades in Vegas? He is a good storyteller. Who doesn’t want to read quirky stories, like when Cirque cofounder Guy Laliberté hired a clown to follow Lamarre around to disrupt his work? He has deep knowledge of the financials. Who doesn’t want to know the sordid details of dealing with creditors—taking a company $900 million in debt, then convincing investors to toss in $375 million so that the company could be valued at $1.275 billion? Presto, the creative financing of bankruptcy turns that negative back into a positive! Ever an optimist, Lamarre still addresses the changes made to reduce costs, to become more efficient and resilient when returning from the pandemic for the next round, rebooting shows. He confidently explains how Cirque had one billion dollars in annual revenue at its height—so perhaps a rebound could quickly resolve things.

Balancing Acts was his final bow, before exiting stage left for the next scene of his life. Call this book his soliloquy then, to reflect on the lessons he learned at Cirque while trying to bridge the gap as he says between art (the idea) and business (the execution of the idea). He speaks about risks and drama, about their unofficial motto that “The show is the star.” (Not the artists. Which explains why none of the performers in the book have their names under their photos, while Lamarre, movie stars, photographers, and costume designers are all clearly attributed.)

Yes, Cirque has a weird corporate culture, and like most big entities, some of their ideas contradict each other. Still, everyone knows that without Cirque, live entertainment would not have risen to the height it is at today in the popular imagination. This is why we go to their shows. They reinvented something grand and elemental about human expression, and like any big business, they will ride it out, focusing on growth and innovation. It is embedded in our Western psyches to both admire and revile corporations that succeed at such pursuits. In that sense, it is a book for the masses—for the businessman, and his wife.