Regina Sotorrío / Rachel Haynes
Friday, 5 January 2024, 18:13
Stéphane Lefebvre is one of the masterminds of the comeback of Cirque du Soleil. In 2020 he was part of the management team that had to tell employees that they were being let go after going from a revenue of a billion dollars to zero in less than a week: "The hardest thing I've done in my life." The fall of the circus giant, victim to the pandemic, shocked the world. They had to seek protection from bankruptcy courts, find investors and relaunch the company. And they did it.
Lefebvre speaks now as president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, at the helm of a company that achieved what seemed an impossible feat, this time outside the big top. Now they are returning to Malaga, to the fairground, with their iconic show Alegria. The production, with one of the most powerful soundtracks in the world of show business (the theme song has been heard by more than 30 million on Spotify), comes back to the Costa del Sol after 13 years with a version updated for the show's 25th anniversary. Tickets, from 31 May to 23 June, are already on sale (from 43 euros).
–Alegria is coming back to Spain. What does the show have to keep it going for 30 years?
–It's an amazing experience. It's a show that touches people and creates this emotional link with the audience. This is not just a series of 'wow', acrobatic acts; it's a story of characters who connect well with the audience. The music has always been very important for the show, and I think most people know the theme song Alegria.
–It has already been to Malaga. How would you encourage people to see it again?
–It's Alegria with a more contemporary flavour. The music and the equipment used has been updated. And obviously technology has evolved so much since 1984.
–And it's in a big top this time, which is moving away from the arena format. Does that make it more authentic?
–A big top creates a magical environment. The minute you go in the tent something special happens. It's very intimate. You're close to the action, close to the performer. It's got a capacity of 2,500 people, not the 10,000 people in an arena.
–In the 30 years that Alegria has been on the road, it feels like we've lost the ability to be surprised, with so much around us to stimulate us. Have you noticed that in the circus?
–You're seeing real people, live, who literally risk their lives every night. That's what Cirque du Soleil does. And that has a layer of emotion that you wouldn't get watching a movie or TikTok. There's a lot of rich content out there on different media, but there's nothing like being there physically with the performers and watching the acrobats do their tricks live.
–So the circus is the old-fashioned type of performance for which artificial intelligence isn't going to be a threat?
–That's a really good question. I was asked not too long ago by a business journal if I was concerned about artificial intelligence. In our business not that much. I don't think artificial intelligence could replace what people will see on stage when they go and see Alegria in Malaga. It's something so unique to be there in a big top and watch people performing. Artificial intelligence will not replace that.
–So what does a particular number or acrobat have to do to be taken on by the Cirque du Soleil?
–We have a casting department with scouts that literally travel the world and we also have partnerships with all the gymnastic and Olympic associations in different parts of the world. We're always looking for things that are new and even more advanced than performing what we've seen in the past. From having an idea to create a show to actually premiering a show could be about two years.
–Cirque du Soleil wrote a new language in the world of the circus. But now a lot of projects are doing things in the Cirque du Soleil style. Does that annoy you or do you feel flattered that people want to copy?
–Actually, flattered. I've had the chance of spending quite some time with the founders of the company in the last year, including Guy Laliberté, and he never felt threatened by other circus companies. It was quite the opposite: he himself helped a lot of companies see light. We have something that a lot of people don't have, which is our brand. When people come and see a Cirque du Soleil show, they know that the quality will be there and that this will be more than just a collection of acrobatic acts.
–The fall of Cirque du Soleil during the pandemic shocked the world. It was hard to believe it would happen to a brand such as this one.
–It shocked the world and it shocked all of our employees, including myself. I'll remember that day for the rest of my life. That Monday morning we had a meeting. We had a show that was supposed to go to Italy. We were looking at redirecting the show elsewhere in Europe. Very naively, we thought we would just find another market for it. That was on the Monday. On the Sunday, all markets were shut down, including Las Vegas. So we went from being a company with top line revenue of one billion dollars on the Monday to zero on the Sunday. We lost all of our business in six days. It was brutal. Technically, we didn't go bankrupt. We sought protection from the bankruptcy courts. We built a business plan and convinced a bunch of people that this company is an amazing brand so strong that it can go through those tough times, which we did. In November 2020, we were able to find some investors who committed to an amount of 375 million of fresh capital to relaunch the business. In the summer of 2021 we relaunched in Las Vegas, and the rest is history.
–You took over the reins of the company in 2021 at a key moment, just as it was relaunching. Was that a challenge?
– The hardest thing for me was not to find money and relaunch the business, but it was to have to talk to our employees and tell people that, unfortunately, we had to let them go. This was the hardest thing I've ever done, I think, in my life.
–Is being the president of a circus different from any other company?
– It's actually being the president of this company that is different. Cirque du Soleil has a very unique DNA. You see it. You feel it. If one could attend one of our Christmas parties, people would understand.
–Do you have a nomadic lifestyle like the circus artists?
–I have two young kids. But I do make a point of visiting all the shows every year. I've always travelled a lot, even before joining Cirque du Soleil. I think I've always had a nomadic life.
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