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Cirque du Soleil draws on China's deep well of talent

Since Expo 2010 opened in Shanghai this spring, Cirque du Soleil and China have been getting to know each other better.

Through the end of October, upward of 35,000 visitors a day should keep filing into the Canada Pavilion, a cedar-clad colossus dreamed up by Cirque's Johnny Boivin. Outside the 6,000-square-metre space, performers from the Montreal-based entertainment company entertain the waiting crowds.

For Chinese visitors to the Canada Pavilion, Cirque du Soleil's world-famous blend of circus and theatre is just part of the draw. People also endure the long lineups in the hope of glimpsing Mark Rowswell, Canada's commissioner general for Expo 2010. The hugely popular Ontario-born entertainer - who goes by the stage name Dashan - is arguably the most famous foreigner in China.

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Cirque du Soleil mounted its first and only mainland China show in 2007, when it launched a two-month run of Quidam in Shanghai. But the firm is no newcomer to the Middle Kingdom, where circus has a long and distinguished history. For almost 25 years, Cirque has drawn on China's deep well of talent by recruiting artists from throughout the country. Today, about 20 per cent of its 1,500 performers worldwide are Chinese.

"It has helped us to understand the culture, it has helped us to understand the way they do business in China," says CEO Daniel Lamarre of this staffing strategy. "And so therefore when we went in 2007, we were well prepared."

As Canadian entrepreneurs, Cirque du Soleil and Dashan have found a way to stand out in China while fitting in with the local culture. Businesses hoping to achieve the same balancing act must learn to read a nation that is both introspective and thirsty for outside novelty and sophistication.

"It's always intriguing in China, because on one side they're looking for someone that is very close to their community, which we are," Mr. Lamarre says. "On the other hand, they're also looking - and more so now than ever - for people who have an international brand."

Capitalizing on the momentum from Expo and its current Macau show, Cirque du Soleil aims to have a presence in Beijing and Shanghai by as early as next year. It laid the groundwork for these plans through a long-standing relationship with the China Performing Arts Agency, a branch of the Ministry of Culture.

Mr. Lamarre says importing performers through the CPAA has been a way for Cirque to show its respect. "Because we were using a lot of Chinese artists for many, many years … it was normal that if we go into China we would be considered not only as a business venture, but more importantly as a friend of China."

Respect for China's many-layered bureaucracy is another key to success. "That's the way they do business, and everything they do obviously is totally influenced by the government," Mr. Lamarre says. "If you want to do business the North American way, it won't work."

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Cirque du Soleil's most powerful government ally in China is President Hu Jintao, who was instrumental in winning support for the 2007 Shanghai show. The company has cultivated strong ties to local business partners too. It put on Quidam with the Chinese division of Los Angeles-based entertainment presenter ThemeSTAR (now called AEG ThemeSTAR), and teamed up with domestic investors to cover the roughly $12.6-million in production and marketing costs.

Getting middle-class Chinese consumers to spring for foreign goods and services is a matter of appealing to their aspirations, says Yuwa Hedrick-Wong, economic adviser to MasterCard Worldwide for the Asia-Pacific region. "Fitting in culturally does not mean making whatever you have to offer more Chinese-like," adds the Vancouver-based business strategist and economist. "Fitting in culturally is to understand, from a cultural point of view, what they aspire to."

Because Chinese urbanites live in a fiercely competitive social environment, Prof. Hedrick-Wong explains, they crave an escape from that constant pressure. Cirque du Soleil fits the bill by immersing them in a fantasyland that is very different from traditional Chinese acrobatic shows.

"Elements of that skill are incorporated into the new productions, but it really is a tremendous escape valve for these hard-working middle-class urban households who are yearning for new experiences," Prof. Hedrick-Wong says.

Another advantage for Cirque du Soleil is that senior Chinese officials and business people often have artistic hobbies. Sarah Kutulakos, executive director and COO of the Toronto-based Canada China Business Council, says the typical Chinese hierarchy doesn't give them the same creative outlets that a Western organization might. "And so they find these other ways to express themselves, and that then creates an opening for something like Cirque."

Chinese audiences of all social stations can't get enough of Mr. Rowswell, a tall, bespectacled Caucasian who rose to fame by mastering the comic performance style known as xiangsheng. Ms. Kutulakos notes that this art form - its name can be translated as "crosstalk" - is difficult even for native Mandarin speakers.

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Like Cirque du Soleil, the gifted Mr. Rowswell is an old China hand. He's spent more than two decades building his empire, which includes television hosting duties, endorsements and a line of ESL products.

"When you're at it that long, you develop an understanding of the culture that can really be sensed by the Chinese people," says Ms. Kutulakos, who is fluent in Mandarin.

Agreeing with that assessment is Kenny Zhang, senior research analyst at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a Vancouver-based think tank. "That's why people in China actually call Dashan a foreigner, but not an outsider," Mr. Zhang says. "Through his performance and through his life for over 20 years now, [he]is actually considered part of China rather than part of Canada."

As it looks to expand into China, Cirque du Soleil comes from a similar position of strength. "I think our people understand that culture very, very well," Mr. Lamarre says. "And it's very rare that you can walk into our studio here in Montreal without meeting Chinese people. So it's part of who we are."

a year. A prime audience for bigger-ticket items is China's mass-affluent class, whose top household income Prof. Hedrick-Wong pegs at $30,000.

The next step is to find the risk-takers. Among the urban middle class, Prof. Hedrick-Wong explains, people are delaying marriage. One result is what could be China's most compelling market segment for creative businesses: well-educated, well-travelled young singles who like to spend money on themselves and are willing to try new things. "Creative products and services are by definition new, so you have to tap into risk-taking consumers," Mr. Hedrick-Wong says.

Two experts share their thoughts on making an impression in China

"You do need to think about where your product fits with what you're competing against in China. But I do find that many companies take a bit of a myopic approach to it, saying, 'I don't want to go to China. Somebody will copy me.' Your product is on the international market. If they want to copy you and your product is good, they're going to go buy one and reverse-engineer it and copy it anyway. So get to China, register your IP, and work in a very competitive environment, because it will make you stronger."

- Sarah Kutulakos

Executive director and COO, Canada China Business Council

"Once you have your niche, if you try to go too far to [appeal to]Chinese tastes, then you begin to lose your differentiation. And then very quickly, you become a look-alike to local competitors. And that's a danger, because then you can no longer command a price premium. Once you can no longer command a price premium, you're dead, because Chinese competitors are so, so aggressive at copying what you do and then selling it at half the price. …The only way you can prevent that from happening is to retain a certain differentiated quality that cannot be copied."

- Yuwa Hedrick-Wong

Economic adviser to MasterCard Worldwide, Asia-Pacific; adjunct professor, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

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