Fortune

IF I RAN THE CIRCUS

For 30 years, Cirque du Soleil has thrilled audiences with acrobatic spectacles of split-second precision. But it hasn’t had the same discipline behind the scenes. Can a new private equity owner turn the world’s best-known circus into a well-managed business?

LAS VEGAS

I’M SEATED ON THE INNER EDGE of a cerceau—a thin, white hoop, suspended from the ceiling by a wire. My fingers tighten around the sides of the apparatus as my legs dangle, frighteningly far from the ground. I try to look casual, but it’s hard to feel at ease while perched, sans harness, on this raised-up roost. My mind wanders to the fine print on my insurance plan. (Are aerial hoop accidents covered under workers’ compensation?) That doesn’t exactly help me relax: I’m still recovering from the earlier routine when I hung from the hoop by my hands while spinning spasmodically.

“How high up was I?” I ask when I’m finally lowered back to terra firma, or in this case, a foam-filled, bright-blue gym mat that makes me wobble with every step. “Probably just about 10 feet,” answers James Guilford, a project manager with the renowned live-entertainment company Cirque du Soleil.

We are in a training room deep within the labyrinthine backstage belly of O, one of Cirque’s famous Las Vegas–based shows. The makeshift gym is full of exercise machines, trampolines, and trapeze swings—mere toys for the likes of Pierre Cottin, the ponytailed, French-born acrobat who is also on hand, assisting with my clumsy initiation to the cerceau. To my right, high up on the wall, is a poster of Cottin’s blond, beaming girlfriend, Christina Jones, an Olympic synchronized swimmer. Both are Cirque du Soleil performers. And I’m pretty sure neither has any body fat.

Clearly I am out of my element. But so are most of the people Guilford guides through these aerial adventures. And Guilford is a bit out of place himself. He’s a former educator whose mandate at Cirque is to head a new offering called Spark—essentially a corporate team-building retreat with more mystique and off-the-charts production values. Companies like Google, Adobe Systems, and Kmart Australia have

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