By Steve Yahn
The risk management operations of the celebrated Cirque du Soleil are as complex and highly disciplined as the daredevil entertainment acts of the Montreal-based organization, with safety playing a starring role.
"Since we were founded in 1984, we have considered the safety of our artists on all our show and training sites as an absolute priority," said Michel Rodrigue, assistant vice president of risk management and insurance for Cirque du Soleil.
Rodrigue is responsible for the management of Cirque du Soleil's worldwide operational risks including all aspects of the company's insurance program, the company's various contractual transfers and the management of its claims. That includes working with a long menu of carriers and brokers.
"Our approach is to build a mid- to long-term relationship with all of them by being transparent and by closely collaborating with them, some of whom ... have been working on our account for almost 10 years," Rodrigue said.
Depending on the type of insurance policies, the organization has a variety of high retention levels.
Rodrigue said Cirque's retention level varies from $10,000 up to $1 million depending on the type of insurance, with the most frequent retentions falling somewhere in between $100,000 and $250,000.
"We are also asking our partners, suppliers and contractors to maintain appropriate insurance policies," Rodrigue said.
For example, the owners and managers of the casinos, arenas or stadiums where Cirque du Soleil acrobats perform are responsible for maintaining the premises in good shape. As such, the venue's owner/manager should assume the resulting liability and carry insurance policies accordingly.
On Cirque du Soleil's side, it is responsible for activities, and thus liabilities, related to the show.
In the case of touring shows under the Big Top, Cirque du Soleil will assume more risk because it is responsible for the show itself and the operation of the Big Top where it will perform. The land owner
will assume the liabilities resulting from the owner's own business activities, managing parking, for example.
"With our global approach to insurance, each type of insurance policy we maintain -- liability, property, etc. -- covers all of our shows," Rodrigue observed.
"We do not maintain insurance on a per-show basis. Each policy's limits, retentions, exclusions and other conditions will be similar for all of our shows, whether it is a big top or a resident show," Rodrigue said. "By having standardized coverage, the insurance process is made easier for everyone involved -- brokers, insurers and Cirque, especially when we need to cover a new show."
Safety and injury prevention though, take center stage in the organization's risk management arena.
"It [safety] is deeply rooted in our corporate culture, and to be honest, the concern for the artists' health and safety takes precedence over any artistic endeavor or business decision," Rodrigue said. "Therefore, when it comes to safety, you will see that many people are involved."
Added Rodrigue: "Over the years, we have established working methods that ensure the artists' work is done in highly controlled environments, day in and day out, in order to effectively manage performance risk for our 1,300 artists."
Rodrigue, 49, has been in his current position since joining Cirque four years ago. Prior to that, he served for 12 years in risk management positions at multinational companies, most notably Hydro-Quebec and Transcontinental Media Inc.
In the Cirque du Soleil performances, nothing is improvised. Each acrobatic element is analyzed and scrutinized, whether it's a piece of equipment used by an artist or an individual physical performance.
Each act is deconstructed into a series of individual movements that may entail risks. For each movement, special effects, acrobatics, safety and prevention, and design and performance experts identify the potential risk, the source of the risk, the person(s) exposed to the risk, the probability of the risk materializing, its degree of severity and measures to be taken to reduce the risk.
"This analysis grid is documented meticulously and extensively," Rodrigue said. "It is developed in conjunction with all equipment and acrobatic performance designers in order to provide artists with the safest workplace. For our new creations, we call our approach a 'safety by design' approach."
Cirque du Soleil's safety teams are involved at the beginning of a creation process so they can follow and have some influence on the operational decisions to be made.
"The nature of our business of live performance makes it impossible to eliminate the risk factor, but our expertise is about how to eliminate them completely in order to constantly push the boundaries of our performances without compromising the safety of our performers," said Rodrigue.
Cirque du Soleil has almost 100 trainers from around the world who are involved in artistic training. These experts come from backgrounds as diverse as sports, acrobatics, dance, music and theatre. On the basis of their expertise, each one supervises the artists individually and accompanies them every step of the way.
In addition to these coaches and trainers, an interdisciplinary team of specialists, experts who fall under the division of casting and performance, is made available to each artist, ensuring his or her physical and psychological well-being. Two or three physiotherapists are on hand at each show site, and approximately 10 are available continuously at headquarters in Montreal.
Finally, there is a large team of experienced riggers and technicians whose jobs are directly related to artistic safety. They are responsible for installing equipment and operating the various technical systems.
For all the acrobatics found at a circus, entertainment safety experts said injuries in the field tend to be more mundane.
"The basic injury is a common slip and fall," said John Coniglio, owner of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Occupational Safety and Environmental Associates Inc., a safety consulting firm with projects around the world.
"But the theatrical atmosphere of these circus and trapeze shows offer the potential for serious acrobatic injury as well as industrial exposures when you have rigging being dependent on a very tightly planned manner for the performers," he said.
So you really need to approach these performances much like you do any type of activity where you have people depending on mechanical devices and how those machines are operated, Coniglio said.
The greatest challenge for shows such as Cirque du Soleil, where you're not just talking about stage-high performances, is careful preparation, planning and training for when the action is overhead and acrobats find themselves flying around with very intricate performances, he said.
"Conditioning of the performers is essential to managing a top safety record at Cirque," said W. Victor Garvey, safety manager at Heery International consulting in Los Angeles. "They have to be very well trained for even the most minor acrobatic acts that are performed."
Roger Goff, a Los Angeles-based legal counselor, business adviser and dealmaker for privately held entertainment companies, said Cirque du Soleil's technical and safety staff is made up of consummate professionals.
"They're very interested in doing things right," he said. "They take a lot of care to deliver a high-quality product."
But Goff underscored that the element of risk is part of Cirque du Soleil's appeal.
"The fact that there's a risk of injury is part of what makes their acts appealing," he said. "The fact is that what they do is beautiful and it's stimulating, but it's also kind of scary because you empathize with the performer doing a daring, potentially dangerous act."
Audiences tend to be wowed by how skilled and strong the acrobats are, but then think of what might happen in case of an accident, Goff said.
"I think it's part of the adrenaline rush for the audience," Goff said. "The risk is part of what you're paying for. So I think risk makes up a lot of entertainment, especially athletic entertainment."
Rodrigue said the organization has the infrastructure and the diversity to create, produce and simultaneously present 20 different shows in the world: 5,000 employees, including the 1,300 artistic performers from more than 50 different countries.
Cirque du Soleil has three types of shows: touring shows under the Big Top (Grand Chapiteau), which will visit a town for a minimum of six weeks; touring shows, which will stay three to five nights in a city and perform in an arena; and resident shows in fixed theatres in Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., and Los Angeles.
In 2012, close to 14 million spectators attended Cirque du Soleil shows, which are all created at Montreal headquarters. Before joining an existing show or during the creation of a new show, all artists must report through Montreal.
In the risk management realm, the company operates on a decentralized basis.
"Over the years, we came up with a specific approach to manage efficiently different types of risk," said Rodrigue. "Cirque du Soleil has experts in different disciplines who are able to process risk assessment, develop appropriate methods and tools to control these risks and monitor potential situations at risk."
In the casting and performance division, a team of expert managers develops strategies and methodologies to ensure the solid risk management of human performance. These experts master unique practices in designing human performance.
They also support the research and development of new solutions in the management of acrobatic risks through a network of researchers in related fields such as biomechanics, ergonomics, kinesiology and human performance and training. They develop tools to evaluate performance environment and recommend means to manage risks and support all show operations.
In the insurance realm, Rodrigue noted: "We have employees and artists traveling around the world with our touring shows, others are working in Las Vegas and Orlando and of course in Montreal, so we are thus carrying work-related accident insurance programs -- workers' compensation or the equivalent -- that take into consideration the workplace countries of employees and artists."
But it is safety that must rule the day with the organization, and the Cirque du Soleil's good record is a testament to that.
"To my knowledge, Cirque du Soleil maintains one of the highest training and safety standards in the circus entertainment field, and they are constantly reviewing their safety plans," said Stephen E. Leveroni, executive vice president and practice leader at San Mateo, Calif.-based ABD Insurance and Financial Services.
"In other words, I believe they prescribe to the theory that 'safety is no accident.' "
STEVE YAHN is a former editor with Advertising Age. He can be reached at email@example.com.
February 19, 2013
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