Bernard Petiot

“Athletes who join Cirque du Soleil must continue to develop their skills and challenge their limits. However, unlike the situation in the competitive environments they came from, they now do so by working in cooperation with their peers. Everyone is interdependent. Because when all is said and done, the true winner at Cirque du Soleil has to be the show." 

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  • Bernard Petiot
  • Montreal
  • Vice-President, Casting and Performance

After discovering artistic gymnastics as a child, Bernard followed his passion all the way to the Canadian university circuit, where he won numerous titles including “Athlete of the Year" from Quebec City ’s Université Laval in 1975. Then, along with one of his professors, he founded Club Salto in the same city, where he created the women’s gymnastics program and coached for eight years.

Upon completing his Master’s degree, Bernard was recruited by Montreal ’s Club Gymnix to take the reins of the advanced gymnastics program while simultaneously teaching at Université de Montréal. In 1997, he created an advanced training program for coaches at the National Multisport Centre in Montreal as part of the National Coaching Certification Program. Bernard’s career as a coach was prolific: in addition to taking part in 13 World Championships, he trained four Olympic athletes, more than any other Quebec coach.

In 1998, Cirque du Soleil recruited Bernard to head up its training studio, directing training programs for acrobats and supervising coaches and medical staff.

As Vice-President of Casting and Performance, what is your role at Cirque du Soleil?
I am in charge of casting for artists from artistic, circus and sports backgrounds. I am also responsible for supervising coaching operations, training programs, artists’ health therapists and specialists who design innovative human performances of a physical and acrobatic nature, as well as seeing to the good governance of all those activities. I make sure the necessary resources, infrastructures and mechanisms are in place to meet our goals for shows currently in performance as well as new creations.

How important are sports at Cirque?
Sports are very important for us since 50% of our artists-acrobats come from a sports background. Also, part of Cirque’s fame and unique style can be attributed to the highly developed athletic and sport skills featured in our shows, and gymnastics skills are the main contributors. Drawing on acrobatic skills acquired through sports, we can explore various performances faster and in greater depth and take calculated risks that are a cut above the traditional circus approach. That’s true from a psychological viewpoint as well as from a technical and physical perspective.

What is Cirque’s approach to artists?
We have two distinct approaches. With artists from an entertainment background, like singers, musicians, clowns and actors, our approach is based on respecting the strengths they already have. They are professionals who come to Cirque with special skills and abilities, and we treat them as such. Our role is to help them apply their expertise in the Cirque du Soleil context.

With athletes, their arrival at Cirque means they have chosen to reorient their careers. We therefore have to respect the skills they’ve learned, but we also start from the premise that those skills are insufficient to meet all our needs, whether in terms of acrobatics or show-specific aspects like stage presence. As a result, we teach them what they need to know to make the transition a success.

How does Cirque assist artists along their path to joining a show?
We have a complete infrastructure in place. First, an orientation team helps artists make the transition to life in Montreal , where our training studio is located. Then, we offer three types of training: acrobatic, artistic and personal-professional. Each type of training is overseen by experts, allowing artists to achieve real progress.

As soon as they join Cirque in Montreal, athletes become artists-employees. As such, they have to take responsibility for their artistic development, and they have to get used to doing things they’ve never done before. That process requires them to demonstrate their own creativity, making a real effort and learning by trial and error.

How much of a challenge is the mix of different nationalities?
The biggest challenge is communication: understanding artists, making yourself understood by them, and making sure they get along with each other. The solution lies in accepting our cultural differences. We have to help our artists become active participants in life at Cirque. In other words, we have to succeed in making the most of each person’s individual colour and unique personality and cultural traits.

What advice would you give a candidate thinking about becoming part of the Cirque du Soleil adventure?
Don’t put up any barriers or cling to preconceived notions: instead, try to be open-minded. The best way to do that is to get as much information as possible—for example, by visiting the Casting website, learning about Cirque by viewing DVDs of our shows, and eventually sending us your application. In a word, candidates should open their minds to getting in touch with their inner artist!