Finding My Creative Courage in North Korea

September 27, 2017  • Welby Altidor

Just 15 months after taking his first writing workshop at Aspen Summer Words, Welby Altidor published Creative Courage: Leveraging Imagination, Collaboration, and Innovation to Create Success Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, a book that draws on his experience as executive creative director at Cirque du Soleil, where he was responsible for a portfolio of groundbreaking live events. In the midst of making the final edits to his manuscript this past summer, Altidor returned to Aspen as an Ideas Festival scholar. In this excerpt, he discusses his journey as a kind of cultural diplomat for Cirque du Soleil, forming connections with creative innovators that transcend the politics of their respective regions — including a trip to North Korea that left a lasting impact. Drawing on 20 years of creative leadership, Altidor provides an inspiring, practical guide to innovation through collaboration and controlled failure.

Why I Was in North Korea

Some of the world’s best flying trapeze acts ever created come mostly from the former Soviet Union’s countries (Russia, Ukraine), from China, and, less known, from North Korea. For close to two decades, troupes from North Korea won many major prizes and gold medals in some of the most prestigious festivals and competitions on the international circus arts event circuit: Monte Carlo, Monaco, Circus of Tomorrow in Paris, Zhuhai in China, and others. In fact, they typically won the biggest prize in their category.

I was dreaming that we could rise beyond the politics of our respective regions, that we could create a cultural bridge to exchange ideas.

The reputation for these troupes in the international talent scouting circles was not a secret, and everyone also knew that it was nearly impossible to hire artist troupes from that region other than for short stints in international festivals and performances in China. The prestige of those flying trapeze troupes was a source of pride for North Korea and its government was actively supporting their development. Circus in North Korea was an outlet to demonstrate the talent of its designers in acrobatics and the might of its people. Bringing such a troupe to the Cirque du Soleil, based in the West, and offering contracts spanning generally two years suggested major, controversial, cultural clashes. In short, it felt impossible to bring such a troupe to the West despite their recognized talents. 

A New Role for Me: Cultural Diplomat

I was in North Korea by mere chance. By the beginning of 2008, I had already played several important functions at Cirque du Soleil within the talent casting team. I had traveled the world to find distinctive contortionists and trapeze artists, but also dancers, singers, physical actors, musicians, and even comic actors or clowns who formed the different troupes of the Cirque du Soleil shows. I was now in charge of leading discussions to create collaborations with sports federations, arts organizations, and circus schools around the world. In the evolution of my roles as talent scout and later as director of the casting advising team, I was acting as a sort of cultural diplomat for Cirque du Soleil with the title of strategic relationship director for arts, sports, and circus.

With the company presenting over fifteen different shows simultaneously around the world, my new objective was to facilitate the access and the long-term recruitment of artists by developing an international network of partnerships between Cirque du Soleil and many national and global federations and schools. This role offered me the opportunity to work closely with several pioneers and experts in body movement, entertainment technology, the performing arts, sports high performance, and circus arts at Cirque du Soleil and beyond.

A Beautiful-Impossible Objective

The utopian and positive spirit present in Cirque du Soleil’s creation was both a source of inspiration and a reinforcement of some of my instincts. In my naive, idealistic view of the world and my excitement over this new role, I had set a few key goals for myself and the small team I was working with. One of my objectives was to establish the groundwork for an eventual connection between our team of professional acrobatic designers, arguably some of the best in the world, and their counterparts from the Pyongyang National Circus in North Korea. I was dreaming that we could rise beyond the politics of our respective regions, that we could create a cultural bridge to exchange ideas on best practices and innovation in trapeze act design and performances—if or when the situation ever improved between our countries, some time, in an unforeseen, distant future. It was a long shot, what I called a beautiful-impossible dream, and what TeamX from Google calls Moonshot projects and goals, an objective that I liked to set for myself among more pragmatic milestones.

Whenever I establish a direction for my work and think about its eventual impact, setting at least one truly out-of-the-ordinary objective on my list became a must and a best practice after the experience in North Korea. The founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, referred at times to the mission of the company as bringing dreams and peace to the world through shows and entertainment, something I translated and adapted as being a warrior for peace and dreams into my work. Inspired by this beautiful-impossible objective and the idea of being a warrior for peace and dreams, I imagine my work to have a potential impact on the horizon of five to seven years. I thought that if I could establish a few critical, strategic contacts in North Korea, even if I was long gone or had moved to a new role at Cirque du Soleil, the casting team would be able to take advantage of that groundwork and eventually create the knowledge and cultural exchange I was visualizing. No one truly believed that this initiative would go anywhere, and so nobody tried to stop me.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Creative Courage: Leveraging Imagination, Collaboration, and Innovation to Create Success Beyond Your Wildest Dreams by Welby Altidor. Copyright© 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Connecting to the Universe Through Music
May 23, 2017 • Marcia Butler