The Coronavirus Economy: An acrobat passes the time after his employer, Cirque du Soleil, shuts down all shows

April 29, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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On March 14, Greg Pennes performed in his last Cirque du Soleil show—at least for the foreseeable future.

The following day, Cirque, the once fast-growing live entertainment powerhouse, issued a statement saying that it would temporarily suspend all Las Vegas–based shows including MystèreO, and Michael Jackson ONE, the production Pennes had been a part of for the past five years. (Cirque had already announced that it would suspend its traveling shows owing to the escalating global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Since then, life has changed drastically for Paris-born Pennes, who joined Cirque as a trampoline acrobat and dancer in 2012. The 36-year-old gymnast is just one of many former Olympic athletes who is now out of a job. After shuttering its 44 Vegas-based and traveling shows, Cirque, reportedly the largest employer of ex-Olympians, temporarily let go of 95% of its staff. It’s not clear how long the layoffs will last, and whether some will end up being permanent. Even as Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman has pushed for hotels and casinos to reopen, no guidelines have been issued on how local businesses might do so safely. And it’s doubtful Cirque, with its reliance on large audiences, will be able to gather crowds under the big top anytime soon.

As Cirque—and the city of Las Vegas—scramble to figure out their future, Fortune caught up with Pennes to find out how he is navigating the current crisis for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Cirque du Soleil acrobat Greg Pennes in 2018.
Ginger Griep-Ruiz

Fortune: How did you become a gymnast, and why the trampoline?

Pennes: I was born and raised in Paris, and every year in my neighborhood there was an event showing different sports that you can practice. That’s where I first saw the trampoline. I started jumping at around age 7, and then my parents signed me up for competitions. This led me to the French National Team. I competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and then I was ready for my next chapter. 

What led you to Cirque du Soleil?

I saw an old VHS tape of La Nouba, the show they did in Orlando, when I was around 15 or 16 years old. It was the first time I saw the trampoline being utilized as a performance apparatus, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Cirque works closely with the International Gymnastics Federation, and when I was ready to move on, I just contacted their casting department and told them so. I had to send a video reel of me doing flips and twists and acting. And then the process was similar to a regular job interview—I had to do calls and video interviews. They needed me to replace someone on the show Mystère, so I went straight to Las Vegas. [Normally, new performers are onboarded at Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal.]

Eventually, you became part of the cast of Michael Jackson ONE. Can you describe what your daily and weekly schedule used to look like?

I am mostly an acrobat, and the trampoline is my specialty. But I’m also a backup dancer for the show whenever they need me, and I back up for one of the main characters. The schedule is five days a week, two shows a night. That’s the bare minimum. And then we do trainings and rehearsals too, so maybe another 10 hours a week on top of the actual shows. But every week is different. The pace was pretty intense—as intense as when I was competing. 

When did you first see signs that this current crisis could be bad for Cirque?

I still have family in France. We saw that they got hit pretty badly after China. I saw how it was hitting Europe and started to think that it will probably will come here at some point. Working in such a touristy place like Vegas, with people flying in from all over the world, I just figured it was a question of time. We always have weekly meetings, and they were telling us that the casinos were monitoring the situation. We had an update every week. And then, on March 14, it was our last show. 

How did you take it? How did others take it?

Reactions were all over the place. Everyone is different. Right away, I decided to switch my mind and be in strong mode. This is the reality of what we’re living now. Let’s make the most of it instead of letting the virus win.

How have you been compensated?

The weeks before we closed they [Cirque management] gave us time to understand what would happen if the show would shut down. The biggest concern was about health benefits. They said Cirque was going to still take care of our benefits through June. They told us it would be a temporary layoff situation. Everybody did their own research about unemployment options.

Did you apply for unemployment?

Yes, I’m a resident, and I started receiving unemployment pretty quickly. My application went through quickly, but I have heard of others who had to go through phone calls. These are very individual situations. 

Overall, how would you say that the current situation has impacted you financially?

We had some money on the side, but we adjusted our way of living a bit. We’re guaranteed [benefits] until June, and I’m sure we’ll hear from the company what will happen after June. We usually get an email or two a week. My partner was also employed by Cirque. 

How are you filling your time now?

That’s the hardest part. Our rhythm and pace was pretty intense. Early on we set up a schedule—workouts and runs and any activities that are allowed in Nevada right now. Our days have been driven by workouts, schoolwork [Pennes’s partner has a young child], and dancing at home. That’s helped a lot. We keep the vibe going. 

Have you been to the [Las Vegas] Strip since things shut down?

We took a drive recently, just to see what it looks like. You know, my friends back in France always thought Vegas is like a fake city. When you take the people out of it, it looks even more fake. 

What do you hope will happen next?

Right now, I’m thinking Vegas needs to rise again. It would start first with hotels and casinos reopening before we [Cirque productions] can even think about coming back. I know that we aren’t essential. I think we can help a lot, but we’re not essential. I don’t expect anyone to say shows can open up first thing. Whenever this does happen, I foresee some adjustment of shows. Maybe one a night or less shows during the week? A ton of options are on the table. 

Are you looking at other employment options? Or are you confident that you can go back to performing with Cirque?

For some reason I feel confident that I will go back to doing what I love. I think I will be back doing flips and twists and dancing onstage. I don’t know if there will be a room full of people or if it will be live-streamed. But I think people just need interaction, and we need live performance. It’s just a matter of time and regulation. 

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