When Guy Laliberté was 14, he packed up his accordion and ran away from his family’s Montreal home. One month was all that he could take as a downtown street musician, but the open-air stage attracted him again a few years later. At 18, Laliberté—the son of an aluminum company vice-president and his pianist wife—dropped out of school to learn how to walk on stilts and swallow burning torches.
Those whimsical pursuits provided invaluable training: Laliberté, now 28, is the founding president of Montreal’s enormously successful Cirque du Soleil. Last week the troupe pitched its blueand-gold, 1,750-seat tent in Battery Park City, in the shadow of the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan. After the two-hour show’s opening, The New York Times concluded, “Everything comes together beautifully in Cirque du Soleil.” It was the latest conquest for the group that Laliberté and a ragtag group of street performers started four years ago with a grant from the Quebec government. Said Laliberté: “We are the Cinderella of show business.”
The 27 acrobats, mimes, daredevils and clowns—who range in age from 7 to 36—and 10 technical and support staff arrived in New York City after nearly six months of sellout performances in California. There, the troupe won a devoted following among some of Hollywood’s best-known personalities—including Jane Fonda and Steve Martin. Columbia Pictures bought the rights for a movie featuring le Cirque, and a tour of Japan is in the works (the company will travel to Toronto in July and on to Washington, D.C., in September). The nonprofit troupe is now so successful that federal and provincial governments provide only 10 per cent of its $10-million annual budget.
Laliberté says that he scorns the traditional circus, with its emphasis on athletic stunts. Le Cirque’s show does take place under a big top and features a ringmaster, high-wire acts and acrobats balancing on bicycles and chairs. But right from the start of the show—when an overstuffed usherette runs around teasing the crowd, and bizarre characters start emerging from the wings—it is clear that something unusual is going on. There are no classic clowns in the circus. Clowns are boring, says Denis Lacombe, a self-described “visual comedian,” who does a trampoline act while conducting the 1812 Overture. Nor is there any cotton candy. “Circuses worry more about sugary fluff than they do about having fun,” said acrobat Luc Dagenais. There are not even any animals. “We took everything that was familiar about a circus and threw it out,” said Laliberté. “We are proof to people that there is always something new under the sun.”
Members of le Cirque say that the traditional circus is dying from commercialism and a lack of ideas, and they—along with a handful of other young companies around the worldhave set out to reinvent the whole art form. Le Cirque’s players are more like performance artists, varietyshow acts or stand-up comics. “But,” said Laliberté, “the big top happens to be our medium.” What the troupe has created under the tent is a hybrid of modern performing arts, a blend of rock-concert pyrotechnics and sophisticated staging that recalls the lavish productions of Cats composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It’s like Disneyland in a tent,” rock star Elton John said after seeing the show in Los Angeles.
Much of le Cirque’s uniqueness lies in its ample use of theatre. The show’s story line is vague—it opens with the Queen of the Night (Angela Laurier, who is also a contortionist) casting a spell on a group of peasants who have wandered into the ring. They are transformed into acrobats, and the show proceeds as a seamless sequence of numbers, all touched with an atmosphere of fantasy. Dry ice and high-tech lighting add an air of mystery to the juggling and tumbling acts. Instead of the usual drum rolls, the stunts are accompanied by René Dupéré’s jazzy tango score, which is carefully synchronized with the action and is played live by a five-member band.
The show is also liberally sprinkled with wit as it parodies the old-fashioned three-ring spectacle. The teeterboard performers are dressed up in penguin suits and carry attaché cases. And it is the women in the troupe who hoist musclemen onto their shoulders.
Commented The New York Post: “Compared to P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, the Cirque du Soleil seems to have descended from another solar system.”
Le Cirque’s spontaneity and brashness are largely the result of its roots in Quebec’s fringe theatre, a background that is apparent in the troupe’s mobile canteen.
A hub for jean-jacketed performers rehearsing new material and child
stars taking school lessons, it resembles a hippie commune more than the watering hole for a circus troupe. Almost all of le Cirque’s original members started out as street performers— jugglers, tumblers and musicians who played at the local community fairs that sprang up all around Quebec in the 1970s. By the early 1980s a group of performers, including Laliberté, had organized themselves into the Club des Talons Hauts—the High Heels Club— and began holding an annual street festival in the artists’ colony of BaieSt-Paul, 80 km northeast of Quebec City.
In 1984, when Quebec celebrated the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to the New World, the performers got their big break, a government contract to tour the province as a troupe. The members took the money, bought a tent, adopted their current name and won rave reviews in the 11 towns that they visited during the year. A year later Laliberté—then a long-haired fire-eater in his early 20s—was knocking on the doors of
bankers and asking for millions of dollars to keep the project developing. “They j ust laughed and laughed,” recalled Laliberté. “What everybody forgets now is that four years ago we were just a bunch of kids trying to create jobs for ourselves.”
But even before le Cirque achieved star status playing Expo 86 in Vancouver, it was clear — through the
Despite le Cirque’s success, Laliberté and his company refuse to stand still creatively. The troupe is preparing an even more theatrical show, which will debut
troupe’s shrewd marketing—that the determined Laliberté and his colleagues meant business. Said Laliberté: “It didn’t take us long to prove to everybody we were not some government-sponsored freak show.” And, since going abroad, the troupe has proven that a circus show that sets out to break conventions can be a lucrative enterprise. In fact, Laliberté says that the company is constantly getting offers from investors in North America and Europe. next spring, to be performed under the big top, but on a stage rather than in a circus ring. The show, to be called Eclipse, will have a musical story line and weave circus acts into the plot. “But instead of a five-minute performance on the trapeze,” said Laliberté, visibly excited, “we will have a half-hour aerial segment, with the acrobats dressed up as birds.” For Laliberté and his troupe, it is never enough to simply dazzle the audience with daredevilry. Cirque du Soleil is also intent on making imaginations soar.
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