Guy Laliberté has gone from a wandering street performer to become the leader of one of the most popular and financially successful modern circuses. As president and co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Laliberté has introduced audiences to a redefined concept of the circus. Instead of the traditional three rings with clowns and animal acts, his highly trained artists and acrobats entertain audiences with theme-based performances that incorporate elements of dance, theater, and gymnastics. Cirque du Soleil's success has made Laliberté one of the richest men of his native Canada. His grand vision for Cirque du Soleil has introduced the show to three continents and millions of enthusiastic fans throughout the world.
Guy Laliberté was born in Quebec City, Canada, in 1959, into a large middle-class family. His father was an executive for a corporation and his mother is reported to have been a nurse or a piano teacher. He was raised in St. Bruno, Quebec, in what he told David Thomas of the Independent was a typical French Canadian family, "There was always a reason for a party, always music in the house." As a child he was interested in performing and took lessons in the martial arts and folk dancing. He also sang in choirs.
Inspired to Travel
At a young age, Laliberté was inspired to travel. He left home for the first time when he was fourteen. He described himself to Thomas of the Independent as a "dreamer, fascinated by the cultures of the world." He decided that street performing was his ticket to see the world. For a while he was a street musician. He played traditional Canadian music on an accordion and told stories, gathering money in a hat from passersby. Feeling confident in his street performing skills, Laliberté decided to travel to Europe when he was eighteen.
Laliberté arrived in London with only a little bit of money and nowhere to stay. He spent his first night there sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park. He used his performing skills to earn money and traveled throughout Europe meeting other street performers and learning from them. He learned fire breathing, juggling, magic, and stilt walking from seasoned artists. A year of traveling and doing festivals deepened his passion for street performing.
When Laliberté returned to Canada he tried to settle down in a normal job. He worked at a hydroelectric dam for all of three days before the workers went on strike. With time on his hands and money from the strike fund to support himself, Laliberté joined a stilt-walking troupe founded by Gilles Ste-Croix. Ste-Croix's troupe was called Les Echassiers De Baie-Saint-Paul (The Baie-Saint-Paul Stilt Walkers). Laliberté worked with Ste-Croix to put together a festival of street performers call La Fete Foraine. Unfortunately, many townspeople of Baie-Saint-Paul disapproved of the festival and successfully barred it from being hosted in their town.
Reimagining the Circus
In 1984, Laliberté, Ste-Croix, and others moved their small group to Montreal and formed Cirque du Soleil—the inspiration for the name came to Laliberté while he was sitting on a beach in Hawaii. The troupe convinced the Quebec government to give them funding for a street show that celebrated the 450th anniversary of Quebec. They made a small profit, but not without experiencing problems. The inexperienced group had trouble setting up their big top tent, which fell on them the first night. Despite smaller than expected crowds for their first few performances, the group toured thirteen cities in Quebec and also made appearances in Toronto and Vancouver.
In 1987, Cirque du Soleil had been performing exclusively for Canadian audiences for three years and had become well regarded as a quality act. Laliberté had a vision of taking the troupe to international venues, and risked everything to perform at the Los Angeles Arts Festival. They were booked as the opening act with many high-profile Hollywood celebrities in the audience. Fortunately for Cirque du Soleil, the gamble paid off when their show received rave reviews from all those in attendance. Without that success the troupe would not have had the funds to return to Canada.
Having earned a name for itself in Los Angeles, Cirque du Soleil returned to Canada to face their next challenge. The group was split on what to do with the money they had generated. Some members believed they should keep the company the same size and take time off to generate a new show. Laliberté helped guide the troupe to another solution—hire new performers to create a new show and keep the old show touring so that they would not lose momentum. It was another gamble that succeeded.
Mixing Business and Art
Laliberté, who describes himself as a better organizer than artist, takes a positive approach to the business side of Cirque du Soleil. In an interview with PBS's Online News Hour, Laliberté elaborated on his point of view, "Business is difficult. But it could be approached two ways: Seriously, or with the same way you're doing your job, with entertainment aspect, with pleasure, with fun. And we decided to try to make it as fun that we do our creativity." As a privately held company, Laliberté is free to take risks that would make most investors quiver. It's this freedom to explore possibilities that excites Laliberté. He explained to CBSNews.com, "We're not afraid of risking what was our success yesterday in order to explore some new field. We're adventurous. We like the challenge of unknown territory, unknown artistic field, and that's what stimulates us."
As Cirque du Soleil matured, Laliberté decided to add another twist to their already unique circus. They created a show that didn't tour, a permanent act. They launched the first such show in Las Vegas in 1992. Mystere opened in a theater built specifically for the show by Treasure Island resort owner Steve Wynn. Despite Wynn's initial criticism that the show was too dark, audiences and critics loved it. Other permanent shows opened afterwards including O, which opened in 1998 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and La Nouba, which opened the same year in Orlando, Florida. In 2003, Cirque du Soleil premiered their adult-themed show, Zumanity, in Las Vegas.
For the Record …
Born in 1959 in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.
Left home to become a street performer, c. 1973; traveled to Europe, toured with festivals, learned stilt walking, fire breathing, magic, juggling, c. 1977; joined Les Echassiers De Baie-Saint-Paul, early 1980s; formed Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, 1984; performed Los Angeles Arts Festival, 1987; bought out partner Daniel Gauthier to become sole owner, 2000.
Awards: Harbourfront honor for creative people, 2001; honored by Beverly Hills, California, 2003; presented Officer level of the Order of Canada; named one of Time magazine's world's most influential people, 2004.
Addresses: Business—Cirque du Soleil, 8400 2nd Ave., Montreal, Quebec H1Z 4M6, Canada, phone: (514) 722-2324, fax: (514) 722-3692.
The risks that Cirque du Soleil has taken have paid off well for the company and for Laliberté. When the company was originally formed in 1984, there were seventy-three employees and Laliberté was co-founder and president along with his partner Daniel Gauthier. By 1999, there were 1,400 employees with offices on three continents. In 2000, Laliberté bought out Gauthier's share of the business. By 2004, Laliberté was number 514 on the Forbes billionaires list and number 75 on Canada's list of richest people. That same year the company's employees numbered more than 2,700 along with more than 600 performers.
Although he has risen to incredible wealth, Laliberté holds onto the hopes and dreams he had when he was still striving to make his mark in the world. He told Etan Vlessing of the Hollywood Reporter, "I am blessed for what I have, but I believed in it from the beginning. Today, the dream is the same: I still want to travel, I still want to entertain, and I most certainly still want to have fun."
Hollywood Reporter, June 15, 2004.
Independent (London, England), December 13, 2000, p. 9.
Sunday Star Times, January 21, 2001, p. A9.
Toronto Star, September 29, 2001, p. J05; August 1, 2004, p. D01.
"Cirque du Soleil," PBS Online News Hour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june01/cirque_03-19.html (August 21, 2004).
"Inside Cirque du Soleil," CBSNews.com, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1999/04/26/60II/main44481.shtml (August 21, 2004).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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