The first time Cirque du Soleil pitched its sky-blue-and-goldenrod-yellow big top on California soil, it was in Little Tokyo. The year was 1987; the targeted occasion, opening night of the Los Angeles Festival. According to Cirque founder-director Guy Laliberte, the entire future of the Montreal-based troupe was riding on that single show.
“If the critics didn’t like us, we wouldn’t have had the money to put gas in the trucks and get home,” said Laliberte recently in San Francisco, where Cirque was playing to 98% capacity houses. “We were gambling our whole circus on a one-night deal.”
That gamble paid off handsomely. Reviewers loved Cirque du Soleil’s youthful one-ring extravaganza, a glossy animal-free melange of high-wire and teeterboard stunts, rambunctious clowning and thrilling acrobatics, all wrapped up in fanciful costumes and choreographed to a synthesized rock beat. Audiences loved it too, packing the 1,756-seat tent nightly. The circus wound up with plenty of gas money for the ride home to Canada. And they had no trouble returning in 1988, this time to perform at the Santa Monica Municipal Pier on the first leg of a triumphant six-city U.S. tour.
Cirque du Soleil is back at the same spot offering another lively demonstration of the uses of enchantment through Oct. 15. Or, as its distinctive print ads would have it, “ la magie continue. . . .”
But stage magic alone can’t account for the wildfire success of this young circus troupe. In just five years of operation, Soleil has blossomed from a small upstart circus into a major North American touring attraction. It now has 150 employees, a budget in excess of $10 million, an annual audience of more than 500,000, and a mystique that just won’t quit.
“We’re successful because we’re different,” said Laliberte. “We came from the street as a bunch of 23-, 24-year-old kids. I think we’re changing the whole image of circus. Coming to Cirque du Soleil is like going to make a picnic.”
Cirque du Soleil’s popularity, and its special brand of polished whimsy, have a lot to do with Laliberte’s exuberant stewardship. A former stilt-walker and fire-eater, the blond, puckish 30-year-old combines a street artist’s freewheeling spirit with a sharp instinct for business.
Speaking in English flavored by a French-Canadian accent, Laliberte described himself as “a great conceptor. Cirque du Soleil to me is a show inside a concept.”
That concept was born in 1984 as an outgrowth of a street artist’s festival Laliberte produced in the tiny town of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. On the strength of the festival, the Canadian government agreed to subsidize Cirque du Soleil’s first season. Initially, the group toured only in Canada, but the United States was much on their minds.
“We already knew we were condemned if we didn’t have something for export,” said Laliberte. “A circus can’t perform in Canada more than three, four months a year because of the bad weather. We had to have a big U.S. market to survive.”
In 1985, the group moved a step closer to that goal when Laliberte came home from a trip to Italy with a spacious new big top. “Everybody thought I was crazy because we had no money,” he said. “I was buying $400,000 worth of equipment with only $10,000 in my pocket. Then I had to go out and (find) $2 million to make the season happen.”
While Laliberte was out wooing and winning support from Canadian airlines and other corporate sponsors, the group’s artistic staff perfected a performing style. A marvel of slickness and spontaneity, Cirque du Soleil blends some of the flash of commercial circuses with some of the intimacy of one-ring outfits like Circus Oz and the Pickle Family Circus.
“We had no tradition of circus in Canada, so we were free to do something new,” noted Gilles Ste. Croix, an early Cirque performer and its present artistic director. “We are really theater people so we used a lot of references to theater and dance. And we’ve always been very careful about our visual aesthetic.
“We are trying to say that through the powers of imagination anyone can be creative,” said Ste. Croix. “Our motto has always been, ‘Free the imagination.’ ”
The troupe’s current edition boasts all new acts and a more lighthearted, comic flavor than the 1988 edition. Ste. Croix also points out that last year’s entry “was what we call fleur bleue --soft edges, romance, and characters acting like poupees, little dolls. Now we have characters more like humans, and the design is more hard-edged and geometric.”
The cast of 35, drawn in part from the company-run National Circus School, contains familiar and unfamiliar faces. Benny LeGrand, a splay-haired, mischief-making clown, is back for his fifth consecutive year. The sexy acrobatic team of Eric Varelas and Amelie Denay has returned for its second season. Among the newcomers, the Shandong Troupe of China stands out. This remarkable group of teen-age balancers defies gravity on the “rola bola” board. Another more orthodox edition is the graceful gymnastic dance routine by Maia Taskova and Mariela Spasova, a pair of champion athletes from Bulgaria.
As Cirque du Soleil embarks on its sixth season, Guy Laliberte talks enthusiastically about “diversifying.” Tours to Japan and Europe are on the horizon. An entirely new show with a new theme is in the works. When it’s ready, Soleil will have two troupes on the road, Ringling Bros.-style. The organization is also managing a growing number of offshoot enterprises: a circus school, a film and video outfit, several ticket outlets, and a merchandising unit.
Though he refers fondly to Soleil’s street-artist past, Laliberte acknowledges that he is running an entertainment corporation now: “For the first five years it was a family trip. Now it’s become a business. But a goal and a big step is keeping the family spirit in the business. In the next five years we’ll see just how much we can do with our success, financially and in the integrity of our performing. We want to go as far as we can and still keep the soul of Cirque du Soleil alive.”