No More Clowning Around: Cirque du Soleil is Formed

In 1984, just before the 450th anniversary of Canada’s discovery by Jacques Cartier, Laliberté went to the government of Quebec with a proposal. He wanted to stage a large-scale street show in celebration of the event. He might have had hair down to his waste but Laliberté managed to land the contract. He was ecstatic at the opportunity to take his operations to a wider audience, but it would not be without its troubles.

“We had every problem starting a big top could have,” says Laliberté. “The tent fell down on the first day. We had problems getting people into the shows. It was only with the courage and arrogance of youth that we survived.”

The newly formed troupe was called Cirque du Soleil because, says Laliberté, “The sun stands for energy and youth, which is what I thought the circus should be about.” Although their first show only made a small profit and the crowds were smaller than expected, the group kept on. Over the next three years, they toured thirteen cities in all of Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Although their Canadian success was growing steadily, Laliberté had visions of going global. In 1987, Laliberté decided to risk everything to perform at the Los Angeles Arts Festival. Booked as the opening act, the performance was going to be watched by many big names, including high-profile Hollywood celebrities. “It was live or die in L.A.,” says Laliberté. “And we bet everything on one night.” Laliberté’s gamble paid off. “By the end of the show, standing ovations,” he says. “The day after, tickets were selling like crazy.”

Now that the group had enough money to return to Canada – and then some – they went home to discuss their future. Some members of Cirque wanted to keep the company the same size and take time off to create a new show. Laliberté, however, wanted to keep the momentum going. Taking another risk, he decided to keep the old show touring, but to use the profits to create a new one.

The gamble worked. By the end of 1987, Cirque had more than $1.5 million in profits thanks to shows in Santa Monica and San Diego. In 1990, Cirque took its “Nouvelle Expérience” show to Europe. Two years later, another show was premiering in Japan. In 1993, Laliberté signed a ten year contract with a Las Vegas hotel to present the Cirque production, “Mystère.”

In 2001, Laliberté bought out a business partner to become a 95 percent shareholder in the company. Since then, Cirque has produced 20 different shows, 14 of which are still running today, and which over 50 million people have watched so far. The $100 ticket prices have not deterred anyone.

In 2004, Laliberté received the Order of Canada, the country’s highest distinction, and was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Laliberté continues to reinvest 40 percent of Cirque’s earnings into research and development for new shows, believing that his company still has a long future ahead of it.

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