It was just an adventure, says Guy Laliberté, and I was planning to go back to school and have a regular life.
Laliberté never went back to school, but that adventure would become the world famous Cirque du Soleil. Since founding Cirque when he was just 24 years old, Laliberté has not only changed the modern face of the circus, but has also become one of the richest men in Canada. Worth an estimated $1.5 billion, Laliberté was named Ernst & Youngs 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year for turning his vision into a global empire. Today, more than 50 million people the world over have seen a Cirque du Soleil production.
Laliberté was born on September 2, 1959 in Quebec City, Canada. His large middle-class family was overseen by his nurse mother and his father, who worked as a public relations executive for Alcan Aluminum Corporation. As a child, Laliberté was always interested in performing for others, whether it was learning martial arts or folk dancing, or singing in choirs. There was always a reason for a party, he recalls, always music in the house.
After producing a number of performing arts events in high school, Laliberté became convinced that his was a life destined for the stage. For a time, he played the accordion and harmonica in a group called La Grande Gueule. But Laliberté was also keen on traveling, describing himself as a dreamer, fascinated by the cultures of the world.
When Laliberté was 18 years old, he decided to travel to Europe. Originally the dream was about traveling and developing a job that would permit me to travel, he says. And I decided to go into street performing because it was a traveling job; it would let me go around the world.
Laliberté began working as a street performer, playing traditional Canadian music on an accordion with a hat in front of him for donations. With little money and nowhere to stay in London, Laliberté slept on a bench in Hyde Park. But the experience was a rewarding one, for it was on the streets of Europe that Laliberté met other street performers who taught him how to fire breathe, juggle, perform magic tricks, and walk on stilts. After a year of street performing, Laliberté returned home.
Back in Canada, Laliberté tried to work a regular 9-5 job, but had little success. A job with a hydroelectric dam ended just three days later when the workers went on strike. Using the money from the strike fund, Laliberté could support himself while he joined Les Echassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul, a stilt-walking troupe in Quebec. Laliberté also worked with its founder, Gilles Ste-Croix, to put together an entire festival of street performers. La Fête Foraine was eventually barred from its home town after being disapproved of by the townspeople, but that would not stop Laliberté. He took the festival to other nearby towns and when he saw the positive response, he began to dream bigger dreams.