Since 1984, Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has thrilled more than 33 million spectators in over 130 cities worldwide. But it was the daring vision of Guy Laliberté that was the driving force behind Quebec's first internationally renowned circus.
Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec is known for its panoramic landscapes, charming streets, and thriving arts culture. In this haven of creativity, young street performers routinely delighted tourists by walking on stilts, juggling, and eating fire. In 1982 Laliberté, a multi-talented street performer from Quebec City, began working with local talent to reinvent the circus. He envisioned a striking balance of theatre, dance, circus arts, and street entertainment.
In 1984, Cirque du Soleil was born, debuting in Gaspé, Quebec before touring ten other cities across the province. One year later, the performers premiered their magic in Ontario and Vancouver, and raised Cirque's first trademark blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau, capable of seating 800. Today's Grand Chapiteau now seats 2,500.
Between 1987 and 1989, Cirque du Soleil toured the United States with We Reinvent the Circus.
Music remains at the heart of every Cirque du Soleil experience. In 1990, the company premiered Nouvelle Expérience while sending We Reinvent the Circus on its first sold out tour of Europe, beginning in London and Paris. Among Cirque du Soleil's 2,500 employees and artists, over 40 nationalities are represented and 25 different languages are spoken.
In 2002, Cirque du Soleil simultaneously presented eight different shows on four continents including Alegria touring the Asia-Pacific, Quidam and Dralion on tour in the United States, Saltimbanco (the company's oldest production still on the road) on tour in Europe, Mystère and "O" in Las Vegas, and La Nouba at the Walt Disney resort in Florida.
Seeking a career in the performing arts, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté toured Europe as a folk musician and busker after quitting college. By the time he returned back home to Canada in 1979, he had learned the art of fire breathing. Although he became "employed" at a hydroelectric power plant in James Bay, his job ended after only three days due to a labour strike. He decided not to look for another job, instead supporting himself on his unemployment insurance. He helped organize a summer fair in Baie-Saint-Paul with the help of a pair of friends named Daniel Gauthier and Gilles Ste-Croix.
Gauthier and Ste-Croix were managing a youth hostel for performing artists named Le Balcon Vert at that time. By the summer of 1979, Ste-Croix had been developing the idea of turning the Balcon Vert, and the talented performers who lived there, into an organized performing troupe. As part of a publicity stunt to convince the Quebec government to help fund his production, Ste-Croix walked the 56 miles (90 km) from Baie-Saint-Paul to Quebec City on stilts. The ploy worked, giving the three men the money to create Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul. Employing many of the people who would later make up Cirque, Les Échassiers toured Quebec during the summer of 1980.
Although well-received by audiences and critics alike, Les Échassiers was a financial failure. Laliberté spent that winter in Hawaii plying his trade while Ste-Croix stayed in Quebec to set up a nonprofit holding company named "The High-Heeled Club" to mitigate the losses of the previous summer. In 1981, they met with better results. By that fall, Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul had broken even. The success inspired Laliberté and Ste-Croix to organize a summer fair in their hometown of Baie-Saint-Paul.
This touring festival, called "La Fête Foraine," first took place in July 1982. La Fête Foraine featured workshops to teach the circus arts to the public, after which those who participated could take part in a performance. Ironically, the festival was barred from its own hosting town after complaints from local citizens. Laliberté managed and produced the fair over the next couple years, nurturing it into a moderate financial success. But it was during 1983 that the government of Quebec gave him a $1.5 million grant to host a production the following year as part of Quebec's 450th anniversary celebration of the French explorer Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada. Laliberté named his creation "Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil".