As it approaches its 25th anniversary on June 16, Cirque du Soleil is solidly entrenched as one of Canada’s greatest entertainment and business success stories. From its almost mythic origin as the creation of a group of young Québécois idealists, hard-working, hard-living, utopian-minded street performers led by a (literal) fire-breather named Guy Laliberté, the Cirque and its postmodern, animal-free productions now span the globe. Laliberté, who used to sleep in parks while performing for spare change, parlayed his extraordinary drive and ambition—and rode the wave of Quebec nationalism unleashed by the Parti Québécois election victory of 1976 (premier René Lévesque was a crucial early Cirque supporter)—into becoming one of Quebec’s six billionaires. On the eve of his 50th birthday, Laliberté’s $2.5-billion personal fortune now puts him at number 261 in Forbes’ ranking of the world’s richest people.
As for the Cirque’s other founding mythology—that its long, strange trip has always been a sex- and drug-fuelled odyssey, according to Guy Laliberté: The Fabulous Story of the Creator of Cirque du Soleil (Transit)—rumour hardly exceeds reality. Author Ian Halperin, a journalist and gossip writer whose previous unauthorized biographies include Céline Dion: Behind the Fairytale and Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain, argues that a heady ’60s mix of hedonism and social consciousness has always marked the Cirque. Halperin, a Montrealer, is from that world—he had an uneasy platonic relationship with Laliberté’s embittered ex-common-law wife, described at length in the book, even as he eventually sided with Laliberté in their split—and he approves of his subjects’ zest for life. Especially Laliberté’s, of whom Halperin writes that he shares the author’s own “unquenchable thirst for life’s pleasures balanced with a passion for social justice, traits we know are not incompatible.”
ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA Dishing the dirt on Cirque: Unauthorized biographer Ian Halperin on how he discovered the seedier side of the biggest show on earth & Exclusive excerpt: How to party like a cirque star: ‘Everything you wanted was available at Guy’s parties— drugs, the best music, the wildest sex’
Still, even Halperin was bowled over by the “Fellini-esque” account provided by one veteran of the Cirque’s early days. “Annie,” who worked there for years as an acrobat and part-time choreographer, describes a sex-obsessed world, where the Cirque’s upper echelon, a decent enough lot ordinarily, became, when stoned or drunk, “the animals absent from their circus.” In its early days, says Annie, working for the Cirque was an unglamorous, dangerous and stressful job. “That’s why we were all f–king each other’s brains out at night. We needed a release.”
As for drugs, Annie claims there were so many around the Cirque that it could have been called the biggest pharmaceutical operation in Quebec. “Whatever your drug of choice was, there would be a clown, a technician, or a performer to supply it.” She’s amazed that so many performers were able to carry out their audacious circus acts stoned. Annie explains that backstage before a show, while the audience was piling into the tent, people were running around like crazy, half-naked, excited, and stoned out of their minds or, like her, having last-minute sex. “We’d barely have time to catch our breath,” she says. “You disengage and then head right on stage. I liked to live on the edge. But I think everyone in Cirque lived that way.”
If they did, some were working flat out at the same time, and one in particular showed a hard-edged practical side. In the summer of 1981, Guy Laliberté was a slim, good-looking 22-year-old fire-breather with long blond hair. He took part in an artistically impressive but commercially ruinous free circus festival in Baie-St-Paul, a resort town about 100 km east of his Quebec City home. According to Halperin, Laliberté took the lead in digging the festival out of its $10,000 hole, as “the only person involved capable of doing the math.” He convinced organizers to market better in the future, to replace ungifted amateurs with more seasoned acts, and—scandalously to his idealistic companions—proposed the novel idea of charging for admission. In 1982, the festival was an artistic and financial success, and Laliberté was looking for new ground to conquer.
The 1984 celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in New France provided the means. Although Quebec’s PQ government was on the whole lukewarm to the very idea of providing funding for an old-fashioned-sounding enterprise like a circus, René Lévesque felt differently—possibly, Halperin says, because the premier’s mistress was also intimately involved with several Cirque members. His government provided a $1.4-million grant, Laliberté’s group formally adopted the name Cirque du Soleil—because, one associate told Halperin, “Guy worships the sun as if it’s his god”—and the first production opened on June 16, 1984, in the Gaspé.
Laliberté made sure his circus was a success during its 11-city provincial run that year by throwing himself into what would become his signature networking ways. He gave grand parties, and provided Cirque tickets (and party invitations) to anyone he thought might be of use in the future. He also drove his acts hard. Low pay, long work hours and consequent unhappy, mediocre performances almost scuttled the Cirque on an unsuccessful cross-Canada tour in 1985. Even an emergency $250,000 bailout from Lévesque wasn’t enough, and Laliberté had to go cap in hand to all the business contacts he had so assiduously built up. Impressed by his artistic vision and, even more so, by his unshakable self-confidence and charisma, they came through for him.
By 1986 and the Cirque’s invitation to Vancouver’s Expo 86, Laliberté had already brought on board cutting-edge costume designers and musicians, and moved from traditional circus fare to single-concept, postmodern productions. La Magie Continue featured 35 performers from not only Quebec but Cambodia, Mexico, Holland and elsewhere. It hit an upscale demographic, with most spectators between the ages of 21 and 45, and was successful enough to spark an invitation from the Los Angeles Arts Festival. It was an offer rife with chances of both reward and risk.
Pages: 1 2