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The undisputed centre of the circus universe is Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil. Local writer Patricia Gajo traces the meteoric ascent of history’s most famous big top, from its first steps in small-town Quebec to world domination.


If all the world’s a stage, then Cirque du Soleil has planet Earth in the bag. Just as Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil or ‘Sun King’, aimed to make France the most enviable kingdom in Europe, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté has spun his big top into a global empire. From small-town stilt-walker to multinational magnate, Laliberté (whose estimated wealth as founder of Cirque du Soleil hovers somewhere over the US$2 billion mark) has dazzled audiences in more than 300 cities across six continents – and still gets a kick out of clowning around.

In the early 1980s, Laliberté was in his mid-twenties and part of a street-performance troupe in Baie-Saint-Paul, a small town about four hours by car from Montreal. Upon receiving financial backing from the government, he created Cirque du Soleil in 1984 with fellow performer Gilles Ste-Croix, among others. What started out as a provincial project to fete Canada’s 450th birthday eventually snowballed into a cross-country affair. Fast-forward three decades, and Cirque du Soleil tops the nation’s sweetest global exports, usurping the country’s liquid gold, maple syrup.

So what makes Cirque du Soleil such a success? There is no easy equation, but several things have set it apart from the rest. At the onset, Laliberté had adopted the Nouveau Cirque trend – and he ran with it. In contrast to the traditional three-ring circus that emerged in England during the 1800s, where you had a master of ceremonies, horse tricks, trapeze artists, and other assorted entertainment, Cirque du Soleil’s early days showcased a more contemporary version of the genre that prized human acrobatics and developed narratives with strong characters over animal theatrics. The audience’s awe shifted from “How did they teach that horse/elephant/tiger/monkey/etc. to do that?” to “How is that humanly possible?” Add some state-of-the-art lighting, brilliant set designs, audio effects, and spectacular costumes, and the results were magic.

Then there is the language aspect. In what might have been a move to appease Canada’s sensitive English and French laws – or was it simply artistic prerogative? – Cirque du Soleil circumvented complicated bilingual demands with character development depending largely on mime effects in lieu of spoken scripts, and soundtrack lyrics were nonsensical sounds instead of recognisable words (albeit professionally sung) – two key communication factors that even today allow for universal accessibility and global mobility for a majority of the travelling shows.

Finally, not all Cirque du Soleil performances are alike. As the company expanded its reach and widened its horizons (and continues to do so), Laliberté created new shows for different audiences, all the time offering new sensory experiences. Modern circus acts now catered for adults, and not just parents. Criss Angel’s magic show ‘Believe’ at Las Vegas’s Luxor Hotel & Casino is an illusion-fest for all ages. ‘Zumanity’, which premiered in 2003, aimed to be the sensual side of Cirque du Soleil, flirting with mature themes. More baby-boomer lure blossomed with musical shows showcasing The Beatles (‘LOVE’) and Elvis Presley (‘Viva ELVIS’).

Yet another demographic, Generation-Xers get their fill of pop icon Michael Jackson with two shows: ‘Michael Jackson ONE’ and ‘MICHAEL JACKSON – The Immortal World Tour’. In another kind of twist, the show entitled simply ‘O’ – a play on the French word eau meaning ‘water’ – doesn’t so much differ in its intended audience, but in its venue. ‘O’ splashes its success in a permanent home at Las Vegas’s Bellagio, where the multi-storey ocean-like stage was conceived specifically with pools and a hanging trapeze-ship for a mesmerising aquatic-themed arts show.

Clearly, when it comes to Cirque du Soleil, you’re dealing with circus royalty. In the USA, you know you’ve touched down on the Super Bowl of pop culture success when you headline at, well, the Super Bowl. Laliberté’s crowd-pleasing circus entertained at the mega-viewed sporting event twice: once in 2007 as the pre-game show and then again in 2012 during the much hyped half-time entertainment with living legend Madonna. Cirque du Soleil may not have been the first circus in the world, but it’s surely the first one you think of.

The name Cirque du Soleil was inspired by a visit to Hawaii, where in local culture the sun (soleil) represents youth and energy, two qualities that  Laliberté felt embodied the circus. And while the founder and his family are known to spend time on these Pacific islands, Montreal remains his home. Cirque du Soleil’s international headquarters reside in Saint-Michel, a northern district on the island metropolis. One-third of a circus trinity, Cirque’s HQ is neighbours with the National Circus School (the largest of its kind in North America) and TOHU, a city-within-a-city dedicated to circus arts. The latter also provides a permanent venue for Montréal Complètement Cirque, a 10-day festival in July that showcases, you guessed it, all things circus.

Each new travelling show (there is one about every other year) premieres at Montreal’s Old Port, where the mounting of the iconic blue and yellow tent is a concrete symbol that spring has arrived. And while Montreal is the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil, the larger region of Quebec is a fertile breeding ground for circus arts. This passionate concentration of athletes, costume and set designers, musicians, technicians, and the synergy thereof has allowed for more intimate, boutique-sized circuses to shine, amongst them Les 7 Doigts de la Main (also known as Seven Fingers), Cirque Éloize, Cirque Alphonse, Cavalia, Les Parfaits Inconnus, and Vague de Cirque.

But back to Cirque du Soleil, the nucleus of the circus solar system. There are currently 10 touring shows and nine resident venues, thousands of employees and performers, and evidently an army of fans. So what’s cirque-ing around the corner? Cirque du Soleil recently struck a deal with James Cameron to bring his movie Avatar to the stage. Fans of the blockbuster film can expect it to start touring later next year. Before 2014 comes to a close, roughly 15 million people will have seen a Cirque du Soleil performance. Proof that if you build it, they will come – and, in Guy Laliberté’s case, they will come in droves.

Up in the air

If the city of Montreal wasn’t already hooked on circus antics, a new open-air urban theme park opened in May 2014 to the delight of acrobatic enthusiasts. The first of its kind in Canada, Exalto offers challenging obstacle courses that range from three metres to three storeys high! Within the circuit, a unique ‘lifeline system’ by Urban Koncept keeps you tethered above at all times for a fun and safe environment. For up-and-coming acrobats there is also a junior option no higher than 1.5 metres and a novel acro-bungy trampoline that will have them literally jumping for joy.



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