A Peek into the Wings of the Cirque du Soleil

“Dans les Coulisses du Cirque du Soleil” (In the Wings of the Cirque du Soleil) is an unauthorized biography of Cirque du Soleil by Jean Beaunoyer. Published by Québec Amérique in early 2004 to coincide with the Cirque’s 20th anniversary, the book promises interviews with various characters from Cirque’s history as well as an examination of
the “dark patches” in that history that the company would prefer to be kept quiet. Despite the claim, the revelations aren’t as sensational as the description would have us believe and though fairly broad, the coverage of the subject matter is often superficial.

The book is sparse and not particularly well-written. At 222 pages it barely averages 11 pages per year of Cirque’s existence. The author, Jean Beaunoyer, is a reporter with Montreal’s La Presse newspaper. He writes the book in a very journalistic style; the chapters are concise, often to the point of being glib, and are presented in a very matter-of-fact tone with supporting quotes from relevant players sprinkled throughout for good measure. The book is divided into three main sections; “The Genesis of a Circus,” “The Hour of Truth,” and “Already an Empire” with each section subdivided into many chapters, each being only one to five pages in length, independently covering the different aspects of Cirque du Soleil’s development. The chapters barely scratch the surface of the topics they cover and although they are more-or-less presented in chronological order they are written as disjoint, self-contained pieces creating some narrative flow problems which, combined with the author’s cross-cutting between different times, places, people and events, results in laborious reading. “In the Wings of the Cirque du Soleil” reads more like a collection of newspaper clippings than a book. It wouldn’t exactly be a compelling book for a casual reader but it is reasonably informative for those ardent fans of Cirque du Soleil.

It should be noted that book is clearly written for a Québec audience. Though it is due to be published in English later this year the translation will only allow for an understanding of the text. For a thorough comprehension of the subject matter, those who are unfamiliar with La Belle Province will need to do some additional homework. The fact that the story of the Cirque du Soleil is set within the history and political climate of 20th century Québec is taken for granted. Therefore, if a reader is unaware of the significance of events and people such as Jacques Cartier, the Quiet Revolution, Expo ’67, the 1976 Olympic Games, René Lévesque, the October Crisis, the 1980 Referendum on Sovereignty or the unique cultural differences of Québec in general, he or she may want to look in some history books in order to thoroughly establish the setting of the story. Also, if the reader can’t tell Charlevoix from Sherbrooke, an Atlas will help establish the different locations.

As is the case with any “unauthorized” tell-all, the credibility of the account is never assured. The reader must take the information presented with a grain of salt and consider the biases of the author and those whom he interviews. At best the book provides an alternate view of the organization to counter the corporate propaganda produced by the company itself in the form of shamelessly indulgent, self-promoting “documentaries” such as “A Baroque Odyssey” and “Run Before You Fly.” In either case it is pertinent that the reader/viewer processes the information presented with a critical mind, realizing that both versions are only half-truths. The trick becomes deciding which half to believe.

Some of the book’s more interesting “revelations” about the company include:

Guy Laliberté:

The main character of Cirque du Soleil’s story is Guy Laliberté whom the author alternately deifies and vilifies throughout the course of the account.

Born on September 2, 1959, Guy was a member of an affluent middle-class Québec City family. Guy’s father Gaston was the vice-president of Alcan (Canada’s largest Aluminum company) and his mother Blandine was a nurse. Always rambunctious and filled with wanderlust Guy ran away from home at the age of 14 leaving behind a note to his parents
with a quote from philosopher Kahlil Gibran, “Your children are not your children; they are the sons and daughters of the call of life itself.” Guy traveled the world living life under the hippie philosophy. He played accordion on the streets for money. He traveled to Europe with nothing more than his accordion and $50 in his pocket. He often slept on park benches in Paris and London at the time. Guy also wound up in Hawaii for a while, where he picked up the art of fire-eating.

Much to his parents’ relief Guy eventually returned home after his stab at independence. He even agreed to take a job at a hydro-electric installation at James Bay with the intention of saving enough money to pursue a degree in Nuclear Engineering. Three days before he was to begin work the workers went on strike and the site was closed. In a twist of fate which Laliberté later said changed the course of his life he decided to spend the summer at the Fête Foraine, the busker festival in Baie-Saint-Paul where he met Gilles Ste. Croix and his Stiltwalkers of Baie-Saint-Paul; a meeting that would eventually lead to the formation of the Cirque du Soleil many years later.

Government Grants:

In 1984 the governments of Canada and Québec invested large amounts of money to put on a celebration commemorating the 450th anniversary of the arrival of Jacques Cartier in Québec. When Québec’s minister of Cultural Affairs refused to fund Guy Laliberté’s idea of a Quebecois circus, Guy, already showing the candor and business savvy that would characterize him in future years, went over the Minister’s head straight to the Premiere of Québec, René Lévesque. Guy negotiated a $1.4 million grant from Lévesque to present his show in 11 cities across the province of Québec in the summer of 1984.

Le Grand Tour:

With an 800-seat big top the newly formed Cirque du Soleil traipsed around Québec in the summer of 1984. Tickets for the very first Cirque du Soleil show cost $2.00 for adults, $1.00 for children. The Cirque was the runaway hit of the summer festival and the reception Cirque received was phenomenal, in Québec city a riot nearly broke out when a crowd of 4000 showed up when there were only 800 tickets to be had for the performance.

The original government funding was to last only for the summer of 1984, after which the Cirque du Soleil was supposed to have finished its mandate to perform at the 450th anniversary festivities and quietly folded. Guy of course would have none of it and again convinced René Lévesque to fund a second tour the following summer. This tour would be the Cirque’s first outside their home province. They would play larger markets in Ontario. However, this first excursion outside Québec proved to be a near-catastrophe. Marketing itself as the “Sun Circus” the troupe started to perform in Canada’s most populous city, Toronto, only to have hoards of disappointed spectators demanding refunds feeling cheated because their “circus” did not feature any animals!

Niagara Falls is one of the world’s prime tourist destinations but of the millions who came to see the falls each year, very few were interested in attending the performances of the “Sun Circus;” the troupe was playing to nearly empty houses. If they sold fewer than 65 tickets for a given evening’s performance, the show would not go on; half of the scheduled performances were canceled as a result.

Behind the scenes, conditions were dire. Low morale and rampant drug use permeated the group of artists. On the verge of a mutiny, Guy called upon Normand Latourelle an organizing committee member of the 450th anniversary festival and asked for his help. The company was in serious debt.

To salvage the failing company Guy negotiated another Government grant from René Lévesque and brought the show back to Montreal to finish the season.

Los Angeles Festival:

With the goal of changing the Cirque du Soleil from a not-for-profit organization reliant on government subsidies to a profitable enterprise Guy Laliberté knew that he had to risk the whole of his company on success in the United States. A circus troupe cannot be run profitably if it played only in Québec or only in Canada because the climate would only allow for performances a maximum of 6-months during the year.

After a successful Canadian tour of Cirque’s second show La Magie Continue, Guy would risk it all by bringing the company’s new show Le Cirque Réinventé (We Reinvent the Circus) to the Los Angeles Times Theatre Festival. As the now-famous story goes, it was a make-or-break scenario; if the run in Los Angeles failed the company would not have enough money for gas to bring their equipment back. Although contrary to the legend, the heavy equipment and big top was actually transported by train and not by truck. The company’s dilapidated trucks of the time would not likely have survived the cross-continent trek.

The Cirque du Soleil became a smash hit and took Los Angeles by storm. It went from virtual obscurity to become the must-see show of the festival and the audience was full of movie stars and Hollywood big shots.

Growing Pains:

After Cirque du Soleil exploded onto the scene at the Los Angeles Festival it went on to conquer America beginning its exponential growth phase. Guy Laliberté became the quintessential playboy, with his newfound wealth he bought a Porsche and was often seen in the company of supermodels. His “delinquent” tendencies continued as he would often disappear for long spells of time. Meanwhile, all was not well backstage. The company’s newfound wealth did not trickle down to the artists who still toiled thanklessly sometimes performing seven shows in a 54 hour span of time. After presenting “Réinventé” over 300 times, fatigue and ennui set in with the cast members coupled with resentment of the company’s upper management who benefited immediately from the Cirque’s rapid success but “failed to send the elevator back down to the artists.”

Cirque’s star contortionist Angela Laurier expressed her concerns about Cirque abandoning its integrity and original spirit in an on-camera interview for the film “A Circus in America” directed by La Presse reporter Natalie Petrowski, “Now everybody is more individualized. The Cirque isn’t the same as it was before. It’s much more disciplined and more about performance than in the past. This worries me, by growing too fast the Cirque risks losing its originality, its spirit . . I feel like I’m distancing myself from my values. The artists feel ill-at-ease in their own skin because of stress. At the beginning it was about exploration of a circus but now it’s just a routine.”

Guy Laliberté certainly did not appreciate the critique of his company from an insider and chose not to renew Angela Laurier’s performance contract. Natalie Petrowski is shunned by Laliberté to this day; she was never again granted an interview and was effectively banned from the Varekai premiere.

Franco Dragone:

Indisputably the Cirque du Soleil’s most prolific creator, Franco Dragone was born in 1952 in Caraino, Italy (close to Naples), Dragone’s family relocated to Louvière, Belgium in 1959. For 10 years beginning in 1968 Dragone performed with la Compagnie du Campus, a fringe Belgian theatre troupe that performed shows with social and political themes. After meeting Guy Caron, Dragone came to Montreal and fell in love with the city. It was there he discovered his vocation as a theatre director. His first Cirque du Soleil production was La Magie Continue. Cirque Director of Creation Gilles Ste-Croix described Franco’s unique gift; “He searches within each performer to find his theatrical lever. He recreates you into a character that is your own. That is his gift.”

Dragone left Cirque du Soleil in 1987 after directing Le Cirque Réinventé feeling that the upper management (namely Laliberté) encroached too much on his artistic freedom. Guy Laliberté subsequently lured him back to the Cirque fold in 1989 by offering to give Dragone the post of Director of Creation, Research and Development and the artistic freedoms that go along with it. Dragone accepted and created Nouvelle Éxperience and every subsequent Cirque show until 1998 when he was rumored to have suffered a mild, stress-induced heart attack while concurrently creating “O” and “La Nouba” after which he left Cirque du Soleil on amicable terms.

Management Crises: Laliberté, Gauthier, Latourelle

The direction of the Cirque du Soleil has always been a tumultuous and fractious affair. For much of its history the company had three main managers; Guy Laliberté, Daniel Gauthier and Normand Latourelle.

Daniel Gauthier was a wiser man of fewer excesses than Guy Laliberté. He was competent manager and businessman.

Normand Latourelle had extensive experience in managing musical artists. He was business savvy and familiar with the entertainment industry.

In the early days the company was very much a three-headed monster and there was much conflict with the management. In 1987 Latourelle was convinced that the success of the company depended on the removal of Guy Laliberté Daniel Gauthier originally agreed and the two planned an ouster of Laliberté. Gauthier later reneged, citing Guy’s newly negotiated contracts for performances in Las Vegas and in the end it was Latourelle who was written out of the story.

In the year 2000, Gauthier himself would leave Cirque. Though the circumstances of his departure are not entirely certain, it is widely believed that Gauthier did not agree with Laliberté’s plans at the time to invest in high-risk ventures such as the Cirque entertainment complexes combined with fact that the shift of focus away from live shows, due in part to the departure of Dragone, meant the company was not growing in the direction he would have liked. In 2000, the Cirque’s net worth was $800 million. Guy Laliberté bought Gauthier out for the amount of $483 million. Most of the Cirque’s net worth was in its physical property so Laliberté had to borrow a large (undisclosed) amount to complete the transaction. Hence, Guy Laliberté became the Cirque du Soleil’s sole owner and authority.

Steve Wynn:

Steve Wynn is widely credited as the visionary who re-invented Las Vegas and opened the door for Cirque du Soleil, first by bringing Nouvelle Expérience to town for a gig at his Mirage Resort and then by building a permanent theatre in his Treasure Island Resort to house Mystère after Caesar’s Palace turned down Cirque’s show idea dismissing it as “too esoteric” for Vegas.

Wynn is an unconventional entrepreneur; with an appreciation for fine art, demonstrated by his impressive personal collection of works by Picasso, Renoir and Cézanne, among others, it may not have seemed surprising that Wynn was the first to welcome Cirque du Soleil to Sin City. However, before Mystère was to debut in 1993 Wynn had his doubts and pressed to delay the premiere to rework the show; “We’ve never seen anything like this in Vegas. What’s the big idea with the crying baby at the beginning of the show? What do you want to say to the audience? It’s not good for Las Vegas.” Wynn also claimed that the show was as heavy as a Wagner opera and that the Vegas cab drivers would crucify it.

For his part Dragone also harboured much reservation about working in Las Vegas, Dragone was accustomed to directing street performances, and had devoted much of his creative life promoting humanitarian causes. He was afraid that working in a place as big and soullessly corporate as Las Vegas would require him to compromise his integrity, essentially to sell-out; “At first I was ill-at-ease . . . I asked myself, despite everything, how can I make a social gesture the heart of the Cirque du Soleil? I had disguised myself as a show-business man to infiltrate showbiz. [In my previous work] we wanted to highlight social problems on stage to build solutions. With Cirque du Soleil my political concerns have been displaced: they’re no longer in the show but in the management. Cirque du Soleil’s biggest social action has been to create 2 500 jobs. However, I am adamant that each show carries a message.”


Guy Laliberté, being the sole figurehead of the Cirque du Soleil, had ambitious plans to expand the Cirque empire into other realms. In April of 2002 he appeared before the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. Refusing to begin his speech until every last business person in the room donned the red clown noses he brought, Guy presented his vision of creating crazy hotels and integrated entertainment centers; “Cirque Complexes” all over the world. He was presenting to the Chamber to ask for support in creating the first prototype Cirque Complex in Montreal. Guy was well received after giving an impassioned speech touching on sentiments of Québec nationalism and Montreal civic pride. However, plans for the proposed Cirque Complexes would eventually be scrubbed by the company. The Cirque’s management saw Guy’s plan as “too risky in light of the world’s current uncertainty” and thought concentrating efforts on the company’s live shows would be less risky and more profitable.

The Future:

What insights does the author have about the future of Cirque du Soleil? Aside from the oft-repeated concern that the company is growing too big too fast, Beaunoyer speculates that the company will keep expanding into other areas such as multimedia, hotels and cinema. However, he also presents a sobering possibility that Cirque could one day be bought out by a big American corporation. He points to signs that the Cirque has already become decentralized from Québec. Ultimately, the author places his faith in Guy Laliberté and believes he will steer the company on course for years to come.

Some other interesting tidbits can be found in the book such as the reason France has been left out of Cirque’s European tours until this year, the causes behind the rise and fall of Gilles Ste-Croix’s Cheval Théâtre or the fact that even though Cirque du Soleil is championed by animal rights activists the original reason for the exclusion of animal acts was purely pragmatic; “There are no animal acts in our show at the time being but certain animal acts may be included in the future if they can be incorporated into the spirit of our circus.” Guy was quoted as saying in Cirque’s early days.

Overall, the book wasn’t nearly as interesting as I had anticipated. At times I found the book’s focus is too broad, Beaunoyer indulges in meandering detours through Québec history, descriptions of all of Cirque’s spin-off troupes and editorials about Québec politics. Though intended to place the story in a firm context, I found these excursions to be superfluous and distracting.

For those of us who have followed the company closely throughout its development the book does not include as much new information as we would like, even the “revelations” are all things we could have pretty much suspected to be true. However, the book does serve as a nice chronicle of the history of the Cirque du Soleil.

The book falls far short of being either a thorough piece of investigative journalism or an engaging business case-study. It is ultimately unsatisfying because of its overly-broad scope and meager details. Pick it up if you’re really interested in Cirque du Soleil’s history but don’t expect anything too in-depth or intellectually engaging.

The French language version of the book “Dans les coulisses du Cirque du Soleil” by Jean Beaunoyer, published by Québec-Amérique [ISBN 2-7644-0242-2] is available for order from Amazon.ca, an English language version of the book is slated to be released in the Fall of 2004.