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He's on Forbes magazine's list of the world's 50 richest billionaires (that's billionaires, with a b), and he's been named one of the most influential people by Time, but who is Guy Laliberte? If the name doesn't ring a bell, Cirque de Soleil almost certainly does, even to those who struggle to pronounce it.
 

"We reinvented the circus," Guy Laliberte said of his creation in 2006, although later he would say, "We didn't reinvent the circus, we repackaged it in a much more modern way."

For most people, the circus had become synonymous with clowns and dancing elephants, an old-fashioned entertainment whose appeal was primarily nostalgic. With Cirque de Soleil, Laliberte would bring the circus into the 20th century, and now the 21st, with dynamic productions that have amazed audiences around the globe. 

 
Born September 2, 1959 in Quebec City, Canada, Laliberte's family was solidly middle-class. Although he remembers that there was "always a reason for a party, always music in the house," neither of his parents had a background in show business. His father was a public relations executive with Alcan Aluminum Corporation, and his mother worked as a nurse. But Guy was drawn to the spotlight. He sang in choirs, learned to folk dance, and also studied the martial arts.

 
With an accordion he found in his father's closet, he began performing in the streets of Montreal while still in his teens. A self-described "dreamer, fascinated by the cultures of the world," he arrived in London, flat broke, when he was 18, and spent his first night there sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park. He may not have had money or a place to stay, but he did have a dream - to see the world as a street performer.

 
Meeting like-minded artists, he learned from them - juggling, magic, and stilt walking were added to his repertoire - but he soon returned to Canada and took a job working on a hydroelectric dam. 

 

"It was just an adventure," Laliberte said of his early street performances. "I was planning to go back to school and have a regular life."
 
He only managed to put in three days as a laborer, however, when a workers strike left him unemployed. Suddenly, he was back in show business as a stilt walker with Les Echassiers De Baie-Saint-Paul, a troupe founded by Gilles Ste-Croix.

 
It was in 1984 that Laliberte, along with Ste-Croix, formed Cirque du Soleil in Montreal. With funding from the Quebec government, Cirque de Soleil performed a street show in celebration of the city's 450th anniversary. Their lack of experience meant they fumbled a bit in their early performances.

 
"We had every problem a starting big top could have," he told Forbes magazine. "The tent fell down the first day. We had problems getting people into the shows. It was only with the courage and arrogance of youth that we survived."

 
With Cirque de Soleil, Laliberte was giving the big top a modern spin. The performances were unique for their complete lack of dialogue, an innovation that made it possible to cross every language barrier and appeal equally to audiences around the globe.
 
As Laliberte told PBS: "You can have all kinds of people forgetting about where they come from, forgetting their political difference, forgetting about their difference of color, and just being entertained and enjoy the same thing in the same moment."

 
There were no animals either, which meant no dancing dogs or elephants in nighties, an aspect of the old-fashioned circus that made it unappealing to those who feared cruelty was involved. The emphasis was placed instead on music, dance, theatricality, and athleticism, giving Cirque de Soleil the feel of a Broadway show on one hand, an Olympics competition on the other, and yet emerging as something almost too unique to define. Each show has a storyline, and the emphasis is always on the production as a whole, rather than on personalities. If there's a "star" of Cirque de Soleil, it's Guy Laliberte.

 

Before long, Cirque du Soleil became the headline attraction at the festival, and as they traveled throughout Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver, their reputation grew along with their ambition.

 

In 1987, Laliberte took a gamble by taking Cirque de Soleil to the states for a show at the Los Angeles Arts Festival. "I bet everything on that one night," he recalled. "If we failed, there was no cash for gas to come home."

 
Cirque de Soleil did not fail. Performing before audiences packed with Hollywood celebrities, the show was such a smash that Columbia Pictures called on Laliberte to seek the rights to produce a movie featuring Cirque de Soleil characters. Initially excited, Laliberte quickly soured on the deal. "They just wanted to lock up our story and our brand name and walk around like they owned Cirque de Soleil."

 
Cirque de Soleil remained independent, and continued to perform on the West Coast and build on its success. By year's end, they had made a $1.5 million profit. < color="#CCFF33" size="1" Verdana?>

 

"We're adventurous," Laliberte told CBS News. "We like the challenge of unknown territory, unknown artistic fields, and that's what stimulates us."

 

Laliberte took Cirque de Soleil on an adventure into unknown territory in 1992 when casino czar Steve Wynn offered the troupe a Las Vegas theater in which to permanently stage their productions. He was also offering Laliberte complete creative control. The first show, the dark, moody Mystere, was unlike anything staged in the town before, and Wynn was originally aghast, believing the show would fail. Laliberte stood his ground, and after Wynn grudgingly agreed to let the show go on as Laliberte designed it, Mystere was a success with each performance selling out.

 

"Mystere brought us to a totally different level of recognition in the industry," he said. "It gave us capitol, exposure, and credibility."

 

The show would be the first of many that would become regular attractions in Vegas. Before long, Cirque de Soleil not only revived the town but redefined it, as well. The gambling capital had thrived in the '50s and '60s when Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack had made it the place to be for the martini and Camels crowd. In the '70s, it was the town where Elvis rose from the grave of Hollywood movies to reclaim his crown as the King of Rock and Roll. By the '80s, however, the town was as dead as the mobsters rumored to be buried in the desert. Thanks in large part to Cirque de Soleil, Las Vegas would once again become a destination for those seeking world class entertainment.

 

"They're sophisticated," Robert Baldwin, the president of MGM's resorts division said of the show's audiences, "and they have high incomes."

 

But Cirque de Soleil didn't settle down after settling in Vegas. Their shows would have triumphant runs throughout the world.

 

In 2006, Cirque de Soleil even joined forces with the Fab Four by launching a Beatles tribute with the full cooperation of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. The legendary quartet's producer, George Martin, collaborated on the production, and the show inspired a new Beatles album, the massive selling Love.

 

Laliberte's impact is immeasurable. "Every circus I see around the world has some influence in style of the Cirque de Soleil," Ernest Albrecht, author of The New American Circus said.

 

But even as he takes bows before an adoring world, and racks up billions, Laliberte remains down to earth, and modest about his success.

 

"I am blessed for what I have, but I believed in it from the beginning," he says. "Today, the dream is the same. I still want to travel, I still want to entertain, and I most certainly still want to have fun."

 

He also wants to help others.

 

"We are in a position of financial and social power," he said, "and we could be agents of change in our society." Author Ian Halperin, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Laliberte, believes he has already succeeded in improving the world around him. "He has helped so many people and provided so many opportunities," Halperin says.

 

One of Laliberte's philanthropical projects is the One Drop Foundation. Launched in 2007, the foundation is dedicated to ensuring that the world's population has access to clean water. It's all in keeping with the values that are as essential to Cirque de Soleil as a commitment to spellbinding entertainment. As spelled out on Cirque de Soleil's web site, it's "the belief that life gives back what you have given and even the smallest gesture can make a difference."

 

In addition to his fame as the brains behind Cirque de Soliel, Laliberte is known for his lavish, and some say lascivious parties that he calls "laboratories" in which "I bring people in, showcase ideas and in the end, do deals." Having gambled so often in making Cirque de Soleil the attraction it has become, it's no surprise that he's a fan of high stakes poker, and has appeared on GSN's High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark.

 

In 2000, when speaking of Cirque de Soleil's future, Guy St. Croix said, "Our latest five year plan will bring us into the year 2000, and then we'll go to Mars." He may not have been joking. In October, when Laliberte is schduled to travel in space aboard the Soyuz TMA-16, who knows? He may be scouting locations for a future Cirque de Soleil extravaganza. For a man who credits his success to a "childlike naivete," almost anything is possible.

 

--by Brian W. Fairbanks



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