Before Guy Laliberté's Cirque du Soleil rose 20 years ago, the big top had degenerated into a tedium of clichés: Bozo-like clown acts, dancing bears in dresses and men with whips sticking their coiffed heads into lions' mouths. Laliberté changed all that, building a new, animal-free circus prototype that emphasized heart-tingling theatricality, New Age sensibilities and jaw-dropping athleticism. Then his troupe invaded Las Vegas, bringing imaginative original productions to the land of showgirls and Elvis impersonators. Today, Laliberté's 3,000-strong company juggles nine spectacular shows: five that tour the globe and four resident ones, the biggest of which, sin Vegas, has been entirely sold out for five years.
How did a hippie with a résumé that listed fire breather and accordion player transform a ragtag band of Québécois buskers into a $500 million entertainment juggernaut? "Childlike naiveté," says Laliberté, the company's puckish owner, CEO and co-founder. His impact is hard to underestimate. "Every circus I see around the world has some influence in style of the Cirque du Soleil," says Ernest Albrecht, author of The New American Circus. Cirque has also sparked interest in vaudeville, acrobatics and street performance. Up next: another Vegas show, premiering in September, a new touring show for 2005 and possibly, down the road, even Cirque-themed restaurants, spas and casinos. The high-wire act continues.