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Back in 1983, Guy Laliberte’s parents must be worried about their twenty-three year old son.

The French Canadian Laliberte had skipped college after high school and took off to Europe for a year. He supported himself hand-to-mouth as an accordion-playing street performer, or busker. When he first arrived in London, he had less than $1,000 in his pocket, and to preserve what he had, he spent the night sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park.

Laliberte’s English wasn’t very good and he soon moved on to Paris. There he fell in his shirt and tie back his hair for safety. Then he would swig a mouthful of toxic flammable liquid and, with a burning torch in one hand, spray a writhing plume of orange-yellow fire 10 feet into the air. Fire breathing became Laliberte’s crowd pleasing specialty.

He was raised in a large middle-class family headed by a corporate executive father. He always expected to go to college. But when he returned home from Europe, he instead joined a nonprofit collective of stilt workers and acrobats called Le Club des Talons Hauts (the High Heels Club).

His next several summers were spent living in a youth hostel while helping run Talons Hauts street festivals in the tiny Quebec resort town of Baie-Saint-Pault. Money and possesions never seemed all that important to Laliberte. Each winter he spent whatever cash he’d saved up by escaping to the beaches of Florida and Hawaii.

In early 1983, the Quebec government announced plans for a celebration of the province’s 450th anniversary to take place the following summer. Money was set aside for festivities that would showcase Quebec’s homegrown talent, and Talons Hauts received $1.6 million fir a travelling circus that would visit 14 towns throughout Quebec over 12 weeks. Laliberte led the planning. He even dreamed up its name: Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil.

The travelling circus was a chaotic mess that often flirted with disaster. The new huge performance tent was almost impossible to set up. It collapsed in a rain storm one day during a preshow media event. Working conditions for the performers were so poor that there was a near-revolt by the Europeans circus artist brought in to supplement the amateurish Talons Hauts regulars. The Cirque du Soleil show itself, however, won glowing praise from the press and the public throughout Quebec.


Continue reading Part II

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