The Cirque du Soleil is a Québec company that has revived the modern day circus and grown exponentially through the years with performances seen by nearly 15 million spectators worldwide.

Stemming from the dream of a group of acrobats, the Cirque du Soleil's successful history began in Baie-Saint-Paul, a municipality in Québec's Charlevoix region and a summer meeting place for painters. A troupe of street performers known as Les Échassiers, which included Guy Laliberté, was formed by Gilles Sainte-Croix, who entertained vacationers by juggling, dancing, breathing fire and playing music. This group of young performers then founded the Club des talons hauts (The High Heeled Club) and in 1982, developed the Baie-Saint-Paul Fête foraine, a holiday fair which attracted public entertainers from all over. Thus the dream began to take hold: to create a Québec circus that would travel the world.

Cirque du Soleil Takes Flight

The Cirque du Soleil was officially founded in 1984, thanks to financial support from the Québec government on the occasion of the 450th anniversary celebrations of Jacques Cartier's arrival in Canada. Guy Laliberté was the president, a position that he continued to occupy until 2015. The artistic concept was developed around dramatized circus and street theatre techniques: colourful, zany costumes, lighting effects and original music to which were added acrobatic and technological feats, all contributing to create worlds of poetry and mystery. The Cirque du Soleil is further distinguished from the traditional circus by the absence of animals.

From its first performance in the Gaspé, later presented in 10 other cities in Québec under a tent that seated 800, the Cirque du Soleil experienced continued and growing success. In 1985, the company traversed the borders of Québec, travelling to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls, and the following year took a new show, La Magie continue, to Vancouver in western Canada in a 1500-seat tent. With Le Cirque réinventé, in 1987, the Cirque du Soleil scored a hit in the United States (Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Monica) that set off a series of successes on American soil that continued into 1988 and 1989. The show then toured to London and Paris in 1990. That same year in Montréal, Nouvelle Expérience premiered in a new 2,500-seat tent and went on to break box-office sales records, notably in California where the company received great acclaim.

Trans-Atlantic travel started when Le Cirque réinventé was presented in London and Paris. In 1992, the Cirque visited Tokyo and seven other Japanese cities. In the same period, it covered 60 other Swiss cities with the Circus Knie, and then went on to conquer Las Vegas. Saltimbanco, created in Montréal, also began an extensive American tour. The following years saw the consolidation of the Cirque's activities in Las Vegas, with the creation of Mystère, planned as a resident show for 10 years. Year 1994 marked the birth of Alegria, another enduring success. Saltimbanco toured Europe (the Netherlands, Germany, Austria) at the time when Quidam was created (1996), which was an American hit in its turn.

In 1997, the Cirque du Soleil inaugurated its international headquarters, le Studio, in Montréal, its unique centre for creation and production. New shows including the aquatic "O", a second resident show in Las Vegas, and the Nouba, in Orlando, Florida, were mounted while the previous shows continued to tour throughout the world, notably in the Asia-Pacific region. At the time tours lasted an average of three years. The Cirque du Soleil embarked on film and television production in 1999, the year Dralion was created. In 2001, the company began the installation of a 15,000 square metre annex to its Montréal headquarters. Varekai was produced in Montréal the following year, then Zumanity, an "erotic comedy" for adults was permanently set up in a Las Vegas casino.

In 2004, the Cirque du Soleil marked its 20th anniversary by launching a book, creating a resident show in Las Vegas that surpassed all previous shows in technical wizardry, and launching its own record label. Corteo was produced the following year, and the Cirque designed the opening performance for the XIth FINA World Aquatics Championships in Montréal. The musical Delirium, performed in an arena, was also created. In 2006, the Cirque du Soleil paid tribute to the musical legacy of The Beatles with LOVE, also in Las Vegas, while achieving new markets in South America and Asia. Increasing its projects and its partnerships, the company pursued its development with its 20th new show, Kooza, in 2007, then with Wintuk, a seasonal show in New York. CRISS ANGEL BeLIEve, featuring the famous American illusionist Criss Angel, premiered on 31 October 2008 in Las Vegas. In 2009, OVO was produced, followed by the Las Vegas musical Viva Elvis. Totem toured in 2010, followed in 2011 by Zarkana, Iris, and Michael Jackson, THE IMMORTAL World Tour.

Since 2013, the Michael Jackson–inspired show has been presented in Las Vegas as Michael Jackson ONE. Two new touring shows were also created around this time: Amaluna (2012) and KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities (2014). The resident show JOYA has been staged in Vidanta Riviera Maya, Mexico, since November 2014. In 2016, the Cirque du Soleil concurrently presented nearly 20 separate productions.

A Corporate Citizen

The Cirque du Soleil, which stopped receiving government or private operational subsidies in 1992, has itself become a support to numerous artistic organizations. In 2013, the Cirque counted more than 4,000 employees spread across the globe, of which 1,500 work at the company headquarters in Montréal. The workers, who represent some 50 nationalities, express themselves in more than 25 different languages. The Cirque du Soleil is a global citizen who takes social engagement seriously, and its mission includes helping youth-at-risk and fighting poverty through their Cirque du Monde program. In this spirit, since 1989, the company has given 1 per cent of its gross revenue to social action programmes in more than 80 communities throughout the world and to its One Drop Foundation, a charity devoted to community development and accessible water on three continents (see Canadian Foundations). The Cirque also gives young artists the opportunity to exhibit their work at its head office.

The recipient of several prestigious awards (such as the Emmy, Drama Desk, Bambi, ACE, Gémeaux, Félix and Rose d'or in Montreux), the Cirque du Soleil has never stopped employing Québec and Canadian artists, in particular several Québécois theatre directors including Dominic Champagne, Serge Denoncourt and Robert Lepage. In 2002, the Cirque du Soleil took part in the televised Oscar gala. It returned in 2012 to present a cinematography-themed show featuring performances by 50 artists and a score by Danny Elfman.

Diversification and Sale of the Company

In 2014, the Cirque du Soleil created some 10 subsidiaries to diversify its entertainment content and activities. The subsidiary 45 Degrees, for example, creates custom events for public, private and corporate clients, along with other special projects in the spirit of the Cirque. Cirque du Soleil Media develops original content for various Bell Media platforms (television, film, games and the web).

On 20 April 2015, Guy Laliberté announced his decision to sell the Cirque du Soleil to a consortium led by TPG Capital, an American investment company. Laliberté nevertheless kept a minority stake of 10 per cent. The deal also stipulated that the company’s headquarters would remain in Montréal.