Gilles Ste-Croix, OC, street performer, businessman (born 1950 in La Sarre, Quebec). In 1984, Gilles Ste-Croix and Guy Laliberté transformed their troupe of street performers into Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest circus production company and one of the world’s biggest live entertainment companies. Ste-Croix served as vice-president from the company’s founding and as creative director from 1988 until his retirement in 2014. He is a Companion of the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec and an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Gilles Ste-Croix grew up in the small town of La Sarre in the Abitibi region of Quebec, near the Ontario border. (See also Lake Abitibi.) In his youth, he idolized The Beatles and wanted his father to buy him a bass guitar. His father was worried Gilles would spend his life playing music in pubs and tried to dissuade him from a life of performance.
Ste-Croix attended Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he began his studies to become an architect. However, this proved short-lived. He instead moved to Victoriaville, Quebec, and became immersed in the Quebec counterculture of the 1960s. (See Hippies.) While living in a commune where people picked apples to support themselves, Ste-Croix fashioned a pair of stilts from a ladder to pick apples more efficiently. He quickly mastered the art of stilt walking and took to performing the talent in public.
Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul
In 1979, Gilles Ste-Croix and his friend Guy Laliberté found themselves in the Quebec town of Baie-Saint-Paul, a well-known artistic community in the Charlevoix region. Inspired by the stilt walkers with the Bread and Puppet Theatre troupe of Vermont (with whom he had performed), Ste-Croix created his own stilt-walking troupe: Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul. The name of the group is a play on words: an échasse is a stilt, but échassier means wader, as in wading into a body of water. The name can be interpreted as either “the stilt walkers of Baie-Saint-Paul” or as “the waders of Baie-Saint-Paul.”
To get funding for his performance group, Ste-Croix considered applying for a government grant, but felt he wasn’t sufficiently well-known to be seriously considered. A friend recommended that he try something unusual — a publicity stunt to get attention for his project. So Ste-Croix walked on stilts for about 90 km from Baie-Saint-Paul to Québec City, an accomplishment that helped him raise $60,000 in start-up funding. His group toured Quebec in 1980, though their effort was not a financial success.
Club des Talons Hauts
Ste-Croix then established a non-profit holding company to raise public funding through government programs. This organization was called Club des Talons Hauts (The High Heeled Club). Within a year, his efforts were paying off and the group broke even. In 1982, Ste-Croix and Laliberté created La Fête Foraine, a street performance fair that featured circus performances and workshops. This became the foundation for what would eventually become Cirque du Soleil.
In 1983, the Quebec government provided Ste-Croix and Laliberté with a $1.6 million grant to perform in 11 communities across the province in 1984 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in Canada. This series of performances generated considerable attention for the group and proved to be a financial success. Based on this strong performance, Ste-Croix and Laliberté were able to secure additional loans and government support, allowing them to transform from a troupe of street performers into a proper circus.
Cirque du Soleil
The artistic concept for Cirque du Soleil was developed around dramatized circus and street theatre techniques: acrobatic and technological feats performed in colourful, zany costumes, set to lighting effects and original music to create entertaining worlds of physical poetry. Cirque also distinguished itself from the traditional circus by not using animals. Ste-Croix was responsible for the design and direction of many of the company’s shows, including Saltimbanco, Alegría, Mystère, Quidam, La Nouba, «O» and Dralion.
During Ste-Croix’s tenure as artistic and creative director of Cirque du Soleil, the company grew to feature 1,300 performers and have a staff of nearly 4,000 employees from 50 countries. Some of his family members were also involved in the company. His son, Olivier Rochette, worked as a technician; he died tragically in 2016 after being struck in the head in an on-set accident.
In April 2015, Guy Laliberté sold Cirque du Soleil to American and Chinese investors for a reported $1.5 billion, though he retained a minority stake of 10 per cent. Gilles Ste-Croix served as creative director and vice-president of Cirque du Soleil until resigning in 2014. After their departure, however, the company took a downward turn, running into financial troubles and reportedly not paying its staff. In June 2020, Ste-Croix publicly criticized the direction Cirque du Soleil had taken under its new ownership.
In 2016, Ste-Croix began working as the artistic advisor for Céline Dion’s performances in Las Vegas. He was made a Companion of the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec in 2016 and an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2019.