“I can’t walk by a street performer and not give them money — we came from the streets, and one must always remember where one came from!” Gilles Ste-Croix is in a reflective mood as he looks back on Cirque du Soleil, the comic acrobat troupe he founded outside Quebec City with Guy Laliberté. His company’s touring production of Corteo, nowperforming at Inglewood’s Forum through October 28, marks the 20th anniversary of Cirque’s landmark American debut in L.A. At the time no one could have predicted the group’s rocket ride to success — least of all Cirque’s ragtag ensemble of performers.

In the early 1980s in Baie-Saint-Paul, a small town near Quebec City in Cananda, Ste-Croix founded a street theater company called Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul (the Baie-Saint-Paul Stilt Walkers), which also included Laliberté. Ste-Croix had visited Vermont, where he was impressed and soon influenced by the stilt work of the Bread and Puppet Theatre. In 1982, as the Canadian clowns and acrobats attracted increasing notice, they founded La Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul, a fair of street performers exchanging ideas about the craft, economics and philosophy of raw performance. They repeated the salon in 1983 and 1984, by which time their ranks had swelled to 73 artists, and the idea of a traveling circus was fomenting in the minds of the co-founders. Cirque du Soleil was originally just the name of one early show.

Everything changed when Cirque was scouted by Tom Schumacher for Peter Sellars, the director of the 1987 Los Angeles Arts Festival. Schumacher had cut his teeth working at the Mark Taper Forum and later, under Robert Fitzpatrick, helped organize the now-legendary 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. The future Disney honcho caught Cirque’s act in a Quebec showcase performance and immediately invited it to the 1987 festival — its first trip outside Canada.

Mild panic spread among some troupe members. “There were people advocating to play it safe,” Ste-Croix recalls, “to go to a theater capital like New York or Boston — anywhere on the East Coast would have made sense to them. Going from Montreal to L.A. seemed like craziness at that time! We had the gas to come down but we didn’t have the money to go home, so it had to work.”

As it turned out, Ste-Croix didn’t have to lose sleep over mileage. As soon as Cirque put on its opening show at a makeshift site in Little Tokyo, its performers were a smash — the media couldn’t stop covering them, movie offers rolled in and, most improbably, Las Vegas took note. Today Vegas serves as Cirque’s desert home away from home and seemingly the location for every other glamorous TV show, but in 1987 it was still a somewhat seamy Babylon of roulette wheels and dance “extravaganzas” that mostly involved topless girls wrestling with feather boas. Cirque du Soleil helped change all that, transforming the fleshpot into a honey pot of family-friendly fun. Still, it wasn’t easy at first, and one can imagine the creases that Ste-Croix and Laliberté’s proposals etched into the foreheads of baffled, cigar-chewing club owners whose hearing had been permanently damaged by the ring of slot machines.

“We designed a show for a couple of casinos,” Ste-Croix explains, “but they were afraid, because Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage was the only successful act at the time. So our [more inventive] ideas were rejected.”

But then fate intervened in the form of Steve Wynn, a man on a mission to move Las Vegas away from G-stringed floor shows to G-rated entertainment.

“When Steve Wynn heard about all this,” Ste-Croix says, “he came to Canada, saw our show and made us an offer.”

Cirque du Soleil now practically owns Vegas, with five permanent shows that traverse interests from Beatlemania to erotica to family fun: Mystère at Treasure Island, O at Bellagio, The Beatles’ Love at the Mirage, Ka at the MGM Grand and Zumanity at New York New York. And there’s La Nouba at Disney World in Orlando. Add to this the company’s Montreal base and the globe-touring shows — Dralion, Varekai, Allegria, Quidam, Corteo and Kooza, playing to audiences in Japan and Australia, across Europe, South Korea, China and the United Statesand you’ve got the Starbucks of the circus industry.

This is among the reasons, Ste-Croix adds, that Cirque du Soleil has outreach programs such as Cirque du Monde for homeless children in Japan, South Korea and the United States, with the aim of eventually bringing some of them into the company. The program provides teachers for the circus art, Ste-Croix explains.

“It’s very different when you’re striving for success, from when you have success — you have to manage that success,” Ste-Croix reflects. Managing that success has included the art of ego management, with superstar designers like Robert Lepage, and sustaining Cirque’s corporate “brand” — not to mention a unifying aesthetic — with 900 employees worldwide. Growing pains have included the company finding itself understaffed for its swelling ambitions, as well of small mutinies by company members demanding better standards on the road (apartments instead of hotel rooms, for example) from a corporation that’s raking in profits not only from its magical shows, but from its diverse and aggressive marketing strategies. (Much like after every Disneyland ride, immediately following Corteo the audience is herded through a gift-shop tent.)

Ste-Croix toyed with the question of how the motives and impulses of creation change when a small troupe becomes a megacorporation — or when a co-founder of a street-theater company, such as Ste-Croix, becomes the vice president of creation and new-project development for that same company.

“The whole company has been built on creative control,” Ste-Croix explains. “If anybody wants to do business with us, it has to be clear that we have creative control, we are not designing a show to a specific order or demand — though when we play at Disney, we don’t do a sexy show, which is very different from Zumanity in Vegas.”

Ste-Croix also points out that creators of new shows, who in the early days were company members, are now hired on as freelancers. The purpose of this shift is supposedly to keep the company open to fresh ideas, Ste-Croix explains — a thinly shrouded argument for adding star power to the company’s ranks — star power that is, nonetheless, subject to the administration’s “creative control.” How that paradox plays itself out is a source of endless speculation.

Cirque’s veep adds that the corporation’s mass appeal is not really as mass as it appears.

“We never double up on shows — there’s only one O anywhere in the world, and that’s in Vegas, you can only see La Nouba in Disney World, there’s no other tour of Corteo on the road.”

The guiding principles are in the hands of himself and company CEO Laliberté, he adds. “My definition of success is not the scale of our operation, but the opportunities we provide — how we’ve become a platform for a bunch of creators to come and use our tools. Some of our productions have been playing for 10 years; we have partners who are willing to cement permanent relations with us. We were able to convince Apple to use the Beatles’ music in the show Love.To me, that’s success.”

Corteo is being performed under the Grand Chapiteau in the parking lot of the Forum, 3900 Manchester Blvd., Inglewood; through October 28. (800) 678-5440.

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