Cirque du Soleil may be a circus, but it's also a troupe of artists seeking to explain the human experience. Too bad all other artists aren't as profitable.
IF YOU EVER GO TO WORK as a Cirque du Soleil performer, early on you'll be asked to submit while a plaster cast is made of your head. Then, if your wig balds during the Japanese tour of Quidam, the costume shop in Montreal can make a perfect replacement without bringing you home for a fitting.

Hundreds of these busts clutter workbenches and line shelves in the circus troupe's Quebec headquarters, giving eerie testament to the devotion to human individuality, uncompromising standards of showmanship, and shrewd commercialism that have transformed this band of street performers into one of the globe's most recognizable entertainment brands.

This year, five touring shows will bring Cirque du Soleil's combination of envelope­-pushing acrobatics, weird wardrobes, and dreamlike staging to Europe, North Ameri­ca, and Japan. An as-yet-unnamed permanent show will open at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas later this year, joining three resident troupes already there, and the La Nouba act at Disney World in Orlando. Cirque du Soleil has two dramatic cable television series playing on Bravo, several videos that are often rebroadcast, and this summer published a book commemorating its 20th anniversary.

In all this mix, the live shows remain the flagships. About seven million people around the world saw Cirque du Soleil live last year. More than 90 percent of perform­ances sell out, at prices ranging from $45 for a seat under the big top of a touring show to hundreds of dollars for VIP treatment.