The privately owned company, with estimated revenues of approximately $500 million, has rarely faced significant setbacks, although it did drop plans to open a chain of entertainment facilities during the recent recession. Other than that, it seems to have had a permanent case of the Midas touch. The oldest current Cirque du Soleil production, the touring show Saltimbanco, began in 1992 in North America and visited Europe and several countries in the Asia-Pacific region before returning recently to Europe, where it is again playing to sold-out audiences.

Today, Cirque du Soleil has more than 2,500 employees, including 600 per­formers, and has entertained 40 million people in 90 cities around the globe. Yet, somehow, in all this growth it has remained true to the founders' original vision of creating a circus that celebrates human potential and never rested in the pursuit of ever-more-startling entertainment.

IT ALL STARTED in Quebec 20 years ago with a group of stilt-walkers called the Le Club des Talons Hauts. One was a 20-year-old native Quebecer and veteran street performer named Guy Laliberté, who also played the accordion and breathed fire, and possessed less obvious talents for organization, fundraising, marketing, and showmanship. Laliberté and others expanded the stilt-walking focus, and in the early 1980s formed another troupe of circus arts performers called La Fête Foraine of Baie-Saint-Paul. A couple of years later, the astute Laliberté convinced the government of Quebec to fund a more ambitious show for the province's 450th anniversary. The French name translated as "Circus of the Sun."

Cirque du Soleil's performance in that 1984 celebration began its tradition of exciting audiences and critics alike. The show contained many traits that would later spur observers to credit it with reinvigorating the business and art of the circus. Most obviously­, there were no animals. Rather than three rings of bicycle-riding bears and dancing elephants, the show relied on a single ring hosting human acrobats, tumblers, and trapeze and high-wire artists, all accompanied by original music and wearing close-to-the-edge costumes.