In performances across Canada the next few years, the circus built a strong reputation. But by 1987, when Laliberté convinced organizers of a Los Angeles festival to give the troupe its first U.S. venue, it was largely unknown. Corporate legend has it that Laliberté ordered the pilgrimage to California knowing the company lacked funds to fuel its trucks for the return journey. In the event, Cirque du Soleil wowed the Southern Californians with a show called We Reinvent the Circus and launched a three-year tour of North America, London, and Paris that made it a genuine phenomenon. The rest, as they say, is history.

An obvious uncertainty, once you get past ones like how hard it is to do a double backflip while bouncing on a Russian bar, is how Cirque du Soleil has maintained artistic integrity while achieving such impressive commercial success.

Eleni Uranis, a costumer with the circus since 1989, describes a combination of can-do spirit, organic management techniques, and homegrown communications systems. "We don't have problems," she says with the air of one repeating departmental gossip. "We only have solutions."

The costume shops are a case in point. They've grown from 30 people when Uranis started to more than 300 today. The challenge has expanded from dressing a single touring show to maintaining and replacing a circulating wardrobe of 3,000 costumes, including almost 1,000 different designs. Some costumes, such as the highly decorated swimsuit worn by a performer in O, the aquatic review at MGM's Bellagio, require as many as 40 hours to create. When O opened, costumes had to be replaced as often as weekly until the costumers discovered ways to help the fabric resist chemicals in the water.