Inside Cirque du Soleil

What is it? Is it a circus, or perhaps New Age acrobatics? Or is it a philosophy in motion? It seems to defy description, even for those who created it. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon reports on Cirque du Soleil.

"Welcome to Cirque du Soleil." Those are the last words you will hear in the show named Quidam. Like all Cirque du Soleil productions, there are no speaking parts. Cirque has created its own language, with quite a vocabulary.

One minute it can taunt and hypnotize, as man and steel wheel spin across the stage like a giant coin. The next, it can seduce you with an ethereal but sensual ballet.

Co-founders Guy Laliberte, Gilles St. Croix, and Franco Dragone are the creative force behind the Cirque productions. Fifteen years ago, these international celebrities were street performers in Quebec. Guy was a fire-breather, and his contemporary Gilles was a stilt-walker.

"We were a bunch of kids saying we have a dream which is an artistic dream," says Guy. "And we also could manage it in a way that could be successful."

Last year's revenues were approximately $120 million, with $20 million in profits. They started in 1984 with just 73 employees, and today, 1,400 people work for this global company with offices on three continents.

"Since the beginning, we have decided to play businessmen as a role and, honestly, we're still playing business," says Guy. "It gives us such great position."

When confronted with the question of whether dealing with businessmen is more dangerous than eating fire, Guy says the answer is quite clear. "Fire is less dangerous than dealing." Guy says.

But fire has caused its share of danger as well. "You cannot achieve what we have gone through and what we have now without experiencing pain," says Guy. "The first time that we set up, our Big Top, it fell on our head."

That was 12 productions ago. Now, with a string of hits in more than 120 cities, the tents are always up and filled. At the Montreal headquarters, there is a corporate cast making sure that the shows go on.

What's being sold is no longer the world's tallest, shortest, or fattest person. It's the perfect person.

Head castings are taken from all the performers so that their hats, masks, and wigs fit precisely. In its early days, the circus spelled freedom, and the bohemian vagabond life.

Not these days, and certainly not these guys. They are control freaks.

There are no loose threads in the costume department, where each outfit is custom-made for each artist. There is nothing in the construction shop that does not conform to a master plan.

If you feel an urge to run away with this circus, don't get on a freight train, get on the list: the list of 3,000 hopefuls who have submitted resumes and videos.

"The approach that the company takes in this respect is that somebody would submit their resume, sometimes supported with video material, the casting department would review it, see if it's a kind of candidate that they're interested in, and then you would be invited to an audition," says Head Coach Boris Verkovsky.

One of the judges could be Verkovsky. At least once a month, somewhere in the world, there is a Cirque du Soleil audition, and someplace else in the world there could be scouts from the Cirque looking for athletes at elite sports competitions.

But it takes more than athletic ability to make it in the Cirque. It takes a command performance in the self-discovery workshop of Director Franco Dragone. Out of this darkness, athletes are made into actors.

For Dragone, it's all about character. What is he looking for? "For me, something that is own to you and not to somebody else, just to give them back their own image and how they can build a character on stage," says Franco.

"I'm performing a character that I developed in cooperation with the director," says performer John Gilkey. John is the leading character of the show Quidam, and he is part performer and part something else.

"It's not deep enough, this character, to be a clown," Gilkey admits. "I think I have a lot more to discover about myself before I am really, truly, a clown."

The seed for each Cirque show begins with a vague idea from Dragone. This show, named Quidam, a French word that means "nameless passerby," is about a lonely character lost in an anonymous society. At least, that's what they say it's about.

"We're not afraid of risking what was our success yesterday in order to explore some new field," says Guy. "We're adventurous. We like the challenge of unknown territory, unknown artistic field, and that's what stimulates us."

Reported by Bob Simon