Contemplating Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Saltimbanco’
Gilles Ste-Croix grew up on a farm in Val-Paradis, a tiny village in northern Quebec. It was a sleepy place where nothing much happened, and he still remembers the day the circus came to town. The small troupe pitched a tent in an empty field and — voilà! — magic happened.
“I remember walking home to the farm thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be a clown,’ ’’ Ste-Croix says during a phone interview from Montreal.
That little boy grew up to become a cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, the international artistic conglomerate that employs 5,000 people from close to 50 countries and currently presents some 21 shows all over the world. The very name Cirque du Soleil is synonymous with a certain kind of spectacle that blends storytelling, dance, music, and astonishing acrobatics.
But the company’s beginnings were modest. In the 1980s, Ste-Croix joined forces with fellow street performer Guy Laliberté and founded a scrappy circus troupe that toured Quebec. In the early days, Ste-Croix performed wacky stunts to garner publicity: parading through downtown Toronto in a monkey suit, walking 56 miles on stilts.
In 1992, Cirque created “Saltimbanco,” its first show with a unified story line. When it debuted in Boston the following year, the late Globe critic Kevin Kelly left with his jaw in his lap and superlatives in his notepad. As a piece of theater, he wrote, “it’s impeccable. As circuses go, it’s extraordinaire.”
Now, almost two decades later, “Saltimbanco” is back for a final appearance, with performances running Wednesday through Nov. 4 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena. The troupe is retiring the show after this tour, which closes in Montreal at the end of the year.
Ste-Croix was intimately involved in the creation of “Saltimbanco,” which epitomizes the company’s style and spirit. “It’s sort of my first love,’’ he says. The show is a multicolored, multicultural celebration of cosmopolitan life.
“In 1992, we were preoccupied with our urban environment, because we were growing up,’’ he recalls. “We had children, and when we looked at the vision of the world of our future, it was very gloomy and dark. We wanted to project a more optimistic view of humans who can transform cities into pleasant environments for our children. That is why the set is a brilliant and colorful place where artists come and perform.”
The creators invented a gibberish language for the show, which was the first time the company mixed the human voice with the music. The piece opens with the main character telling the audience, “Djezum djezum bow guen may.” Ste-Croix provides a translation. “He is basically saying, ‘Hey, welcome, you guys.’ No matter what language you speak — German, French, English, Japanese — you get an evocation of ‘welcome.’ I would rather have an evocation than a direct interpretation.”
Ste-Croix has played many different roles over the years, and, at 63, he is no longer involved with the creation of shows on a daily basis. Now he sees himself as a sort of grandfather figure. “When you are a father, you play with your children every day,’’ says Ste-Croix, who has four children and eight grandchildren. “When you get to be a grandfather, the role changes. I bring people together and help them bring forth ideas.”
He also safeguards the artistic integrity of the troupe’s work. The original artists have come and gone from “Saltimbanco,” and the company is continually finding new talent to perform old tricks. Argentine dancer Adriana Pegueroles joined the ensemble 12 years ago as part of the boleadoras act. At first, she didn’t like her costume, and she suggested some changes to Ste-Croix. The man who got his start as a free-spirited stilt walker was uncompromising. “He said, ‘No. This is not your number. The number is part of the show, and you need to respect this,’ ’’ Pegueroles says. But he wasn’t intimidating, just exacting. “He’s very charming and funny. We laugh a lot,’’ the dancer says.
Pegueroles, who is 49, admits that she will be “a little bit lost” when the show finally closes. She plans to move to the Netherlands with her Dutch boyfriend. She doesn’t speak a word of Dutch, and she says she is exhilarated by the personal challenge. “I need an electric shock. I need this change,” Pegueroles says.
As the show counts down the days to its retirement, Ste-Croix finds himself looking back over the years. So much has changed since “Saltimbanco” debuted. When it first played Boston, the show was performed in a big top set up in a parking lot at Fan Pier, which was hardly an urban oasis. “It was kind of an industrial area in transformation at that time, and we were still a very fragile company,’’ he says. The area is still in the process of change, but it is now home to the HarborWalk, the Institute of Contemporary Art, chic shops, and restaurants aplenty. And Cirque has become a global enterprise. Over the past 20 years, the company has produced shows featuring underwater acrobatics, along with paeans to the Beatles and Michael Jackson. It has lavish spectacles running in Las Vegas and Disney World, places not known for subtle artistry.
The success of Cirque du Soleil has also inspired other young artists to establish their own forms of nouveau cirque: troupes like Les 7 Doigts de la Main and Cirque Eloize, both based in Montreal, and the Australian company Circa.
Back in the early days, Cirque du Soleil’s founders were not thinking of their legacy. “We didn’t take ourselves very seriously,’’ Ste-Croix says. “We wanted to have a good time and try to make a living out of it.’’ The goal back then was simple, he says: “Live, love, and be happy.”
Ste-Croix would be the first to tell you that he’s achieved that ambition, but as he contemplates Cirque these days, he is looking back to his modest beginnings. A few weeks ago, he returned to Val-Paradis, where he spoke about creativity to students in the same humble school he once attended. The children, ranging in age from 6 to 12, were familiar with the work of the town’s native son, and they asked him to perform. He doesn’t walk on stilts anymore (“It was very hard on my body”), so he improvised. “The children got out some fruit, and I juggled three apples,’’ he says, laughing.
Standing in the same room where he sat five decades ago, he asked the students to tell him their dreams. “One said she wanted to be a nurse. Some boy said acrobat. Another little boy, sort of a fat round guy with a round face, said, ‘I want to be a mayor.’ I asked him why and he said, ‘My father is a mayor.’ That was beautiful.’’
As he talked to the youngsters, Ste-Croix remembered the day he discovered the mud circus in the fields of Val-Paradis. He remembered his own aspiration, the dream he had. And he marveled. “I did it,’’ he says, with a tone that sounds more like gratitude than pride. “I followed a path that was right for me. And when I think about it, I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”
Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, a previous version of this story misspelled the surname of dancer Adriana Pegueroles. It also included the wrong photo of a scene from “Saltimbanco” and the wrong credit for the photo of Gilles Ste-Croix.