By Michael Small and Doug Lindeman
Updated May 02, 1988 12:00 PM

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up to Cirque du Soleil, the greatest…well, one of the greatest shows on earth. You’ll thrill to the sight of a single circus ring that has never been marked with the hoofprint of a wild beast. You won’t see packs of pachyderms stand on their heads, but you will gape in awe at the multiple talents of performers who play clowns and then transform themselves into acrobats, trapeze artists and jugglers. You won’t see an alligator tamer wrestle with the jaws of death, but you’ll swoon as two tango dancers culminate their romance with an amazing hand-balancing act. And you’ll gasp as a tightrope walker jetés across the wire while playing a haunting theme on the oboe.

Okay, so razzmatazz-wise, Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) isn’t exactly Ringling Brothers, but that’s just the point. The 4-year-old troupe has captured the imagination of audiences across North America by replacing circus pomp with up-close, often beautiful surprises and some unusual thrills. In a comparatively tiny 1,754-seat tent, Cirque doesn’t need a pack of exotic aerialists when a lone trapeze artist can stop heartbeats by swooping just a few feet above the heads of spectators, without a net. So successful was the troupe’s scheduled three-week run at the Los Angeles Festival last September—attended by such stars as Joan Rivers, Dustin Hoffman and David Bowie—that it returned for four months, and Columbia Pictures bought film rights to the little big top’s story. The show finally closed so Cirque could begin a four-week run in San Francisco on April 8.

“Because you’re so close,” said one satisfied L.A. customer, Sandy Gillis, 31, “you can see their facial expressions, beads of sweat and their muscles tensing up. It’s more fun to watch than a bunch of spangly headdresses and froufrou costumes.” Troupe member Debra Brown sees other reasons for the show’s success: “Usually a circus has spectacle but no heart, or intellect but no risk. What’s exciting about this one is that it has a balance.”

As far back as the 1890s, Barnum & Bailey set a bigger-is-better standard for circuses with shows that included 1,200 players, 338 horses and 20 elephants. But the past two decades have brought a revival of the simpler one-ring circus popularized by British Sgt. Maj. Philip Astley in 1768. While New York’s Big Apple Circus (PEOPLE, Jan. 11) and San Francisco’s Pickle Circus perform traditional stunts in one ring, Cirque du Soleil takes advantage of the single ring’s intimacy to merge acrobatics with refined acting. “I’d rather feed three artists than one elephant,” says founder and director Guy Laliberté, 28, who hired 27 players ranging in ages from 7 to 36. Their performance follows a vague story line about a group of frumpily dressed, awkward people who are transformed by a magical queen into circus stars for a couple of hours before they revert to their lesser selves again. Dreamlike purple and gold lighting sets the mood as a five-piece band plays a romantic score on synthesizers and woodwinds. Brown, 33, a former coach for the Canadian Olympic gymnastics team, carefully plans every move in the ring. “When you think of dance, you think of people on two feet,” she says, “but my choreography explores four feet because of the way acrobats use their hands.”

Laliberté, a college dropout whose mother is a pianist and whose father is a vice president of an aluminum company, was once just another itinerant musician—fire breather—stilt walker. He honed his skills in Baie Saint Paul, an artists colony 55 miles northeast of Quebec City where street performers congregate each summer. While there, he co-founded the High-Heeled Club, an acting troupe that performed on stilts. After organizing a 1981 street-performers festival, Laliberté decided to recruit friends for a “hot-blooded French-Canadian circus.” At first he couldn’t find backers. “I had hair down to my ass, and we were all on unemployment,” he recalls. “And there I was asking bankers for millions of dollars. All the business community was laughing at me.” Finally, government grants helped Laliberté pay for most of a year’s expenses. A 1984 tour of Quebec province received good enough notices for Cirque to play across Canada.

With today’s high ticket sales, Cirque du Soleil requires very little government aid to pay the bills. In 1986 the troupe used some of its earnings to renovate an old Montreal fire station into workshops for set design and special effects. Now Laliberté can afford to recruit additional players, who undergo up to two months of rigorous training. “We make actors more agile and acrobats more theatrical,” he says. Their improvement continues on the job. One gymnast who flips to the top of a three-man human ladder has grown so sure of foot that he’s stopped using guy wires.

The whole circus is similarly unbound. Not willing to compromise Cirque’s freedom, Laliberté usually books shows just 10 days in advance so that the troupe can always strike the tent and move on like Gypsies. He doesn’t worry about where the road will lead them. “I came up with our name,” he says, “when I was looking in a dictionary of symbols and saw ‘soleil, sun.’ It means youth, power, freshness. Everything was there. I just knew at that moment that we would be a success.”

—By Michael Small, with Doug Lindeman in Los Angeles