Cirque du Soleil founder reaches for the stars

Cirque du Soleil's founder, who will soon rocket into space, went from pauper to circus mogul by turning a troupe of ragtag street performers in 1984 into a global entertainment empire.

At 0714 GMT Wednesday, Canadian Guy Laliberte will celebrate his recent 50th birthday by becoming the seventh space tourist to rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan to the International Space Station for a 12-day "poetic, social mission."

Near the end of his 35-million-dollar trip, on October 9, he will direct a "planetary artistic event" in 14 cities on five continents.

The social dimension will be represented by his One Drop foundation, which works to improve access to water resources and to raise awareness of water-related issues.

"I've been introduced in a number of different ways in the past -- as a fire-eater, an artist, an entrepreneur, an entertainer, and I have to admit that now being introduced as a space explorer is quite something for me," he told a news conference in June.

"I am profoundly touched by this," he said, recalling a television interview during the Cirque's early years in which he quipped: "One day I hope I can take the Cirque du Soleil into space."

An eternal dreamer with a keen business sense, an impish smile and a shaved head, Laliberte is said to be as much at ease walking on stilts as steering his circus dynasty, valued by Forbes magazine at three billion dollars.

From Auckland to Zurich, the Cirque du Soleil has traveled the world over, setting up its big tops in vacant city lots for weeks at a time, as well as permanent installations in Las Vegas, Walt Disney World in Florida, and next year in Dubai.

Its bold acrobatics set in mystical and colorful scenes, coupled with haunting music, have thrilled more than 80 million people under roving big tops or specially-built facilities. Nineteen shows are currently touring.

Laliberte's own winged rise to 261st richest man in the world, with a personal fortune valued at 2.5 billion dollars, was not foreseen in his early life.

At 14-years-old, he left home.

Four years later, with only 50 dollars in his pocket, he headed for France, where he learned to busk, doing stilt-walking and fire-breathing for tips on the streets of European cities.

Upon his return to Canada, Laliberte joined a band of street performers in Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, known as le Club des Talons Hauts the High Heels Club.

Two years later, in 1984, he obtained a government grant to organize a show for the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada.

The Cirque du Soleil was born.

It was an instant success, and Cirque caravans set out for cities throughout Canada and the United States, its performers drawing ovations night after night.

In the early 1990s its iconic striped big tops were erected in Paris, London and Tokyo, while the company built its first semi-permanent installation at the Mirage Hotel on the Las Vegas strip.

Since May 10, he has followed the obligatory pre-flight training for cosmonauts at Star City and has passed all his medicals. "They told me I had a heart of a cosmonaut," he said smiling.

A member of the special warfare command poses for photographs as he parachutes from a helicopter near Seoul. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak