A giant turtle at centre stage represents the origins of life on earth. The creature’s shell is whisked away to reveal an effervescent community of amphibians and fish that lives beneath its carapace. (Photo: OSA Images)

It could be like Van Gogh’s sunflower fields brought to life, or some utterly far-fetched street scene. Every Cirque du Soleil performance should seem like a vision of a place you long to visit, says co-founder and artistic guide Gilles Ste-Croix. And the Canadian company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is as worldly as its performances are otherworldly: nearly 150 million people in 300 world cities have been delighted and transported by a Cirque du Soleil show, and out of around 4,000 employees, its 1,300 performers hail from at least 50 different countries.

In 1984, though, what’s now the world’s best-loved circus was provincial. That was when the Quebec government hired a motley group of street performers from Baie-Saint-Paul — acrobats, stilt and wire walkers, jugglers and musicians — to help celebrate the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s landing in North America. The small troupe, by then already calling themselves Cirque du Soleil, took their new blue-and-yellowstriped big top to 11 towns and cities across the province.

That tent was the only truly “traditional” thing about the company. Led by Ste-Croix and Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil was at the forefront of the revitalization of the circus. Refusing to rely on the exotic animals and daredevil stunts typical of many circuses, Cirque has always leaned instead on the captivating theatricality of its sets and lighting, costumes, dance, music and acrobatics.

As its orbits expanded — Ontario in 1985, Western Canada the next year, California in 1987, Paris and London in 1990 — it became the “flavour of the month” in each new place. That was fortunate, because as Laliberté said of their second trip to Los Angeles in 1988, “If we failed, there was no cash for gas to come home.” Each new venture simply had to work.

Many international host cities and corporations have wanted to keep this Montreal-headquartered phenomenon. Of its 19 distinct currently running shows, nine are resident — which means that like the production O in Las Vegas’s Bellagio casino, shows play in a permanent, made-to-specification theatre. But, says Ste-Croix, “We have always insisted on keeping all artistic control: we will listen to what you want and create something very unique for the public you want to target, but we keep control.”

Just in time for the anniversary, a brand new show, christened KURIOS — Cabinet of curiosities, will debut in April 2014 in Montreal (as is the tradition for new touring titles). But on your travels, whether you catch another tour in Japan, Sweden or Argentina, the Canadian flag flies proudly over every big top.