Cirque du Soleil's Magic

November 29, 2007

They say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas—except, that is, when word of mouth travels the globe lauding the extravaganzas known as Cirque du Soleil shows. Indeed, “show” seems too tame a word for the spectacles that have branded Vegas with new cachet—as well as providing many performers, especially dancers, with steady jobs, health benefits, and creative outlets.


Call it the little Cirque that could. What began as street performance in a small Quebec town in 1984 has evolved into a Vegas destination for extreme culture seekers. With five permanent productions currently operating on the Strip and a sixth starring Criss Angel, with choreography by Wade Robson, slated to open next summer, it seems like Cirque has the Vegas franchise. Plus, six Cirque shows are touring worldwide in 2007.


Each with a different theme, the productions share one common element: technology. Mystère, which opened at Treasure Island resort in 1993, was the beginning of the Vegas transformation. This was followed by the aquatic O at the Bellagio in 1998, the adult-oriented Zumanity, at New York-New York in 2003, and the epic , at MGM Grand in 2005. The Beatles’ LOVE began its celebrated Mirage run last year, with video and projections bringing the audience into a virtual world where The Beatles still perform to a colorful ’60s backdrop.


Growing more elaborate with each undertaking, the theatrical wizardry reached its apotheosis in . Led by celebrated stage director Robert Lepage, the $165 million show has 300 cast and crew members, 80 of whom are artists from around the world performing a blend of aerial and perpendicular acrobatics, capoeira, dance, puppetry, and martial arts.


But the real star is the colossal, 360-degree rotating stage, weighing more than a 727 jet filled with passengers, baggage, and fuel. To an audience of 1,950, the artists enter, perform, and exit, without ever treading the boards of a conventional stage. In addition, 30 computers and 40 general workstations are part of this well-oiled machine.


Besides the main stage unit, seven moving platforms operate independently of each other, including the 80,000-pound Sand Cliff Deck that moves at two feet per second, from which performers fall 60 feet into air bags. No less impressive is the 1,800-pound boat used in the storm scene, choreographed by Jacques Heim and controlled by the performers.


Artistic director of California’s Diavolo Dance Theater, Heim, known for working with architectural structures, was responsible for choreographing five other scenes, including the rotating pegboard segment. Jumping, slithering, somersaulting and working their way through a literal maze of protruding steel pegs on a 50- by 25-foot surface, these are intrepid artists.


For acrobat-dancer Nicholas Bosc, performing under such technologically controlled settings is thrilling. “You get a chance to explore acrobatics in another way, and the vertical stage allows us to work in another dimension,” he says. “You’re moving and so is the stage,” Bosc adds, “so you have to work with it, not on it. That is scary, and since the environment is so dynamic, you can’t afford to lose focus for even a second.”


Heim says there are really two shows going on: the artists’ and the technology behind the scenes. “It’s extremely challenging. But,” says the choreographer, “it’s also exciting because it’s terrifying—and you’re going into a whole new world.”


Pierre Parisien, head artistic director of Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas, oversees the preservation of the creative and artistic integrity of all Vegas productions, working with hundreds of performers as well as the various artistic and coaching staffs. He says the biggest difference between the touring shows in “big top” tents and the permanent ones is technology. “For the first permanent show, Mystère, we created huge moving structures in the air that allowed us to install heavy acrobatic equipment rapidly.”


Parisien said with O, they created more complex mechanisms for the acrobatic equipment. With , he says, “we went even further in exploring the concept of a stage in constant movement.”


Noting that the telepherique (overhead conveyor), designed for the 1996 show Quidam, was the “craziest thing” he’s seen come to life onstage, he explained that it helped give birth to O. An aquatic production in which Cirque reaches new heights—and depths—O, directed and written by Franco Dragone (who also directed Mystère and more than 10 other Cirque shows), takes place in and around a massive pool built as part of a theater seating 1,800. Holding more than 1.5 million gallons in an area that reaches a depth of 25 feet, the 150 by 100-foot pool cycles water, kept at 88 degrees, through a filtering system that takes six hours to complete.


The telepherique carousel, positioned 49 feet above the stage, moves up and downstage at three feet per second in a circular motion, transporting performers, scenery and rigging, with 150 stage technicians pulling the metaphorical strings.


Calum Pearson, director of technical support, says that the last 20 years have allowed the designers to incorporate technology into telling the story without having to rely solely on performers. “We can switch between mediums at a faster pace, bringing performance areas into view out of any three-dimensional reference at speeds and hushed volumes never before possible.”


In the case of O, a watery Versailles with synchronized swimmers, a quartet of world-class high divers, aerial hoops, a floating barge, fire dancers, and two seaworthy clowns, technology is king. And surprisingly, after more than 4,000 performances since its 1998 opening, 26 of the 85 performers in O are still with the show.


As for the technology of tomorrow, Pearson notes, “There is a lot still to explore with interactive stages and the use of projections. Nothing,” he adds, “is impossible until the laws of nature tell us otherwise.”


Part burlesque, part cabaret, Zumanity: The Sensual Side of Cirque du Soleil, is directed and written by Dominic Champagne and Rene Richard Cyr. Housed in a sumptuous 1,259-seat theater, the $50-million show features Thierry Mugler costumes worn by contortionists, acrobats, and aerialists in seductive acts. The production also features the most authentic dance numbers of any Cirque show, including flamenco, African (a frenzied nod to Josephine Baker), contemporary, waltz, and of course, artful striptease.


For Arthur Kyeyune, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer who performs a tumultuous tango in a cage with Pepe Munoz, the job is enormously fulfilling. “The technology available to us as artists is very different from what I’d been working with in traditional dance companies,” says Kyeyune. “Though our apparatus is stationary, we do some acrobatic choreography within it. In Zumanity, the technology underscores what the dancers are trying to achieve. With , it underscores the storyline.”


Performing 10 shows a week may be tiring, but Kyeyune says the payoffs are worth it. “Cirque is fantastic in terms of quality of life. They provide us with all kinds of health benefits and treat their artists well, giving us a lot of creative control.”


While falling 60 feet into an airbag may be safe, it is nevertheless brutal, requiring vigilance, dedication, skill, and adrenaline. Facing fear is something all performers, including dancers, do every day. Even Rudolph Nureyev once remarked, “What we are paid for is our fear. That’s what makes it exciting. You transform in front of all those eyes.”


Heim says, “Cirque du Soleil is a moment in time—an hour and a half—where you forget everything. It’s like taking a trip to the moon, it’s magical—somewhere between art and entertainment.”


Victoria Looseleaf is a regular contributor to the
Los Angeles Times. She also produces and hosts The Looseleaf Report, a cable access TV show on the arts.