By Caroline Fontein
As the Entertainment Capital of the World, Vegas is home to numerous grand-scale productions, but the performers aren’t the only stars of these shows. The stages are equally impressive.
Stages for “O,” “KÀ,” “LOVE” and “Le Rêve,” which cost millions of dollars to create and take large staffs of technicians to maintain, are productions unto themselves. When the curtain opens for these shows it’s not just the performers who wow the audience.
“I like to call this a show of superlatives,” says “KÀ” Operations Production Manager Keith Wright.
In the show the artists perform on an ever-changing stage that morphs into a multitude of landscapes including a beach, snowy mountain top and tropical jungle. For one scene, the stage becomes a rock wall with the artists running and jumping on a vertical platform.
“KÀ” at MGM Grand has the largest crew of all the Cirque du Soleil shows, but that’s not surprising when putting on two shows every night entails operating a stage that cost about $200 million and two years to build.
“We are the most technologically advanced show in our corral and probably in the world, but we don’t want that to overshadow our performers,” says Wright.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at “KÀ,” but all the audience sees is a seamless transition between scenes and a constant flow of artists entering and leaving the main performance area from all directions.
“We don’t really have a stage, we have a big hole in the floor,” says Wright.
The audience sits facing a seemingly bottomless void filled with smoke. The artists enter and exit from above, around and inside the void. They do almost everything, but walk from stage left to stage right like what you would see in any typical production. Instead the artists fly through the air or perform on two moving platforms that operate independently of each other (the Sand Cliff Deck and the Tatami Deck) and five stage lifts. The artists also perform on the post and beam structure that extends from the stage area over the audience.
Measuring 25 feet by 50 feet, The Sand Cliff Deck is a large performance space. It has a six-foot depth and weighs 80,000 pounds. The deck is supported and controlled by an inverted gantry crane, which operates like a giant mechanical arm attached to four 75-foot-long hydraulic cylinders. The gantry crane can lift The Sand Cliff Deck up and down, rotate it 360 degrees and tilt the deck from flat to 110 degrees, all at the same time.
The Tatami Deck is another large performance space measuring 30 feet by 30 feet and weighing 75,000 pounds. Almost like a giant drawer, the Tatami Deck can slide forward almost 50 feet over the void.
Forming the various performance spaces created in the show is done through five stage lifts that move props and artists. The stage lifts move a maximum of 25 feet from bottom to top and four of them are able to move at a maximum speed of four inches per second.
Because the performance space is always changing, the artists who perform in “KÀ” have to be able to operate in any orientation.
“It’s CGI in real life,” says Wright.
The changing stage also enables the show to alter the audience’s perspective. Instead of just watching the artists head-on, there are times in the show where it feels like you’re looking up at the performers from the bottom of a cliff or seeing the artists from underwater.
“There’s a lot of things you’re going to see here that you won’t see anywhere else is the world because they haven’t been done anywhere else in the world,” says Wright.
For this production the audience really gets to feel the “LOVE” at Mirage with the innovative theater design. Acclaimed designer Jean Rabasse created the space and set inside the LOVE Theater. One of his main objectives was to create an intimate experience for the audience by putting them as close to the performers as possible. What started as a traditional 1,500-seat proscenium theater was transformed into a 360-degree stage surrounded by 2,013 seats with the furthest seat only 98 feet from the stage.
The stage has six entrance and exit points with four tracks to carry the artists and four control booths, one at each corner of the theater. During the show the audience becomes immersed in the fantastical world depicted by the timeless music of the Beatles and the “LOVE” performers. Artists appear from all directions, breaking the boundaries of where the stage ends and the audience begins.
Being able to see the show from multiple angles also means that there are no wings, like on a typical stage, to hide the entrance and exits of props, scenery and artists, but “LOVE” conquers all with its highly-sophisticated infrastructure.
The show has nine lifts and eight automated tracks and trolleys that can simultaneously move 24 props, set elements and performers, and they provide the show with 140 different ways to put a performer in the air. Many set pieces are loaded from 18 feet below or from 52 feet above the main stage level.
Adding to the constant movement of artists, set pieces and props are the constant flux of projection images also integrated into the show. Created by “LOVE” Video Projection Designer Francis Laport, the show’s projection system is beyond anything ever attempted in a permanent theatrical production in terms of its size, power, complexity and capabilities. There are 28 projectors used in the show that create an ever-changing montage of images in synch with the music and movement of the performers. Many of the images are displayed on two huge 2,000-square-foot panoramic screens, each served by ten 12,000-lumen projectors. It takes weeks of rendering to create new images that are projected onto the screens. In addition to this there are four 832-square-foot semi-transparent screens that are moved by eight monitors and served by four 16,000-lumen projectors.
Based on music by one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands of all time, the show’s soundtrack also makes it a one-of-a-kind production. Through technology and equipment that was not available when the Beatles music was originally produced, the show’s music director Sir George Martin and his son Giles were able to use master tapes at the Abbey Road Studios and create a unique soundtrack of music exclusive to “LOVE.”
“In the 20 songs that you hear there are actually 120 being heard,” said the show’s Operations and Production Manager Leu Strope.
Adding to the soundtrack is the show’s incredible sound system. The theater has more than 6,300 speakers including three speakers in each of the seats and an additional 350 speakers located throughout the theater. “LOVE” head of sound Jason Pritchard and his crew of seven people maintain and operate the speakers and multiple other sound system elements used in the show. They have a daily maintenance plan to ensure that everything is working properly for the show in the evening.
We’ve all heard the Beatles’ music before but the exclusive soundtrack paired with the theater’s innovative sound design and the “LOVE” performers let you experience it in a new way.
“The Beatles’ music in and of itself is fairly ubiquitous we kind of hear it all the time. It’s in commercials and it’s all over, but in this space it’s the actual Beatles recordings not remakes of the Beatles’ songs. The sound system and the way it was mixed and all those pieces and what you’re watching on stage it all flows together to make it a real personal and hopefully, for the audience, a real moving experience,” says Pritchard.
The artists in “O” at the Bellagio really make a splash performing in the show’s primary feature, a 1.5 million-gallon pool. Costing about $40 million to develop the show and $80 million to create the stage, “O” has plenty of liquid assets, literally.
Playing off the sound of the French word for water (eau), “O” is a stunning aquatic masterpiece created by the amazing performances of world class acrobats, synchronized swimmers, divers and an array of other characters. They perform in, above and around the pool, creating an extraordinary spectacular.
The show’s 25-foot-deep pool is kept at a comfortable 88 degrees. At its widest part the pool measures 150 feet by 100 feet. The water in the pool is cycled through a complex filtering system that takes six hours for all the water to pass through. The pool takes about 12 hours to fill, and it’s drained once a year for maintenance. When the pool is drained the water flows into the 22-million gallon lake at the front of the Bellagio, raising the water in the well known aquatic feature about one inch.
Beneath the surface of the pool are seven hydraulic lifts that create a conventional stage surface or reshape the surface of the water. Measuring 53 feet by 90 feet, the performance space is constantly changing. The lifts enable the set to transform from an underwater spectacle to dry land in a matter of seconds.
The platforms that create the stage are covered with an athletic surfacing material called Mondo. In order for the platforms to be raised and submerged underwater without disrupting the surface of the pool, the show has the material sent to an outside company that drills thousands of holes in it. In just a four-foot by eight-foot piece there are about 5,200 holes.
Also at the bottom of the pool is more than a mile of perforated hose that produces air bubbles that hide underwater activity and the 14 scuba divers at work during every show. The entire cast is scuba certified and can utilize any of the 18 underwater breathing stations.
Another technical marvel in the show is the téléphérique, an overhead carousel positioned 45 feet above stage. The carousel can move up and down the stage at three feet per second and at two rotations per minute. The carousel has four lifting winches, each with a 1,000 pound capacity and the ability to operate at four feet per second.
The téléphérique is much like a gantry crane, but it’s been enhanced with highly-sophisticated computerized controls that synchronize all movements, creating seamless scene changes. The téléphérique has six tracks with four independent winches to transport performers, scenery and rigging. During the show the artists enter the stage from almost every direction. They fly through the air and appear and disappear from underwater.
Implementing a huge water feature in the show also required the creators to take special measures to ensure that the environment in the theater was at a suitable temperature and that the humidity was controlled. Engineers utilized a ventilation technique that created two different micro-climates, one for the performers and one for the audience.
Cold air vents under each seat in the audience keep the 1,809-seat theater at a comfortable 72 degrees. Above, the theater has a wire mesh ceiling that acts as a chimney, allowing the warm air and humidity to escape the theater.
Along with the stage, “O’s” cast is also unique. Needing multitalented artists who can perform in both water and on land means the show has more Olympians in it that any other Cirque production. Their talented performances paired with the aquatic special effects have audiences saying “O” for more than just the show title.
Of course in a city that relishes being over the top, having just one aquatic show wasn’t enough, and in 2005 “Le Rêve” at Wynn joined the entertainment landscape on the Strip. “Le Rêve” has the best of both worlds – a 1.1 million-gallon pool and in-the-round seating with 1,608 seats situated around a pool. The furthest seat is only 42 feet from the stage.
The show features a blend of aerial acrobatics, choreographed dances, synchronized swimming and amusing antics from an array of colorful characters who perform in, above, below and around the 68-and-a-half-foot wide pool.
The pool at “Le Rêve” uses some of the most advanced aquatics technology in the world. At its deepest part, the pool measures 26-and-a-half-feet deep. It takes about 12 hours to fill the pool, pumping water at 1,500 gallons per minute. The pool can drain in six hours, pumping water at 2,800 gallons per minute. At this rate the two water pumps serving the pool could fill an average home swimming pool in five minutes.
The behind-the-scenes technology at work also enables the show to create separate environments and temperatures for the artists and the audience. The pool is kept at a comfortable 89 degrees and the air right above the water is kept at 92 degrees, while the temperature in the audience remains at 72 degrees. Despite these warm temperatures “Le Rêve” has special heating areas backstage to keep the cast of 92 artists warm as they wait to re-enter the water throughout the show.
Above the pool is a sophisticated rigging system enabling performers, props and scenery pieces to be lowered from more than 60 feet above the water. The rigging system consists of six rotating winches, a large carousel with 20 axes of motion and three “flying man” winches with six total axes of motion. Aerial rigging at “Le Rêve” is done on multiple levels, requiring 14 riggers and 60 harnesses for each performance. During the show 22 artists fly at one time on the same kind of cable used to build aircraft.
In the pool there are three tracks for scenery movement on the vomitory lifts. Capable of rising up to 15 feet about the water, the center lift has a turntable platform where artists perform. Along with the lifts there is a sophisticated network of divers, cameras, breathing systems and lights at work underwater. During every show there are 16 scuba divers using 32 air tanks and 3,500 cubic feet of compressed air. There are 100 hookah regulators in the pool for the artists to use when they are underwater. All of the cast members are scuba certified before performing in the theater.
Also beneath the water’s surface are 20 miles of underwater lighting cable powering 450 fixtures in the pool including three underwater lighting tunnels. Nine electricians are needed to operate a single performance. In addition to this, the pool has 15 underwater speakers. Part of the artist’s training for “Le Rêve” includes learning how to navigate the underwater stage while the lighting and sound system are in full operation during the show.
French for “the dream,” “Le Rêve” lives up to its name. The unique stage environment transports viewers from reality to a mystifying aquatic wonderland where anything seems possible.