There were plenty of skeptics when Celine Dion announced her plan to perform five nights a week, 40 weeks a year, for three years, in a purpose-built theatre in Las Vegas. But the French-Canadian pop star's dream has come true and she is now performing in a spectacular production directed by Franco Dragone at the Colosseum, the new 4,000-seat venue at Caesar's Palace. The standing ovation on the opening night of Dion's show, titled A New Day, was demonstration enough that the diva had made the right decision.

A New Day represents a leap of faith for Dion; not every touring artist makes a big success in Vegas. However, she wanted to spend more time at home with her husband-manager René Angélil and their two-year-old son. Therefore, she would need the right vehicle to conquer the relatively closed world of Vegas entertainment.

And who better to do that than Dragone, the acclaimed director of such Vegas benchmarks as those Cirque du Soleil epics Mystère and “O”? Dragone has now formed his own company, bringing with him scenic designer Michel Crête and costume designer Dominique Lemieux; they give A New Day a Cirque-like ambiance, without the acrobats and clowns. Nevertheless, the resemblance to a Cirque spectacle is unmistakable: Props and furniture float through the air, trees sprout from the floor, and Dion soars above the proscenium thanks to the magic of Flying by Foy. She also performs with a troupe of 48 dancers on a massive stage 120' wide, with a 44'-wide proscenium opening.

Into the mix, Dion brought her own musical director and musicians, her sound man, Denis Savage, and her lighting designer, Yves Aucoin. “I have been with Celine since 1989, designing her shows and running the board on tour,” says Aucoin, who is also French-Canadian. The LD has seen the trajectory of Dion's career close up: “She sang only in French in the beginning and was popular mostly in the French side of Canada,” he recalls. “She performed everywhere from small venues to the Stade de France with 89,000 people a night for two nights. Those performances are my best showbiz memories.”

In this case, Aucoin found himself working on a production in which the latest technology, and an entirely new concept of scenery, challenged him to new levels of creativity. The result is a production in which lighting and LED-generated scenery work together so closely that, in some cases, it is difficult to tell them apart.

GAMBLING ON VEGAS

The evolution of A New Day began in 1999, when Dion had finished her last tour and was in Las Vegas for New Year's Eve. The story is that she and Angélil saw “O” and were inspired by the staging. Aucoin says that in March 2000, Angélil told him about a new show to be directed by Dragone. “It was still very vague at that time,” says the LD. “By September 2000, I had met Franco and we started having meetings. I worked very closely with him on this production.”

Segue to summer 2002. “Franco and the dancers had begun rehearsals in La Louvière, Belgium, a town about 30 minutes from Brussels,” says Aucoin. “That's when I started my research. I had meetings with Michel Crête to see what kind of environment he would be creating. He started talking about an LED wall, as Franco wanted to work with multimedia.” The result is a $6 million LED screen that measures 109'2" (33m) across by 33'7" (10m) high, from Mitsubishi/Diamond Vision Corporation, that provides crystal-clear images to frame the production.

Aucoin helped to find the screen. “I knew the people at Mitsubishi — they had the best-quality LED screen on the market,” he says. The computer-generated images seen on the screen range from abstract images, such as psychedelic, kaleidoscopic bursts of color, to realistic Italian piazzas and Times Square. These images are used in place of backdrops, creating an ever-changing series of environments for each musical number; it would be impossible to realize such an effect using conventional scenery. Video content designer Dirk Decloedt created the images along with Patrick d'Artois of the Belgian firm Cine&FX, with the help of a team of six artists. “As we developed the looks for the songs, they could create images on-site,” explains the LD. The projections are mixed with, or give way to, live video at certain moments in the show.

Such a dazzling effect, essentially a wall of images created by lighting units, necessarily posed challenges for Aucoin. Speaking about the LED screen, he says, “It is like a very large spotlight that you would have to think about all the time. You want a friend there, not an enemy.” The LD's first thought was to get ahold of some bright, bright lights. “I thought I would need seven or eight really big lights, or ‘kickers,’ if we were to push the LED screen to full,” he says. “I also knew there were all those dancers and I needed sidelight, and there is not a lot of room in the wings.”

HIGH-POWER GEAR FOR A HIGH-POWER STAR

As a result, Aucoin used a high-powered automated rig that includes 20 Vari*Lite® VL2000 Spots, 60 Clay Paky Stage Zoom Profile Plus units, 80 Vari*Lite VL2416 wash units, and 20 Vari*Lite VL1000AS ellipsoidals, as well as 15 Syncrolite SX3K xenon 3kW units and three Syncrolite SX7K xenon 7kW units (the Syncrolites are Aucoin's “kickers”). This equipment was provided by Dion's production company.

In addition, the production's theatrical lighting package includes 14 racks of ETC Sensor dimmers, two Compulite Sabre consoles, more than 250 Lekos and 180 fresnels from Strand Lighting, 90 Robert Juliat 2kW profile zooms, 500 PARs (both ETC and Altman), 132 Strand cyclights (70 Orion single-cell groundrow units, 50 Iris single-cell hanging cyc fixtures, and 12 Iris triple-cell hanging cyc units), 90 Compulite color scrollers, and five Robert Juliat followspots (four Aramis spots and one Ivanhoe). There are also seven MDG fog and haze units (three Max5000 fog generators and four Atmosphere haze generators). This part of the lighting package belongs to the venue.

Lighting systems include both theatrical and architectural (Elwyn Gee in San Francisco executed the architectural lighting that uses an ETC Unison control system). Scéno Plus, the designers and theatre consultants for the theatre, working closely with Aucoin, coordinated the lighting package. Conventional lighting was supplied by Fourth Phase Las Vegas and installed by Bombard Electric of Las Vegas.

Melissa Wilreker was the project manager for Fourth Phase, with Jim Holladay as that company's on-site manager, along with field technician Randy Kee. Mike Gurule was the project foreman for Bombard Electric. Adam Steyh of Fourth Phase served as liaison to Scéno Plus, and Sharon Fitzgerald, director of sales for the western region for Fourth Phase, served as managing director for this project.

Aucoin uses the 20 VL1000s primarily as crosslight, and they are hung in four layers at three different heights on both sides of the stage. “They are very smooth, and have nice color-mixing,” he says. “They felt good as sidelight for the dancers.” On the sidelighting positions, the VL1000s alternate with some of the 60 Clay Paky Stage Zoom Profile Plus units. “These are the new silent version with framing shutters,” the LD points out. Some of the remaining Clay Paky fixtures are hung overhead for both front- and backlight, while others are placed under a stair unit that rises up in the center of the stage.

Aucoin runs the show using a Compulite Sabre console, explaining that he has used Compulite boards since 1990. “I know what I can and cannot do with them,” he notes, which is a good thing, because he plans to run the board as long as Dion performs A New Day…. He programmed the show himself, creating the looks in close collaboration with Dragone. “There was no time to talk to a programmer,” the LD says. “We would be focusing on each tableau in the show, and when Franco feels something you have to be able to give it to him. I kept my hands on the console. It was very creative and a lot of fun. Sometimes Franco liked a look that was halfway between cues, and we'd keep it. He also tried to provoke me to think about things nobody ever thought of.”

THE POWER OF LIGHTING

As the audience enters the theatre before each show, the stage floor is a deep Clay Paky red with a mix of two non-rotating gobos used to create depth and texture. “The 1,200W lamps in the Clay Paky fixtures are strong enough even with the house lights on,” says Aucoin. The LED screen, at this point, is a visual pun, with a large projected gilt-edged picture frame placed around live video images of audience members taking their seats.

The show opens with a solo by Dion wearing a dazzling red outfit, with the Robert Juliat followspots and one backlight over the screen defining her silhouette in a pool of light on the red floor. “With the raked floor, I had to work differently than I would with a flat black floor,” says Aucoin. From here, the tempo picks up with “The Power of Love,” and the LED screen explodes into blue kaleidoscopic patterns, while the center staircase rises with fog and lights underneath, and chandeliers, with flame effects, fly in overhead. “This song is a tribute to Broadway and classic Las Vegas,” notes Aucoin. Mesh scrims — referred to as “chain mail” — on either side of the stage are lit with Clay Paky units, as well as by VL2000 Spots and VL2416s, as dancers appear dressed as showgirls with feathers. Aucoin adds feather gobos on the floor (actually, out-of-focus flower gobos, he says) to complete the look.

The entire floor is visible to the audience. Therefore, to highlight or blend right into the projected environments, Aucoin uses layers of floor patterns, such as the “feathers,” primarily from the VL2000 Spots. “The floor is raked so the light on it can't be too powerful or it reflects in your eyes. These fixtures can be soft enough,” he says.

Furthermore, Aucoin says, “The question was, ‘Where is the “place” for each song?’ so I had to find a floor pattern to help define each place, then light the dancers in each environment without polluting the floor. It was like a recipe where I could play with the ingredients.” To give the look of an old-fashioned town square, photos of cobblestones were morphed into the video images. Aucoin put cobblestone gobos in the VL2000 Spots and blended them with the projected cobblestones so that the floor and screen merge seamlessly.

The lighting ranges from standard moving-light ballyhoos (for the song “Love Can Move Mountains”) to dramatic moments that are more intense and intimate. For a series of standards (“I've Got the World on a String,” “At Last,” and “Fever”), the look changes. “Franco wanted something different here,” says Aucoin. During “Fever,” a light pipe flies in, exposing two of the 3kW Syncrolites. Live video picks up the lights and they repeat on the LED screen.

“I call these two Syncrolite fixtures the ‘toes of God’,” says Aucoin, adding that the large 7kW Syncrolite that accents Dion as she soars above the stage (singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) has been nicknamed the “finger of God.” Aucoin tried to hide the wires in the flying sequence, but, he says, “It was impossible, so I tried to make it look good.” The solution was a group of lined gobo patterns that make the wires disappear. An MDG Max5000 fog generator is hung alongside the 7kW Syncrolite to add to the effect.

In the song “It's All Coming Back to Me Now,” the projected “place” is a romantic moonlit terrace on a cloudy night. Aucoin matched the dark blue in the projection with a dark congo blue, while picking out the dancers onstage with a pale steel blue. Then, as Dion segues into the next song (“Because You Loved Me”), the lighting segues as well, with the dark blue fading into a daytime look. “The sun begins to rise,” says Aucoin, who added peach tones, then various shades of yellow, amber, and red as the sun passes behind the moon, and on to dark amber with clouds.

As Dion sings “To Love You More,” Aucoin fills the stage with large diagonal squares filled with patterns of smaller squares, all created by 14 of the Clay Paky fixtures hung in front-of-house positions. The pattern of squares changes from green to terra cotta. “These are unusual colors I mix myself,” admits Aucoin. “I try to create things people haven't used before.”

Nevertheless, Aucoin also likes a pure white light, rather than white with a blue or green tint. For example, in what is referred to as “the opera number,” performed to a Donizetti aria from Lucia di Lammermoor (Dion is offstage changing at this point), the dancers are dressed in white, standing on their knees. The LD picks them out, using VL2000 Spots and VL2416s placed on the floor on either side of the stage as low crosslight, washing the dancers in white.

Using a broad variety of techniques — exploiting white light, colors, angles, and movement — Aucoin's lighting captures the essence of each song, moving from one all-encompassing look to another in keeping with the magic of the production and the images on the LED screen. “We had so much fun, and I was very inspired working on this show,” says Aucoin. “I am very happy that people like it.” And what's not to like? Dion, with the help of Aucoin and the rest of the design team, has created a splashy new benchmark for Las Vegas entertainment.

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.