Light and Sound in Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai

The Varekai show is staged around the country under a traveling tent, with a stage and set designed to look like a golden bamboo forest.

The circus conjures up childhood memories of a sawdust-covered ring, rickety bleachers, cotton candy, and garishly painted clowns. Over the years, though, Cirque du Soleil has reinvented the notion of the circus — as anyone who has seen a performance of this Montreal-based nouveau cirque experience can attest. Founded in 1984 by a group of young street performers, this alternative circus quickly established a following, not only for its amazing acrobatic feats and clown acts, but also for its expansive creation of environments using expert set design, lighting, and audio.

During its nearly 20 years of existence, Cirque du Soleil has created 13 different shows touring 130 cities on three continents and entertaining over 33 million spectators. Still, in recent years, the group is probably best known for its fixed-installation performances at three permanent venues — Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and the Bellagio and Treasure Island Hotels in Las Vegas.

That's ironic, because Cirque du Soleil's roots are clearly in the world of traveling shows. From a staging point of view, those traveling shows pose a host of unique challenges, many more complex than those found in the comfort of a permanent venue.

Varekai (meaning “wherever” in the Gypsy Romany language) is the group's latest act to tour the globe. Starting last year in Quebec City and Toronto, Varekai has since toured Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and at press time, was slated to hit Los Angeles and Anaheim by the end of the summer.

Poetic Set Design

A tribute to the nomadic soul, and the spirit and art of the circus tradition, Varekai begins when a solitary young man falls from the sky and finds himself in a magical forest populated by fantastical creatures. In this extraordinary world, where everything seems possible, this young man sets off on an adventure, encountering both the absurd and the amazing.

Specially designed and constructed poles are both set pieces and tools for acrobats as they perform on stage, in the air, and on the show’s aerial bridge.

Creation of this enchanted forest required a set design that was highly practical, yet which evoked the theme's magical qualities. Set designer Stephane Roy, who designed the sets for an earlier Cirque show, Dralion, and is working on another Cirque project (an upcoming erotic cabaret to play at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas), says his target with Varekai was to create a place where magical things could happen. “It was a clearing inside a forest where people could get together,” he says. “A place of refuge, a place of context.”

Using Discreet's 3ds Max animation software and Pro/E (industrial engineering software), Roy and his staff of 12 developed the initial concepts of a forest set that would both enchant the audience and allow the Cirque performers to safely execute their moves. What he ended up with is a set comprised of 500 poles each with a 2in. diameter that shoot up 25ft. to 40ft. toward the big top of the traveling tent structure used to stage the show.

“It's a huge forest, and it's all gold,” says Roy. “It's like a golden bamboo forest with a path winding through. There's no backstage — the performers walk through the forest and disappear [exiting out of the tent].”

The acrobats use some of the trees in the forest. Roy's R&D team researched and developed proprietary fibers and other materials to build the trees, which would be both flexible and strong to serve the needs of the acrobats.

To create a performance space, Roy built a 150ft.-long bridge that snakes a path 50ft. into the air. Built out of the same poles that make up the forest, this bridge is attached to the main masts that support the tent. The performers ascend to the aerial bridge via a long gradual staircase. On the ground, two turning tables provide another arena for acrobatics. “It's a fun set,” says Roy. “It really creates the context of being in a magical forest where people are enacting a ritual or ceremony, and the audience is invited to see it.”

To create an organic-looking set, Roy deliberately utilized simple and low-tech materials and equipment. Most of the set pieces were built at SND, a shop in Calgary, Alberta, that builds pieces for many Broadway stage shows. But Cirque du Soleil builds all the pieces that support acrobats inhouse, including the bridge portion of the set. “If the life of someone depends on the construction, we build it here,” says Roy.

Magical Lights

From trapeze artists to clowns, the artists who make up Varekai are constantly in motion, requiring the lighting team to hit moving targets. Lighting designer Nol Van Genuchten, who works out of Cirque's Montreal headquarters, had to paint a mood and illuminate the show's acts. One of the challenges he faced in designing the show's lights was the lack of a typical grid. While most rigging trusses from which lights are hung are horizontal, Varekai offered Van Genuchten only vertical spaces — four big-top masts in the tent — to hang lights.

He came up with lights to match the organic simplicity of the set that are subtle and effective. The whole show features only 303 fixtures, split between ETC PARs and lekos.

Lighting rigs hung from the tent’s vertical support masts shine light on the 50ft. aerial bridge that is part of the show’s unique set design.

Though Eric Landry, head of the lighting department, was accustomed to numerous moving lights in his previous work in live theater and corporate shows, with Varekai he gets by with just six Martin MAC 2000s. To control the lighting system, he used a Compulite Micron-4D/ME console, along with a full Ethernet tracking Backup-4D system, and one Extended Merger control desk for 8/4 DMX-512 ports. “When you need something with precision, when you need to concentrate on the character and not the area around him, the MAC is really good,” says Landry. “With color mixing, I have a real choice of color, up to two million colors.”

Landry notes that the limited number of fixtures is based on the fact that Varekai is a touring show. So far, Landry has run lights for 375 Varekai performances, and none have featured identical lighting. “In a theater, you can put up 500 fixtures,” he says. “But here, we move every month or every two months, so we have to make it as simple as we can, but also something beautiful. The show can really change at the last minute, because of injuries or if, for example, in the middle of an act, a performer is feeling dizzy and has to stop. We have to turn around in a second and go the other way.”

Ensconced in a booth with the stage manager, part of Landry's job is therefore to respond quickly to constantly changing cues.

Though audiences are attentive to the death-defying feats of the acrobatic performers, little do they know that the lighting itself entails some hair-raising skills. At every new site, the lighting team has one week to set up. To rig the vertical set, Landry attaches a harness, like a rock climber, tied into the mast and attached to a safety system, and a ground rigger pulls him up high to rig the lights.

That's not the only edgy aspect of lighting the show. After rigging the lights, Landry goes through a 10-hour rehearsal, checking with each artist that the lights are in the proper place. “Maybe my light is off just 1ft., and the artist is blinded by it,” says Landry. “It's a big stress. If I send a cue at the wrong place, I can kill somebody. I have to be very concentrated on my job.”

Audio Steps Up

Although audio is often treated as the forgotten stepchild in circus-style shows, at Cirque du Soleil great care is taken to match the audio to the intricacies of the performance. In the case of Varekai, sound designer Francois Bergeron, a 14-year Cirque veteran on six different shows, says the show features the most complex audio of any Cirque show he's worked on. He adds that unlike most shows, he was brought into the creative development phase for the audio when the show itself was still being developed.

“Because I was involved with the show from the beginning, I was able to fully integrate the audio elements into the overall concept and into the set,” he says.

Daniel Petit, who is in charge of all audio for Cirque du Soleil, was also instrumental in piecing together Varekai's sound system. Also involved in the audio component was Varekai director Dominic Champagne.

“He loves the audio world, and as a result, we were able to integrate the systems into the set and help the creative aspect of the show,” says Bergeron.

The result, Bergeron explains, is a wall-to-wall audio experience, featuring “audio surprises” that far surpass “mere” music and sound effects. “Because I was playing DJ in the rehearsal, throughout the rehearsal process I played all sorts of music, sound effects, bits, and samples to stimulate the actors and acrobats into responding to ambience and feeling,” says Bergeron. “It wasn't just playing a CD. From there, the composer, Violaine Corradi, was inspired by what was happening on stage and the reaction of the acrobats to the environment.”

The resulting score is a typical Cirque eclectic mix, spanning the gamut from Eastern European Klezmer music to London basement beats.

Designing audio for a big-top tent environment is a unique challenge, Bergeron adds. For one thing, the portable tent is 165ft. long, with a seating capacity of over 2,600. He notes that the tent's flexible PVC fabric skin when stretched taut presents a hard acoustical surface and is highly reflective at problematic frequencies. “It's really quite reverberant, especially when empty,” he says. “For example, at 1kHz, we measured a reverb time of about 5.4 seconds. We had to be careful with our coverage and alignment of speakers.”

Lighting rigs hung from the tent’s vertical support masts shine light on the 50ft. aerial bridge that is part of the show’s unique set design.

In an unusual tactic, Bergeron created an inverted sound design, using AutoCAD design software to make his calculations. “This time, rather than fighting the space and fighting the canvas, I decided to try to use it,” he explains. “As a result, I concentrated the sound system from the top, above the ring. Instead of having the sound system on the ground and using the ground to increase the low end and the sub bass, here the sub bass is above, which in sound is a kind of no-no. You don't have any surface to bounce on and increase the level of the low end. But, because we were so close to the center of the tent, the canvas is so tight that it functions as a floor, and we used it to that effect.”

Inverting the sound design for Varekai was a first for a Cirque du Soleil show, and Bergeron relied on self-powered speakers from Meyer Sound Laboratories, Berkeley, Calif., to achieve the desired result. “One of the benefits with Meyer is that they do their measurements in an anechoic chamber, which makes their manufacturer specs very accurate,” says Bergeron. “With the MAPP [testing] software, you can do a lot of predicting. Based on that, we could easily put the speakers in the set, and know what we were going to get.”

Other parameters included the fact that with no backstage area, the sound system had to be integrated into the set. “There's not much leeway,” says Bergeron. “The selection of the speakers came down mostly to size, power, weight, and of course, budget.”

Weight was a crucial factor, since the speakers would be mounted on the tent structure itself, which was also supporting acrobatic rigging and lighting. “There's no wasted real estate,” adds Bergeron. “It's literally wall-to-wall.”

To supply the needed power from above the stage while avoiding destructive reflections, Bergeron designed three center clusters and an outer delay ring. The two outside clusters, each with a pair of CQ-1 Wide Coverage main loudspeakers, flank the middle cluster of three CQ-2 Narrow Coverage main loudspeakers. While these clusters anchor the sound high above the stage, supplemental reinforcement is supplied by the delay ring of 10 UPA-1P Compact Wide Coverage loudspeakers. Deep bass power is provided by four PSW-2 High-Power Flyable subwoofers that are hoisted up in the cupola. All of the speakers are camouflaged within groupings of the set's pipes.

Constantly changing temperature and humidity in the big top was another factor the audio team had to contend with. When the show starts, the doors are opened on an empty space. Once the tent is filled to capacity, the doors are closed and the temperature and humidity change significantly.

To solve the problem, Pitsch Karrer, who heads the show's sound department and serves as mixer on Varekai, uses a temperature probe and hydrometer (humidity gauge) to take a reading of the elements he's dealing with. And, says Bergeron, Cirque du Soleil has also made strides in improving temperature control with an HVAC system in the tent. “We're in the process of cataloguing changes in relationship to temperature and humidity,” he says. “We'll be able to predict, with a table, before the show what changes need to be made. Each of those parameters will be stored in the computer, and we'll be able to recall them at the drop of a hat.”

Day-to-day operation of the show's audio is Karrer's responsibility. He's a SIM engineer with a background mixing European tours of Broadway productions. He works closely with monitor engineers Thomas Duchaine and Stein Guitton.

Varekai not only has a dense, rich audio track, but it's constantly in evolution,” says Karrer. “That means I need different sound effects for different parts of the show. We have to re-program all the sequences at the keyboard. Sometimes the music doesn't fit the act anymore, so the music is also changed.”

Led by bandleader Michel Cyr, live music comes from a band of six multi-instrumentalists and two vocalists, with sound effects mixed in from a variety of RAM-based and disk-based digital replay units, including the Alesis HD24 hard disk recorder. For mics, the show uses 20 wireless Shure UHF system WL50 and WL51 units, covering the two singers, four clowns, three Georgian dancers, a flutist, and a violinist.

The production fully occupies the inputs of a 56-input Soundcraft Series 5 console, plus two Yamaha O1V submixers, all controlled by the LCS LD88 level control system, which creates “sound images” in the surround.

Every microphone comes into Karrer's sample, which he controls via VCA faders. “Together with the LCS system, I've created about 70 cues, and each cue mutes or un-mutes a channel, presets a certain sound effect, which is used for that piece of music,” he explains.

Before each show, Karrer holds a half-hour sound check. But, unlike a Broadway show where the actors follow the music, in this show, the musicians have to follow the performances.

“The act is so difficult, they can't listen to the music,” explains Karrer. “Sometimes, when the act fails, they retry it and the musicians have to replay the music that matches the act. All of this means that we have to be very flexible, and be able to improvise quickly and accurately.”

When an act fails and the artist retries it, Karrer lowers the levels to calm the audience and to make it easier for the artist to concentrate. But what's more difficult is to maintain a balance in the music between all the instruments, adjusting for constantly fluctuating levels among the musicians. To help with this problem, each musician has an earphone, tied to a second Soundcraft Series 5 monitor console backstage, which allows individual mixes for each musician. “It's not an easy setup,” admits Karrer.

Debra Kaufman is a writer/consultant who has been covering the entertainment industry for 14 years. Email her at