There is no doubt about it: Cirque du Soleil has pushed the parameters of stage design beyond the unexpected, charting new waters, so to speak, in their fourth permanent venue in Las Vegas. Anyone surprised by the 1.5 million gallon pool of water that serves as a “stage” for “O” at Bellagio, will be even more surprised at the MGM Grand where traditional ideas of stage design have been thrown out the window and replaced with an abyss: a 50'-deep hole filled with moving scenic elements on which Cirque du Soleil's latest show, , is staged.

Collaborating with Cirque du Soleil's creative team, UK-based architect Mark Fisher served as both designer of the theatre and the scenic elements for . Nearly three years ago, Fisher met with Robert Lepage, 's French-Canadian director. “I wanted the show to be the basis for the theatre,” says Fisher, who took his cue from Lepage's vision of an epic tale spiced with Eastern (India, Asia) flavor.

“We wanted to distance ourselves from other Cirque du Soleil shows yet work within the Vegas milieu,” says Fisher. One of his first references was the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, Japan that stands on an enormous palisade of tree trunks. “I was not interested in the temple itself,” he says, “but rather the structure under it. Imagine if the theatre was carved into a structure like that.” His idea of carving out a space translated into a vast, cathedral-like theatre. “This is a Western response in the rhythmic nature of cathedrals, with uplifting, vertical spaces,” says Fisher. “The emotional reference is a Gothic cathedral like Chartres.”

In October 2002, Fisher presented a computer animation, with a dramatic wooden post and beam design, to Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, Lepage, and other members of the theatre design team. Everybody said, “yes, we'll have one of those please,” Fisher recalls. The final look is “industrial Baroque” with four levels of posts (vertical pillars) and beams (metal catwalks) embracing the show, and serving as an infinite number of performance platforms as once again Cirque du Soleil has broken down the formal delineation between the playing area and the audience.

The rise to the seating is gradual so that people cannot see into the abyss when they enter. Entrance ramps on both sides of the auditorium create an aura of surprise as the audience enters the 1,951-seat space. “We raised the ceiling and the proscenium height to exaggerate the sense of verticality,” says Fisher, who won an appeal for a proper lobby, so that glass doors lead from the casino into a foyer whose wooden wall recalls the hull of a ship, and where a large stylized double harp is played live to help set the mood for the show. “The idea was to create a promenade of theatrical spaces that made the transition from the casino to the theatre,” says Fisher.

“The lobby is a little like Noah's ark,” explains Cirque du Soleil's vice president for production Luc Plamondon, who uses the French word “contamination” in explaining that the lobby acts as a zone of transition from the outside world, allowing the audience to decompress before the show. “You pass through a door into another world,” he says, adding that the myth for this theatre is that the abyss was there before Cirque du Soleil “discovered” it. After the softy lit lobby comes a very contemporary concessions area, a contrast in polished stainless steel, chrome and neon, as well as a rich indigo glow from dimmable fluorescent fixtures behind ceiling panels.

Fisher directed a design team at Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal, led by Plamondon, assistant vice-president for production, Gabriel Pinkstone, and Don MacLean, Cirque du Soleil's senior supervisor for theatre projects. “I created computer models and their draftsmen did the architectural drawings,” Fisher notes. Back in London he worked on the styling of the post and beam construction, and carved Styrofoam models of scenic elements built by the Cirque du Soleil's ateliers.

lighting designer Luc Lafortune illuminated the post and beam construction, using 600 Color Kinetics Color Blast® LED fixtures and 750 Mole Richardson single cell Molefay fixtures, whose signature maroon color blends with the oxidized red of the pillars themselves. The Color Kinetics fixtures were also custom powder-coated in Mole Richardson red. More than 1800 fixtures are integrated into the post and beam construction including internal fixtures (A-lamps), which illuminate the “crystals” on the bottom of each post. “The theatre looks as great as it does because of Luc's lighting,” says Fisher. “It was designed to be lit.”

To replace the stage, Fisher designed a floating deck, referred to as the sand-cliff deck. Measuring 50' wide by 25' deep and 6' tall, it was engineered by M.G. McLaren and built by Tomcat USA. It consists of seven steel main structural pieces, six aluminum I-Beam deck frames, 10 cladding frames, 10 catwalk components, three elevators, 18 nosing deck frames, and 15 aluminum acrobat rail frames, and 80 individually controlled 24"-long pegs. Airbags and performer safety nets deploy when the deck is moving.

The deck attaches to a center hub that is supported on a “wrist and arm” assembly cantilevered from a torsion tube. The tube spans between two support columns 86' apart that extend from the basement to the upper catwalk level. The hub is 10' in diameter and allows the deck to spin 360° and tilt vertically up to 100° (more “forward” than 90°). It can also lift, tilt and spin simultaneously. “That's what offers the dynamic movement patterns that the gantry can achieve,” says Tom Neville, who served as the on-site theatrical systems coordinator for Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander theatre consultants. “The entire deck/gantry assembly weighs 280,000lbs. (unloaded) and can be lifted at a rate of 2' per second. It's really unlike any other scenic element ever devised to date.”

Inside the deck are three circular elevators five feet in diameter. There is also a systems of access tunnels, show and work lights, drive units for elevators, high-voltage 480V and 208V distribution panels, lighting dimmers, and storage areas. Mounted in the deck surface are 80 individually controlled pegs. “We supplied mounts for the rod actuators that pop out of the deck surface for acrobats to use and climb up the deck when in a vertical position,” says Carrie Robertson, spokesperson for Tomcat.

When horizontal, the deck can hold synthetic “sand” (made of ground cork), with 3” sand-retaining actuators holding the sand in place, but when the deck tips the sand can be dumped. There are acrobat rails on all four sides, and the surface of the deck is a painted scenic treatment with projection tiles. Everything was built and test fitted at Tomcat. “The deck has a self-weight of 90,000lbs. and had to be broken down and shipped out on six flat bed trucks,” adds Robertson. The torsion tube and wrist and arm assembly for the deck were built by Timberland Equipment, a company that normally builds mining equipment.

“The deck is the conceptual answer to the void,” says Fisher. “Lepage wanted a sequence of cinematographic scenes with disorienting points of view that would defy gravity. The result is a deck that floats in space.” There is also a 30'-square Tatami deck (built by Show Canada) that serves as a B stage, sliding open like three drawers, and allowing scenes to crossfade. Five smaller, odd-shaped lifts by Gala surround the two main decks and are used for maintenance and performance.

The consultants at Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander, who first worked with Cirque du Soleil on the Zumanity theatre at New York New York, collaborated here on rigging, stage lifts and machinery, lighting, sound, and automation control for the stage lifts and floating deck. “There is a master rigging control system, for all of the automation in the show. This interfaces with the hydraulic control system for the gantry, the 26 motors for the stage lifts, and all the hoists and pegs. There are approximately 223 axes of control,” says S. Leonard Auerbach, ASTC, senior design principal of the firm.

Fifteen control points, where any of five remote Nomad consoles by Stage Technologies, as well as with two hand-held remote consoles, can be plugged in, provide multiple options for automation operators. “You want the operator to have visual contact with the scenic elements that he is moving,” explains Auerbach. “There is a sophisticated interlock which prohibits the largest scenic elements from colliding with each other, and prevent train wrecks. Literally.” Kevin Taylor served as automation project manager for Stage Technologies.

Rigging includes 120 line sets from JR Clancy, with 40 Big Tow winches by Stage Technologies, used for flying of specific scenic elements. Sophisticated acrobatic rigging was designed in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil's acrobatic rigging designer Jaque Paquin. “The exciting thing about the rigging is a series of 16 high-speed battle hoists from Stage Technologies (higher speed than the Big Tows) that allow the performers to walk up the deck wall when it's vertical, straight up and down, parallel to the floor,” says Neville. “The performers control their direction and speed via wireless control pendants attached to their costumes, which include special harnesses.”

SOUND AT YOUR SEAT

Jonathan Deans, Cirque du Soleil's veteran, British-born sound designer, collaborated with Paul Garrity of Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander on the design and integration of the custom surround sound system in the theatre, and acousticians from Pelton, Marsh, Kinsella (Dan Saenz for room acoustics and George Kindler for the LCS VRAS system). “There is an entire studio in the basement so musicians can play in a controlled environment and watch the show on a large-screen monitor,” says Garrity. “They can also leave the room and play, connected via in-ear monitors.” But the real challenges for the audio include the sheer size of the venue and the fact that the performance area is continually moving.

“There are two million cubic feet to fill with audio,” notes Deans. “The big open hole eats up the frequencies. You need enough power in the room to get sound to the audience.” The scenic decks and platforms occasionally move in front of the loudspeakers in such a way that Deans could not rely on one system alone. As a result, he opted for four Meyer Sound Milo arrays. “You can add a secondary speaker system to replace the main speakers for a particular moment or a certain scene,” he explains.

Additional sound comes from the custom-designed seats, manufactured by Irwin Seating. There is a left/right stereo system in each seat which provides a personalized sound effects and surround sound experience for each patron. “The seats also serve as speakers, and are time-aligned,” says Deans, who added sub-woofers in the ceiling above the audience. “The seats are divided into 16 zones,” he adds. “There is one sub-woofer centered above each zone, as well as four on either side of the proscenium (used for sound effects and explosions), and musical sub-woofers (two sets of four) hung left and right of the proscenium arch.

“The main difficulty,” emphasizes Deans, “is to fill the large space without it sounding like a concert the whole time. is story-driven and that kind of sound could take away from the story. You need high levels sometimes, but you want to be able to bring it down to a personal, yet dynamic, level. With surround sound from the VRAS system and the seat speaker systems, we can do this.” Deans adds that “discreet things happen during the show, but you don't expect it to come so close to your ears. You accept it as part of the overall production. That's the important thing.”

There is also what Deans calls the “RF world” above the stage in a wireless room close to the grid, where technician Gary Tendi looks after the RF systems. A basement equipment room serves as the heart of the sound system control. As Deans explains, “the audio is no longer next to the sound man. The control is via Ethernet.” In this case there is a Level Control Systems virtual console at the in-house mixing position for digital control. Solotech from Montreal supplied the sound equipment with Bob Barbagallo serving as project manager. [Learn more about Deans' long association with Cirque du Soleil on page 30.]

THE ULTIMATE IN LIGHTING

Designed to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of Lafortune, the lighting system was defined by Jeanette Farmer, lighting director and project manager/systems consultant for the theatre, in collaboration with system designer Larry French of Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander, and Mike Lay of Strand Lighting. “We have multi-cable distro,” says Farmer, pointing out that the system was in place before Lafortune had seen enough of the show to do a plot with specific fixture and dimmer positions. As a result, there are cable runs throughout the theatre, including in special cable trays in the post and beam catwalks.

“You can get from any point to any other point in the entire theatre via the cable trays,” adds Farmer. “The system was designed to do anything anyone can dream up. There are no limitations as to where a light can be put, and that's going some in a place like this. It's pretty wild.” Ethernet taps throughout the theatre, and Strand's ShowNet system, add to the ultimate flexibility. There are 40 universes of DMX and the double DMX input/output at the Ethernet nodes can connect to any DMX universe, mixing and matching data from anywhere in the theatre.

The Strand system includes two 550 series consoles to run the show, two rack-mounted 510 consoles for the lobby and retail lighting. There is also a cue light system that uses AMX touch screen control panels that talk to a Strand 510 console. A Strand 520 console is used for special effects and smoke machines. “The infrastructure allows everyone to talk to the same dimmers,” explains Farmer.

Wireless Ethernet is used to control a dimming system (with two Strand CD80 dimmer packs, or 24 dimmers) in the sand-cliff deck. “These run work lights as well as interior lights for the show,” Farmer adds. Wireless Ethernet can also be used for handheld remotes, or turning a MAC or PC into a virtual console anyplace in the theatre.” Additional infrastructure includes DMX isolation equipment from Doug Fleenor Design (three 121Q-TB quad isolation amplifiers, one 121D-TB dual isolation amplifier, and one 125-TB isolated DMX splitters, all with terminal block connectors).

“Much of the system is software-driven and not fixed due to hardware,” says French. “This may be the largest theatrical network ever built in one single venue. It is very unusual and very cutting-edge. They have pushed the limits as far as they can be pushed. In terms of routers, switchers, hubs, nodes, and back-up systems so that the show can go on no matter what, this is one of the largest managed networks ever created.”

The never-done-before elements in this venue are the result of Cirque du Soleil's organic design process. “We don't just mount incredibly complicated shows,” says Plamondon. “We custom-build the theatres at the same time.” The theatre is certainly proof of that.

KÀ THEATRE, MGM GRAND HOTEL AND CASINO

THEATRE DESIGN CREDITS

Architectural Design Concept:
Mark Fisher & Cirque du Soleil
Theatres Team
Interior Design Concept:
Mark Fisher
Project Architect:
Marnell Corrao Associates
Structural Engineering:
Bennett & Jimenez (building),
McLaren Engineering Group
(gantry crane)
Mechanical/Electrical:
JBA Consulting Engineers
Theatre Consultants:
Auerbach • Pollock •Friedlander
Architectural lighting:
Auerbach • Glasow
Acousticians:
Pelton Marsh Kinsella (Dan Saenz, George Kindler)
General Contractor:
Marnell Construction (Site Superintendant: Randy Kuiper)

Kà - Show Production Team Key Credits

Stéphane Mongeau, Production Manager
Paul Bates, Technical Director
Matthew Whelan, Technical Director

THEATRICAL SYSTEMS DESIGN CREDITS

Cirque du Soleil

Systems overview: Design and Project Management

Luc Plamondon, vice-president, production
Gabriel Pinkstone, asst. vice-president, production
Don MacLean, senior supervisor, theatre projects
Eric Liston, construction supervisor
Rick Dobbie, project coordinator

Lighting and Power

Luc Lafortune, lighting designer
Jeanette Farmer, project manager & systems consultant

Sound, Video & Communications

Jonathan Deans, sound designer & system consultant
Steve Dubuc, project manager

Automation & Stage Machinery

Jeremy Hodgson, project manager, automation
Pierre Masse, assistant rigging designer
David Prior, project manager, set
Jean Thibault, project manager, set
Guy Lemire, project manager, set

Auerbach • Pollock • Friedlander

Systems overview: design and project management

S. Leonard Auerbach, ASTC, senior design principal/principal-in-charge
Mike McMackin, ASTC, principal/project manager
Ed Babin, technical designer

Lighting and Power

Larry French, IALD, LC, principal/theatrical
lighting control systems design
Michael Romero, technical designer

Sound, Video & Communications

Paul Garrity, principal, senior designer/sound, video and communication systems
Daniel Mei, senior associate
Matt Ezold, technical designer

Automation & Stage Machinery

Tom Neville, ASTC, principal/systems designer, on-site theatrical systems coordinator

Dimming and Control Systems

24 Strand SLD 96-way dimmer racks
2 Strand 550i control consoles
2 Strand 510 control consoles
3 Strand 520 control consoles
2 WholeHog® II consoles

Douglas Relay Power Relay System
Strand DMX/Ethernet Dist.Network
Strand Electrical Dist.Devices

Post and Beam Fixtures

488 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® 6
755 Mole Richardson Nooklites
337 Mole Richardson Molefay
90 ETC Source Four® Parnel
10 CDS Custom Chinablast

Sound Reinforcement System Loudspeaker systems:

Left and Right Line Arrays:

24 Meyer Sound MILO-65,
26 Meyer Sound MILO-90
  (self-powered)
Subwoofers:
8 Meyer Sound PSW-2
24 Turbosound TSW-721
Surround:
6 Meyer Sound M1D
6 Meyer Sound M2DPS-15
8 Meyer Sound SB-2, 4 CQ-1
6 Meyer Sound UPA-1P
5 Nexo PS-8TD
16 EAW KF 850
36 EAW AS300i
10 Tannoy IW8TDC
  (custom enclosure)
Stage edge:
10 Nexo PS-8
Signal Processing:
8 EAW MX800i,
5 Klark Teknik DN98-48
Power amplifiers:
24 Crest 8001
36 Crest 7301
8 Crest 3301
10 Crest 7001
16 Crown CTS-2000

Power distribution, Rigging, and Installation Components: supplied by Solotech

Sound Mixing Consoles:

Level Control Systems (LCS) Cue Console Mixing and Processing System with: LX-DSP frame, DSP modules, Cue-Station software, Apple G5-Dual computers, Cinematic monitors Aphex 1788 mike preamplifiers

Signal Processing and Effects Units:

TC Electronic, Leitch, Mackie, Presonus, Klark-Teknik, Aphex, Avalon, Symetrix

Samplers and Multitrack Playback:

Akai Z8, Tascam MX-2424
Sierra Automation Switchers
Yamaha 02R Auxiliary Console

Wireless Microphone Systems:

Sennheiser EM 3532-U series mike receivers (computer display software, active antenna system and accessories)
Sennheiser SKM 3072-U and SK 5012-U mike transmitters

In-ear Monitor Transmitter/Receiver Systems:

Sennheiser SR 3056-U
Sennheiser 3053-MT
Shure P6HWE1 Wired In-ear Monitor