ORLANDO, Fla.--If you've seen the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas shows Ka, Love or O, you've probably been led to expect that every one of the company's performances is full of wonderful technical achievements.
The truth is that it doesn't take that much technology to make a great Cirque show, as the folks who put together La Nouba, the Cirque's show here, explained to me Tuesday.
When it launched in late 1998, La Nouba was just the third permanent Cirque show, after Mystere and O. But it was the first to get its own freestanding building. Today, 10 years later, the tall white structure stands out as a signal of world-class circus theater to anyone who passes by the Downtown Disney resort here.
On the second day of my Road Trip 2008 through the South, I spent most of the morning on a behind-the-scenes tour of the La Nouba theater. For a Cirque junkie like me, this was a treat, even though it was the fifth Cirque show I've gotten such a tour of.
"La Nouba is all about the artists," said technical director Ken Ramsey, by way of explaining that I wouldn't be seeing too much of the uber-tech behind some of the Vegas shows. "The technical side takes a very silent rest, as opposed to being the spectacle like in Ka and O.
But that doesn't mean La Nouba is a dud. It's one of the most energetic Cirque shows around, and there is, in fact, plenty of tech to go around.
We started our tour on the La Nouba stage, where I felt the presence of dozens of Olympic-caliber gymnasts all around me. The show's operations production manager, Robert Shuck, explained that the stage has five lifts built into it, each one of which can rise out of the floor up to 16 feet.
To prove the point, Shuck got on a walkie-talkie and asked someone to demonstrate. Seconds later, one of the lifts began to push up out of the floor, and before I knew it, it was towering over Shuck.
Not to focus too much on what the lifts look like when they're above the stage, we next went down into the theater's lower levels where the lifts live when they're not on display.
And these are no light platforms. According to Shuck, the one lift I got into requires a 14,000 pound counterweight to get its 30,000 pounds and up to 3,000 pounds of "live load," otherwise known as performers, to rise.
We started talking about the visit I took last summer to Ka and how I was told at the time that one of the biggest challenges facing the Vegas shows is the steady increase in the amount of interference that makes it hard for that show's crew to communicate by wireless headsets.
I had figured that was a Vegas problem, but Ramsey and Shuck explained that the same problem is creeping up in Orlando. That's because HDTV stations are coming online nearby and crowding out the available frequency for the kinds of wireless communications the Cirque needs.
"Everything went to hell," Shuck said. "We (now have to) run wired headsets until the manufacturers" figure out a solution.
At this point, we headed back up into the theater where the show's trapeze artists were about to begin their twice-weekly training exercises.
The best part about that, other than getting to watch these incredibly gifted athletes perform without hundreds and hundreds of other people in the room, was getting to see them setting up the safety net the artists perform above. (See related video below)
It takes the crew about 15 minutes to set up the net during the training sessions. But according to head rigger Dave Phillips, the same task takes just a couple of minutes during the actual show (he attributed that to the fact that it's not the main crew that does the setup during training). Also, it was pretty clear that there was a much more relaxed mood going on at that point than during the show.
Next up, we rode an elevator up to the theater's top floor, the 9th, otherwise known as the "grid."
Here is where most of the rigging is controlled, and this was Phillips' domain. All around us were various pulley and counterweight systems, and not a lot of automation. But that's not a problem for pulling off a great show, Phillips insisted.
"Sometimes low tech is the best stuff," he said, pointing out a chandelier hanging down from below the grid as an example. He said that a rigger takes the chandelier off its hook and drops it down into the theater. It is backed up by a bungie so it has a slow, smooth motion when it goes down.
"We just couldn't get the right look for it" by using technology, Phillips said. "Sometimes the best solutions are the easiest and cheapest."
Another fairly low-tech solution Phillips explained was the method he and his crew used to design one of the show's sets, a group of flapping doors that behave a bit like birds.
He said that Cirque management demanded the look, but it was no easy task coming up with a way to do it. Finally, though, he and his team settled on a motor system that wags the doors with what he called "rotisserie action" on the end.
In the 10 years since La Nouba opened, a lot has changed for Cirque du Soleil. It is now a much bigger organization; it has basically taken over Las Vegas--with five shows there already and at least two more in the works, as well as new resident shows planned for openings in Tokyo and Macao later this summer.
But to people who have worked in the company for years, like Ramsey, the low-key, small-crew nature of La Nouba is preferable to the highly structured huge and expensive shows the Cirque is creating these days.
La Nouba has just 32 crew members, while shows like Ka require more than 150.
"This allows everyone to work a lot closer together," Ramsey said.
And Phillips added, "It gives everyone an appreciation for what every department does."
Down below, on the theater's seventh floor, is where we finally encountered the show's high technology.
Of course, this is not the latest gear available to the theater industry, but pretty much the stuff La Nouba has been using since it opened. But according to Rob Pooley, head of operations for the show, that's no big deal.
He showed me Dynatrac, the software used to control the gear that runs the show's many cues, and said it's the same program he's been using since the beginning. And, while it once took one of his engineers three eight-hour shifts to figure out how to do something that newer software used by the Ka crew could do in 30 minutes, he said there's no need to change the system since La Nouba itself has barely changed in its ten years.
Our last stop was on the main floor of the theater, and it was a place I had not gotten to see in all my previous behind-the-scenes-at-the-Cirque visits: the costume room.
Here, Mary Amlund, the head of wardrobe, and her team of 12, put constant attention into making sure that the 67 performers in La Nouba always have perfect costumes.
Amlund explained that there are people in the costume room from 6:30 a.m. until about 12:30 in the morning on show days doing laundry, inspecting costumes for holes and rips, mending, and making new outfits. She said the average costume lasts about six weeks, while some last up to six months.
For a Cirque fan like me, this room was a special treat. Everywhere I looked were outfits exploding in reds and blues, gorgeous hats and much more.
And while we talked, some of the costume crew were hard at work, inspecting every inch of some of the outfits for tears, moving slowly and methodically as they did so.
Finally, the tour was over, and we emerged into an office space full of cubicles. It was hard to believe that this was still Cirque du Soleil.
But then again, even the circus needs office workers.