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Performance Space


Researching the creation and implementation of theater and set designs for Cirque is no easy task, but in doing so one will find two prevalent names: Michel Crête and Scéno Plus. Michel Crête had been Cirque du Soleil's scenographer, or the one who "paints the scene" using the art of perspective representation, for many years up to that point and was hailed as a talented, one-of-a-kind individual. Monsignor Crête came to Cirque in 1986, putting his knowledge of creation and design to use as Costume Designer. In his tenure, he created the stunning and innovative (not to mention colorful) costuming for Le Cirque Réinventé (1987-1990) and Nouvelle Expérience (1990-1993). But "within a few years," says the Cirque du Soleil website, "he traded fabric for the media of wood, metals and plastics." The change resulted in many stunning sets for both Cirque's permanent and traveling shows.

In 1992, Michel Crête left the world of fabric behind and designed the sets for the mega-production known as Fascination (a combination of Le Cirque Réinventé and Nouvelle Expérience) that appeared as a special limited engagement in Japan. He went on to design the sets for Saltimbanco (1992), Mystère (1993), Alegría (1994), Quidam (1996), "O" and La Nouba (1998). Through it all, Michel has worked closely with Scéno Plus. Scéno Plus is an internationally renowned performing arts and entertainment design firm providing a complete range of integrated specialized services. “With an innovative and passionate approach to each project, we develop unique facilities meeting the highest expectations from performing artists, facility managers and the public,” states their website. “Passion for theatres and the world of performing arts, along with a comprehensive understanding of all issues related to the management of our created spaces, has earned Scéno Plus numerous international awards and the recognition of the industry throughout the world.” Their vision - TECHNOLOGY ART PASSION – has led them to create dozens of spaces around the globe.

The first fusion of this partnership between Cirque and Scéno Plus was the Treasure Island showroom, a beautiful 1541-seat theater within the 430 million expansion of the Mirage Casino-Hotel in Las Vegas. Rumored to cost approximately $26 million (design and equipment), the theater comes complete with comfortable seats, a wonderful view for all, and an interesting story of compromise with its design. You'll find the 74,000 square-foot theater in the back of Treasure Island through a couple of sets of white and red wooden doors, but you won't mistake their purpose; for beyond the ornamented doors lays Mystère.

One of the first things people notice upon entering is its openness. The Treasure Island Theater lacks a divider, or curtain, between stage and audience that is usually found in most theaters. Thus the 120-foot by 70-foot stage is completely open to the audience, allowing the action to be thrust upon them. This was the goal from the initial meetings between the Mirage staff and Cirque/Scéno. The idea was to make the environment feel as if you were in an intimate setting not a Big Top. In fact, upon further study you'll find that there's also no Proscenium Arch, the technical name for that division. The lack of this arch is what gives Mystère its life, but it was one of the earliest and first battles the designers had to fight.

The fire marshal took an interest in the fact that the design lacked a “fire curtain” - a fire-retardant cloth made to help contain smoke, heat and flame in case of a fire. This absence meant that the theater would not adhere to the established fire codes, which the fire marshal could not understand. Patrick Berg, general manager of Scéno Plus Inc., hauled a model of the theatre to the fire marshal’s office to explain it: "Half the show is on top of the audience and you can't put a fire curtain in the middle of a set," Berge told them and they acquiesced. The proscenium-less space also met with some resistance from Wynn and architect Joel Bergman of Atlandia; Bergman pointed out that if Mystère were to flop in six months, Mirage Resorts would have to shut the space down and transform it into a "normal theatre”. The solution was to design the theatre and its catwalk system so it could be easily modified to add a full proscenium arch should the space be converted.

There were other problems to overcome as well. In the original plans, series of lifts were envisioned to raise and lower the performers at will. In order to incorporate the lifts they would have to be buried in the ground, but Las Vegas sits on a crust of what is called "caliche," soil particles that have been fused with lime. This fusion creates a substance that is as hard as (if not harder than) cement, which makes burrowing into it quite difficult and costly.

Since they couldn't dig down in the bedrock without elevating the costs of the theater prohibitively, the solution is actually one of the most ingenious and visible parts of the Mystère experience - the Deux Machina.

The stage floor sits on specially designed spiral-shaped lifts called "Spiralifts". The Spiralifts were designed by Gala Systems (a company that provides theater stage lift systems and over-stage machinery to theaters, auditoriums, concert halls and venues), a division of Montreal's Paco Corp. (an equipment and machinery manufacturing company), and employ a "coiled, flexible, flat steel spring that expands with the insertion of a thin, vertically-oriented spiral steel band." This allows for big savings in space while providing a rock-solid system for lifting and lowering stages. The use of the Spiralifts (affectionately termed “slinky-lifts”) also meant that they wouldn't have to spend a lot of money digging through the tough, solid ground, which greatly pleased the Mirage developers. Each of the lifts can support 300 pounds per square foot and are controlled by a motion cue system designed by Mirage Resorts Entertainment Technologies Group. Props, equipment and performers can then elevated to the stage level from the trap by means of four of these “slinky lifts” located at the heart of the stage; three are 10-feet by 36-feet, the other, on the thrust, is 36-feet by 36-feet.

I find once I'm in the theater I can't help but look at the set and ceiling. A simple thing the ceiling is, but here too Cirque/Scéno provided something beautiful and interesting. The ceiling is a cloth mural specially crafted by Sky Art of Colorado. The print on the cloth is just as fanciful as the production below it - a fantasy map of the world with ships at sea! And hidden up in that sea of ships is the O-Daiko drum, the heartbeat of Mystère! (The “heartbeat” is 6-feet/1.8 meters in diameter and 15-feet/4.6 meters in length. It weighs half a ton!). The set is also an interesting piece of mechanics, consisting of a hunk of metal as a backdrop that can be rotated by a simple flip of a switch. (You’ll notice it more prominently as it moves during the transition from Korean Plank/FastTrack/Trampoline to Flying Trapeze. At times it is meant to represent the sky.)

The lighting and electrical grid is 80 feet above the stage and resides here in the sky. Mystere's lighting system has 924 circuits with individual 2.4 Kw dimmers, controlled by a Colotran Compact Elite console. Equipment includes 122 color scrollers, 40 super scans and Gobo rotators controlled from a Compulite console. All of that is needed for the 800 light cues in each performance of Mystere, which draws about 30,000 wats of power. The lighting equipment comes from ETC TMB Associates and Peterson Design, and if all the cable used on Mystère were laid end to end, it would stretch from Treasure Island on Las Vegas Blvd. to the California border. But it's all tucked up and out of the way, kind of like the musicians.

The 10 musicians are housed on either side of the stage, with drums and percussion on the left and everyone else on the right. A sophisticated communications computer allows the musical director to speak with all the musicians and a monotone "click track" keeps everyone in sync. Underneath the stage is a 28-foot round turntable that can revolve up to 10 revolutions per minute, and of course those slinky-lifts.

Many challenges faced the design team for Cirque du Soleil's first theater, but everyone worked to resolve these issues no matter how heated the debates became. The addition to The Mirage, Treasure Island, opened on October 26, 1993. Though the public had to wait another two months to have a seat in the theater, patrons were lined up on Christmas Eve to bear witness to a unique event in Cirque du Soleil's history. In 1994, Scéno Plus was awarded the Las Vegas Best Theater of the Year award for their ingenuity. Not bad for their first Cirque outing, wouldn't you say?

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