A peek behind Cirque du Soleil’s curtain

19 Feb

The spooky flying spider lady of Cirque du Soleil Zarkana.

Back in January, I took a side trip from the Consumer Electronics Show to go behind the scenes of the most compelling thing that any Canadian company was showing off in Las Vegas: Cirque du Soleil. The Montreal-based company, which started in 1984, is Canada’s biggest and most successful cultural export, having performed in nearly 700 cities around the world. If you’ve ever seen a show, you probably know why – they’re amazing blends of human athleticism and technological precision.

Mick Littlewood, technical director of Zarkana, took me on a Wizard-of-Oz-like behind-the-curtain tour of the backstage areas. I put together a radio report on it for CBC’s Spark (begins at the 35:28 mark), as well as a short video featurette:

Zarkana is the seventh Cirque show for Las Vegas, having opened up in November. While long-running shows such as Ka and “O” – which are absolutely incredible, by the way – place the emphasis on large-scale spectacle, Zarkana is more of a return to the company’s roots. As Littlewood explains in the video, it focuses more on traditional acts such as trapeze, acrobatics and even juggling, although there are some pretty cool segments that involve machinery and thus technology, like the part where two performers are running around a giant spinning hamster wheel.

I saw some nifty things on my tour, which I thought I’d post here, starting with a pic of the empty theatre at the Aria Casino:

Next up is a view of the lighting command centre above the stage. Talk about your futuristic high-tech setups:


Here, some technicians are appraising the stage and lights in between shows. Like most Cirque shows, Zarkana runs twice nightly, with the crew having about an hour to reset and make sure everything is up to snuff.


That includes checking out the hydraulic lifts that service the stage from below.


And oh yes, the stage needs a good mopping too. While many big stage shows have elaborate rigging and lighting, the difference with Cirque productions is that the proper functioning of such equipment can mean the difference between life and death for performers.


Speaking of the performers, they have a practice area just behind the stage where they can get limbered up:


I wondered what this dummy was for, given that Zarkana doesn’t really have any fighting scenes. Littlewood said that some of the performers like to get psyched up by beating up on it:


As with any show, Zarkana has rows of quick-change costume racks behind the stage:


They’ve also got more rigging and amps than a Metallica concert:


Technicians hurrying to strip and reset the stage (including break-away chairs). Malfunctions do happen, with Littlewood telling me that one of the giant curtains failed to deploy during the grand finale of the show I sat in on. Such minor details likely go unnoticed by anyone but the stage crew.


Overall, my side trip to Cirque was fun and illuminating, not to mention inspirational to my patriotic side. It’s great to see Canadian minds able to come up with amazingly creative exports that can succeed on a world stage (pun intended).


Posted by on February 19, 2013 in CES, cirque


3 responses to “A peek behind Cirque du Soleil’s curtain

  1. rosenqui

    February 19, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Very interesting, but shouldn’t the title be: A “peek” behind Cirque du Soleil’s curtain?

    • Peter Nowak

      February 19, 2013 at 10:06 am

      Yikes! Consider me thoroughly ashamed! (Fix is made and thanks for the catch)

  2. Seppo Sahrakorpi

    February 19, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Thanks, very interesting.

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