Backstage at Cirque Du Soleil's 'KÀ': Part One – Setting The (Awesome) Stage

Comment

What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas.

Where once it was possible to fly to the middle of the desert, get absolutely wrecked on frozen margaritas and warm hookers and then return to civilization as if nothing had happened, today it’s impossible to so much as open a minibar here without someone taking a photo and broadcasting it on Facebook. Savvy to this new reality, even the most shitty hotel on the strip – which is to say, The Riviera – has a Twitter account.

And yet, despite the millions of tweets and status updates that flow in and out of Sin City every weekend, Vegas remains a town to which technology simply cannot do justice.

For a start, the hotels are temples to physical spectacle, filled with gigantic fountains, exploding pirate ships, gondola rides, showgirls, lions and tigers and reproductions of Michelangelo’s David (oh my). Every bar and casino has a theme – from Jimmy Buffet’s Margaretaville to the preposterous Pussycat Dolls lounge in Caesars Palace. You could spend all day watching clips of this stuff online without even starting to understand what it’s like to be here.

Even at the seediest end of the market – which is to say, the sex end – where, traditionally, analogue pleasures; strip shows, adult theaters, even hookers – have lost market share to Internet porn viewed in the comfort of one’s own home, the Vegas sex industry continues to thrive. “Passers” – commission-paid workers handing out flyers for escort services – line the strip, sometime three deep. Every casino worth its salt has a topless review and, of course, Nevada is the only state to offer legalized brothels.

To paraphrase a travel-writing cliche, Las Vegas is a city of technological contrasts. Nowhere else on planet earth understands more effectively how to harness technology in order to deliver overwhelmingly physical experiences. And in Las Vegas, no experience better demonstrates that tech-reality hybrid  than Cirque du Soleil’s ‘KÀ’.

Go watch this video clip from the show. It’s incredible: two giant movable stages move above a gaping void; the main stage (“the sandcliff deck”) rotating from level to vertical and back again while a cast of characters jump and dance and spin and fly on, below and above it. The Los Angeles Times said the show “may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater. It is surely the most technologically advanced.” Jim Hutchison has some amazing photos of the sandcliff deck, and the rest of the set, here.

But nothing on YouTube can possibly do justice to how it feels sitting in the audience during a performance. Each seat has two speakers built into the back to provide the deeply eerie effect of being surrounded by voices and noise throughout the performance. The entire auditorium is ringed by towering metal gantries, columns and walkways on which, before and during the show, characters stand, shrieking, yelling and playing drums. None of that, though, distracts from the sheer balls-out awesomeness of seeing the giant mechanical stages doing their thing.

For a start they move silently – it really is as if they are floating in space. And the physical changes they undergo through the show – flat and covered in sand one moment; a vertical cliff face the next (hence “sandcliff deck”) – is more magical than anything David Copperfield ever managed to pull off. At one point in the show – just because it can – the entire stage turns into a kind of gigantic Microsoft Surface, on which – still vertical – the cast perform a fierce battle scene with horizontal and vertical running, jumping and flying. Each time a character lands, the stage explodes with light and colour. Oh, and then there’s an “arrow” scene, where archers standing on a gantry fire arrows into the vertical stage; arrows which then act as climbing pegs for characters to scale the wall, before jumping 70 feet into the void.

Two years ago, I described seeing ELEW playing piano live on stage in San Francisco, and how it underscored for me the thrill of live experiences — and how those experiences will never, ever be replaced by technology. KÀ gave me the same thrill, but with the added bonus of seeing the amazing potential for technology to augment live performance. The technology in KÀ delivers real-world experiences that would have made our theatre-going grandparents’ heads explode.

And then things got way, way more interesting.

I guess someone at Cirque du Soleil is a fan of TechCrunch because, a few days after I arrived in Vegas, an email arrived from KÀ’s publicist, Jeff Lovari, inviting me to take a “TD tour” of the show. Which is to say, a backstage tour, during an actual performance, lead by KÀ’s technical director,  Erik Walstad.

Hell fucking yes.

And so it was on Wednesday of this week, I found myself standing several stories below seating level, watching a succession of the world’s most talented acrobats jumping 70 feet from the top of a floating stage and landing on giant airbags not two feet in front of me. To explain everything I saw during Erik’s 90 minute tour  would probably take me a dozen posts. Instead I’m going to try to cram it all into two: starting here will a few of the raw facts, and then followed up next week (schedules permitting) with a video interview with Erik in which I’ll ask him to explain exactly how everything works.

Ok? Ok. Here we go…

KÀ took almost a decade from conception to completion. Prior to the show’s opening, the stage from the previous show (EFX) was torn out and then the entire inside of the MGM Grand’s theatre was demolished, leaving just the walls standing. Then diggers excavated a pit deep into the ground to make way for the show’s main “void”, and the years-long task of constructing KÀ’s enormous set could begin. The distance from the lowest depth of the void to the highest point of the “grid” from which acrobats jump, fly and bungee, is 98 feet.

The main sandcliff deck stage weighs 50 tons and can rotate 360 degrees and tilt from flat to 100 degrees. Watching the stage move from backstage, you’re struck by the amount of noise it makes: it’s virtually silent, a feat achieved by housing all of the hydraulic machinery on the roof of the building.

The lengths taken to ensure the safety of performers are so extreme that they’re almost comical. At the start of the show there’s a brief scene where a cast members walks from one end of the stage to the other. To the audience, it appears like the safest feat in the world – the front of the stage is maybe two feet from the ground. If, however, they could see behind the performer, they’d realize that the drop on the other side of the stage is closer to 20 feet. As a result, as the performer walks, a series of hidden airbags, like those used by stuntmen, inflate and deflate to provide a cushion should he fall. It’s kind of amazing to watch, a bit like Penn and Teller’s classic Sleight of Hand Explained routine.

Whenever performers are on any of the gigantic floating stages, an array of airbags – supported by two giant nets – sits up to 70 feet below them, ready to catch them when they land, either deliberately or (rarely) accidentally.  Traditional safety nets can’t be used on their own because the performers are falling so fast, they’d simply bounce right back out again.

Due to the large number of performers jumping and landing in quick succession, each airbag consists of a number of separate cells, each of which can inflate and deflate independently. When a performer lands, air is forced out of their target cell, which is then instantly re-inflated allowing the performer to stand up and walk away. At some points in the show, this happens several times a minute.

In case the power should fail during a show, each of the airback pumps has its own uninterruptible power supply, good for half an hour, ensuring a safe landing even if all else fails. “Half an hour is probably enough time for someone to land” says Erik dryly.

The arrow scene, where the sandcliff stage becomes a vertical climbing wall, is a variation of the old carvinal knife throwing trick. When each archer fires his dummy arrow, a matching “arrow” is propelled out of the walls’s surface, giving the illusion that it has hit its target. A little puff of “dust” completes the illusion. After that, though, things get more complicated as performers climb up and down the arrows while more arrows land and others disappear. To ensure the performers’ safety, each arrow (or “peg” as they’re called) contains a sensor which prevents it from shooting outwards if someone is standing or laying on top of it (“otherwise they’d be impaled, which would be bad”). Likewise, the pegs can only contract with less than 20lbs of pressure, so if a performer is still hanging off one, it stays put. And if all that wasn’t enough, the wall also contains a bank of “emergency pegs” which can be shot out to form an escape ladder/bridge if anything goes wrong.

Meanwhile, high about the stage, the technical team has come up with some other neat safety innovations. In the event that a wire or harness malfunctions, leaving a performer swinging above the audience, a fail-safe device automatically lowers them down over an aisle. “Otherwise we’d have to evacuate the whole auditorium to rescue one performer”.

Each second of the show is perfectly choreographed, with a stage manager calling every cue: every inflated and deflated airbag, every jumper, every movement of the stages. I wore an earpiece during the show and the level of calmness in her voice – as theatrical chaos reigned on stage – was impressive. Even more impressive was hearing cues being given to performers who were in the middle of stunts: many of them wear earpieces too, so they know when it’s safe to perform certain jumps or falls. If you’ve ever watched air traffic controllers at work at a busy airport, you’ll have some idea of the concentration and coordination it takes to call a Cirque show.

The KÀ Theatre seems like a world of its own, but it’s still connected in to the MGM fire detection system. Before every pyrotechnic stunt, the stage manager requests that MGM’s fire officer temporarily override the fire detection equipment in the theatre for the duration of the stunt; then it’s switched back on. This happens three or four times in every show. Because fire detection can only be overridden before a fire is detected, if someone actives a fire alarm anywhere in the shops or restaurants surrounding the theatre then all of KA’s pyrotechnic effects have to stop. Given that the closing of the show is a huge firework display, this can be something of a problem.

For all the years of technical planning that went in to building the KA theatre, the designers only thought to include one stage elevator. As a result, technical staff and performers alike have to share the same elevator during the show. At one point of the tour, Erik and I shared an elevator up to the aerial grid with a gigantic man dressed as a warrior. It was a little weird.

Ok, that’s all for part one. In part two, I’ll sit down with Erik and have him explain the finer technical details of how thew show works, how he became involved with it, and also – possibly – his love of traditional British narrowboats.

Tune in next time.

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

15 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

17 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android