CirqueTech — Performance Spaces: Mystère

Of course, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the cosmic chorus that is Mystère without fully appreciating the space within these sprites jump and play.

Researching the creation and implementation of the 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 has been Cirque du Soleil’s scenographer, or one who “paints the scene” using the art of perspective representation, for many years now and is 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 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, a Canadian company founded in 1985 with the quest to be innovative in their design and construction solutions, for the realization of his visions.

The first vision of this partnership 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 $20 million, 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 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 lies Mystère.

The theater has several interesting points about it, many of which are too technical to discuss here. However, 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 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 the intimate setting of a Big Top. Did they do a good job, or what?

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 almost wasn’t to be. The Mirage staff feared that without this arch (i.e. a more “standard” design) they would have to shut the entire space down for costly modifications if the show had failed. Because of this, the theater almost didn’t get built. Thankfully, quick thinking came up with a series of catwalks built into the ceiling of the theater that allow for quick (and relatively cheap) modification to a normal theater. Without the arch, however, there also would be no “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 fire code, which the Fire Marshals could not understand. Cirque/Scéno had to haul in a scale model of the theater to the fire marshal’s office just to get approval!

There were other problems to overcome as well. In the original plans, Cirque/Scéno envisioned a series of lifts that would 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 created a substance that is as hard as (if not harder than) cement, which made 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, a division of Montreal’s Paco Corp., 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 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.

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 out 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 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.

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 round turntable that can revolve at 10rpm, and of course those slinky-lifts. Believe it or not, the Mystère set still retains some of the elements that were part of the theme first presented to Caesar’s Palace back in 1991 (Caesar’s turned them down, but Mirage called soon afterward). For example, Crête says that the set “suggests Ulysses, and the mythical obstacles he had to overcome on his own journey. The two towers represent Scylla and Charybdis, two of the perils Ulysses faced”. All the trappings of Rome (although Scylla and Charybdis are the names of sea monsters in Greek mythology.)

Many challenges faced the design team for Cirque du Soleil’s first theater, but one by one 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?