“New Kid on the Block: KÀ” (Part 1 of 3)
By: Wayne Leung – Ottawa, Ontario (Canada)
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After staging preview performances since November 26, 2004, Cirque du Soleil officially premiered its fourth resident show in a casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip on February 3, 2005. Joining the ranks of MystÃ¨re at T.I., “O” at Bellagio and Zumanity at the New York, New York, Cirque du Soleil’s newest creation, entitled KÀ, is housed at the MGM Grand. KÀ is Cirque du Soleil’s biggest and most ambitious production to date, both in terms of physical size and budget.
Directed by Canadian theatre and film vanguard Robert Lepage, and ringing in with a purported price tag of $220 million USD, an alleged weekly running cost of $1 million USD, a cast of 75 performers and a crew of 158 stage technicians, KÀ aims to reinvent and revolutionize the world of live theatre and in many ways the Cirque du Soleil itself.
Being the fourth production performing on one street, Cirque had to ensure that KÀ, its new kid on the block, would be entirely original and able to offer something different to an audience with so many competing choices for entertainment. The challenge was to not only surpass what the company has achieved in the past but also to differentiate this show enough to find entirely new audiences. For KÀ the approach was to create a show with a linear narrative, an “easy to follow” storyline in which physical performances would be presented in a firm context and the acrobatic elements, choreography, and set would drive the story forward, as Lepage describes it, to give audiences “the impression they’re within some kind of cinematic event.”
KÀ deals with the theme of duality and is the epic story of a set of twins, separated at childhood, who must voyage through a series of adventures while relentlessly pursued by enemies, in order to fulfill their destinies in a classic battle between good and evil.
As a result of this linear storyline model, KÀ is the most original concept Cirque du Soleil has ever developed. It is the most different of all shows in the company’s repertoire and strays most from the existing conventions that the company has established with its shows to date. The end result, however, is decidedly mixed. Being such a different concept KÀ must struggle against audiences’ preconceived notions of what a Cirque du Soleil show entails. Since KÀ, like its predecessor, Cirque du Soleil’s erotic cabaret, Zumanity, is branching out from the company’s core disciplines and breaking new ground, the audiences’ response has been largely polarized. While some absolutely adore the show, others find it lacking.
The major difference between KÀ and the other Cirque shows is that KÀ is NOT a circus, not by a long shot. Those expecting the usual Cirque du Soleil format of acrobatic acts interlaced with clown interludes may be disappointed. While there are a few stand-alone acrobatic acts, much of the performance is fully integrated into the story. It more closely resembles a narrative ballet like The Nutcracker or Swan Lake, where a literal story is told through movement and images.
In this article series I will take you through an exploration of the technological accomplishments of the KÀ design team in creating the show’s incredible theatre, sets and stages, provide a complete description of the show itself including a list of characters and a scene-by-scene synopsis, and finally offer some of my impressions of the show and some final thoughts.
PART I: Technological Revolution:
The KÀ Theatre, Sets and Stages
Above every other aspect of KÀ, the technology used in this production represents a revolution for live theatre. The unprecedented use of technology at an incredible scale often leaves the spectator breathless. KÀ’s production values are immense. Several emerging theatrical technologies are brought together in this show, with the overall effect of making the staging as fluid as possible, enabling scenes to shift quickly in and out like a movie. Director Robert Lepage’s goal is to tell the story on stage using the “language of cinema” and he aims to achieve this goal through inventive use of technology.
For KÀ, set designer Mark Fisher (known for his big, flashy rock concert sets) made a conscious decision to design the stage, set and auditorium together as an integrated concept. The thematic journey extends right into the lobby and the spectator’s journey begins at the transition from the casino to the theatre lobby. The dimly lit themed lobby suggests the hull of a large wooden ship, inside which the concessions counter and bar are located. Across the ceiling the strings of a large harp cross the lobby.
As the spectators enter the showroom via one of two doors on either side of the lobby they pass under a crisscrossing, multi-level system of catwalks. The 1,951-seat showroom is immense and cavernous; suggestive of an underground cave or mine. The entire theatre is inhabited by characters and throughout the performance characters roam the theatre and catwalks.
But the most striking feature of the performance space is not something in the showroom but something missing; a stage. At the front of the auditorium where a proscenium arch and stage would traditionally reside, there is instead a raised ledge overhanging an immense, smoke-filled void. There is not even a vague hint at what the performance will entail as all scenery, acrobatic equipment and props are hidden. The show’s intricate scene-changes are made possible by a series of lifts that fly up and out from the void.
A set of five irregular shaped hydraulic lifts line the front of the void, raising and lowering at different points in the show to create; a storm-tossed boat, a balcony overlooking the mines, a forest of tree stumps for a dramatic chase scene, and a performance space for a dance.
A 9-meter by 9-meter (30′ x 30′), 34-ton “Tatami Deck” is stowed at the back of the space and can slide out over the void like a drawer.
But the star of the show and the most dramatic lift is the pragmatically named “Sand-Cliff Deck”. This deck measures 15 meters (50′) in length, 7.6 meters (25′) in width and 2 meters (6′) in depth, weighs 159 tons. It houses three trap-door/elevators and 80 individually controlled pegs that pop out from surface and allow performers to climb and perform on the deck while it is near vertical. The Sand-Cliff Deck is attached to a large gantry crane that allows the deck an enormous range of dynamic movement. The crane can simultaneously lift (at speeds up to 2 feet per second), tilt (to an angle of 100Âº from horizontal) and rotate (one full 360Âº revolution) at various speeds to create stunning effects.
Additional set elements, like a mass of large columns and hanging scenery representing a forest canopy, are flown in from the wings, and rigging equipment for the climactic aerial battle is stored in the flies of the theatre. For the battle, twenty or so “vertical” performers are rigged to automated flying winches, which they control themselves via small joysticks concealed in their hands. For example, when a performer “walks up” the wall he commands the winch to pull him up at a certain rate, and he “mimes” walking at a speed that matches his upward motion.
Safety is a big issue when dealing with such immense heights and large moving platforms. During the performance, there is a system of retractable safety nets and inflatable airbags hidden in the void. The safety system is quickly flown in place during the more dangerous sequences of the show where performers jump from the decks.
While the Sand-Cliff Deck is in its vertical orientation it is often used as a projection screen to further complete the imagery. Throughout the show an innovative interactive projection system, developed by Holger Förterer, produces images that move with the performers. For example: when the performers leap onto the deck in the final battle scene their landing causes a ripple like a pebble in a pond. The projection system utilizes an infrared (heat sensitive) camera situated beside the projector to sense the position of the performers and feeds this information to a computer that adjusts the projection accordingly, in real-time. The effect is quite unique and produces a fantastic illusion.
To further extend the action “on stage” to the audience, sound designer Jonathan Deans has worked meticulously to fill the massive theatre and create a very exact sound environment where specific sound cues are focused and add effects to the action in the performance. Each seat in the KÀ is fitted with a set of stereo speakers that are used at different times to accentuate the music, produce ambient sound effects or to heighten the sound environment. The sound design is revolutionary in the way it completely envelops each individual spectator.
END OF PART ONE
Next Issue: Dramatis Personae – The Tribes and Peoples of KÀ (A scene-by-scene description of the entire show)