“We’re Off and Running II, Part 3 of 4: «O»”

In “We’re Off and Running”, the 16-part series that we concluded last month, Fascination! explored some of the first reviews, peeks, and evaluations of Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows (Le Cirque Réinventé through to Varekai) as they took their first steps across North America. Sometimes the coverage was just a brief blurb about the show and its theme, occasionally there was a short interview with a performer, a stage hand, or creation director, and other times an assessment of the show itself, evaluating its technical and acrobatic merits with what had come through before. Although we narrowed our series to focus on touring shows that had hit the road before Fascination began publication (with the exception of Varekai), what of Cirque’s signature resident shows or the Company itself? What interesting blurbs did we uncover about Mystere, “O”, or La Nouba? Enough, as it turns out, for “We’re Off and Running II”, a four-part sequel series to continue… right now with early articles about “O”.

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By: Bruce Weber | New York Times
October 15, 1998

Underwater, 17 feet down, on the bottom of the pool that serves as the stage at the theater of the new Bellagio Hotel, the divers were shooting craps. Ordinarily, even though they’re mostly unseen by the audience (they’re never offstage, just under it), these are the busiest performers in the new Cirque du Soleil extravaganza “O,” which opens here Oct. 19.

They’re the underwater traffic cops who keep the submersible acrobats from colliding, the underwater guide dogs who keep the synchronized swimmers supplied with air as they wait to make their vertical entrances, and the underwater carpenters who attach and disengage the stanchions for the apparatus that launches athletes aloft and the nets that catch them when their flights are errant.

Cirque is known for its aerial daredevilry, and it has never before used a pool in its show. During this particular afternoon rehearsal, everything was copacetic underwater, but a mechanical foul-up above ground had left the divers restless. A couple of them leaned back on their air tanks, using them as rocking chairs on the bottom of the pool. Another played with his oxygen regulator, blowing ropy, smoke-ring-like bubbles and watching them rise to the surface.

And then the dice came out, three divers taking turns flinging them and watching them tumble in slow motion and settle on the bottom. Very silly. Very Vegas. It was also high-spirited, semisurreal and visually arresting – in other words, very Cirque.

“It’s amazing what people will do when they’re bored underwater,” said Alan Goldberg, Cirque’s director of aquatics. He shrugged; it was just one more lesson for Cirque about its new medium, which has been a source of challenge and discovery since the show’s conception four years ago.

It is the water that is the significant new element of “O,” though there are other aspects of the new show that mark a step forward for Cirque – most prominently a “telepherique,” a computerized mechanical system suspended 60 feet above the liquid stage that synchronizes the movement of scenery on and off the water, lifts and transports artists and props and makes many of the show’s effects possible.

“O,” of course, is a play on the French word for water – “eau” – and the show is, well, saturated in it. It took a while for the troupe to adjust.

“The water, the water, we were so anxious, so scared about the water,” said Franco Dragone, the show’s chief designer. “Everything you put in it, it changes. The water eats things. And it could be very, very dangerous. Now we say, ‘Oh, the water was fantastic,’ but it had an influence on everything.”

The art of Cirque du Soleil has always been difficult to describe, though “living tapestry” is not a bad phrase.

The 14-year-old troupe has grown from a 13-member company based in Montreal to a corporation with nearly 2,000 employees and five different performing companies. It is a circus only of sorts, with acrobats and clowns and vivid, energetic music, but no animals.

It is a ballet of sorts as well, with expressive body movements and the suggestion of a narrative without words, but with airborne, death-defying flips and cannonballs instead of gravity-defying leaps and pas des deux.

It is visual art, too, of a kind, with weird painted tableaux made of costumes and bodies and magic effects and scenery, suggestive of paintings by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Joan Miro except that the elements are more than likely to rearrange themselves.

Creating all of this was made considerably more complex by the addition of water, which seeped into every aspect of the show’s planning and design.

All 75 performers had to be trained for underwater work. All the makeup and costumes had to be waterproof. Originally the creators thought that rehearsing underwater would cause a rash of ear infections. Those didn’t materialize, but every time one person got a cold, a lot of other people did, too.

The team of 16 synchronized swimmers, most recruited from the precision-oriented world of competition, had to learn to be more creative and less robotic.

They had to grow comfortable dodging underwater platforms that were being raised and lowered to varying heights during each performance, not to mention staying out of the way of acrobats who at various times plunge into the water from great heights. And they had to learn to swim through visual effects like colored lights, bubbles and, when a curtain is covering the water surface, darkness.

“It’s dangerous; I would like to say it’s not,” said Sylvie Frechette, the coach of these “nageurs,” who won a gold medal in solo swimming for Canada in 1992. Ms. Frechette, who coaches the team as well as performs on it, recalled that “the first time we had to go under the curtain, it was pitch black.”

“You had to hold onto a rope, and trust the divers with the regulators to supply you with oxygen,” she said. “Some of the girls were in tears.”

For the acrobats, the water put a damper on their ordinary travel with the greatest of ease. For one thing, they could no longer use chalk on their hands to smooth their grips on trapezes and other aerial equipment; rather, they ended up wearing fingerless leather gloves and adhesive spray to keep them from losing hold; that altered their technique.

And they simply weren’t used to working wet. Because swimming is aerobically more stressful than flying, it was impossible for them, once they did their first water landings and had to swim to make an exit, to repeat and repeat and repeat routines.

One act, involving acrobats being lifted from the water on spinning, stainless-steel hoops, had to be junked, because the hoops, revolving speedily in the air-conditioned theater air, chilled the gymnasts enough that it not only made them uncomfortable but it put them at risk.

“It was so cold we were cramping,” said Phillip Chartrand, a former Canadian Olympic gymnast who has been a Cirque member for nine years. He added that with their low body fat and dense musculature, athletes like him make unnatural swimmers. “I am more a bird than a fish,” he said. “I’m not bad in the water as long as I keep moving. But once I stop, I sink.”

The idea for “O” began to take shape four years ago, when Dragone and Guy LaLiberte, one of the founders of Cirque, met with Stephen Wynn, the casino owner, to discuss the creation of a new show to fill the theater he planned to build at his dream palace, the Bellagio.

Another Cirque show, “Mystere,” was already ensconced at Treasure Island, Wynn’s hotel and casino just down the Strip, and the new show was to be bigger, more thrilling, more inventive, more expensive.

“He asked us, ‘Do you have any crazy ideas that might make another show for me?”‘ LaLiberte recalled. “The original concept was related to both water and fire. That’s what we threw at him.” Wynn’s initial reaction was positive, LaLiberte added; Wynn wanted to build the biggest water show ever, with an artificial lake the size of three football fields beneath a cover of some kind.

“But slowly we got back to the concept of working with water within a theater,” he said; the fire idea was eventually set aside as too dangerous for an indoor venue. But for what the Cirque creators had in mind, the demands on the theater would be enormous.

The stage needed to be liquid at times, for divers and swimmers, and solid at times for dancers and gymnasts and clowns; the space had to accommodate high dives and huge scenery backdrops; the telepherique needed to move gymnasts and props not only up and down and upstage and downstage, but also in curved and circular patterns.

The result was a $70 million theater (the production itself cost another $20 million) with 1,800 seats, 145 feet from the bottom of the pool to the apex of the domed ceiling. The pool, 25 feet at its deepest, 150 feet at its longest and 100 feet at its widest, holds 1.5 million gallons. There are seven underwater lifts.

And whatever thrills the show itself may hold for the audience, there is a whole other show under way beneath the surface. With the lifts, the bubbles and the lights penetrating the depths and as many as 50 performers beneath the surface at one time, either on their way to the wings or on their way to the surface – plus the twelve divers who are there to insure their safety – it almost seems like a city unto itself.

“When they have the bubbles going, it’s like diving in a champagne glass,” said Kim Cochrane, one of the divers. “When the lifts are up, it’s like diving in a mechanical metal forest. It’s beautiful. But you’re constantly watching people.”

Ms. Cochrane said that more than once the team has probably saved a life, righting a disoriented acrobat and getting him or her to an air hose before panic set in.

“The two biggest challenges of the water are safety and communications,” said Phyllis Schram, the production stage manager, who calls the cues during the show from a booth high in the rear of the theater.

Through light signals triggered by the divers and verbal communications with the head of the dive team underwater, Ms. Schram keeps track of entrances and exits by performers and equipment and the rising and falling of the underwater lifts, so that if a cue is missed by either man or machine, she can hold up the underwater traffic pattern and prevent a disaster.

“You can have nightmares thinking that the lift might not be down 16 feet,” she said, “when the divers are going off the high dive.”

Though there have been the usual mishaps that occur when great athletes push themselves to their limits, there have been no disasters. That is as it should be, said Pavel Brun, the artistic director for the show, “as long as we are smart enough not to fight with the water but to cooperate with it.” Still, no one who joins Cirque – or even attends it – is entirely risk-averse.

“I think it’s safe,” said Goldberg, the aquatics director, who before joining Cirque was a lion tamer. “But I spent 20 years of my life putting my head in a lion’s mouth. You can make it so safe it’s like playing bingo. Who wants to see a show like that?”

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By: Jon Carroll | San Francisco Chronicle
October 21, 1998

The new Cirque du Soleil production at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas is called “O,” which is both a description of the oval pool that dominates the stage and a pun on the French word for water.

“O” is a rich visual dessert, a souffle of water and dreams and daring and passion. It presents astonishing tableaus and startling images: a man on fire calmly reading a newspaper; a grand piano slowly sinking beneath the waves; carousel horses floating in air; flashes of red fabric hurtling across the sky like banshees.

However much it cost — estimates range from “a bundle” to “don’t even ask” — “O” puts all the money right on the stage. It is Fellini on a grand scale, Magritte with ma chinery. When it works — and mostly it does — it’s like nothing else on Earth.

(It should be noted here that my daughter is employed by the Cirque du Soleil; she is performing as a trapezist in “Saltimbanco,” which is playing in Ottawa. You are asked to allow fully for this bias; I’ve tried to do the same.)

Dominique Lemieux’s costumes are used profligately; some astonishing creations (like the singer with a 20-foot dress who floats briefly above an acrobatic ensemble early in the show) are seen for less than a minute. The music of Benoit Jutras is his best circus score ever.

The stage designs of Michel Crete, like the haunting “Africa” section and the constantly rotating aerial grid, take elderly circus sets and make them fresh again. Special mention to Andre Simard’s great ghost ship in the sky, an outrageously dramatic setting for some pretty ordinary acrobatics.

Unlimited money, unlimited freedom; sometimes it works. The Cirque was started in 1984 by three street performers who might fairly have been called hippies. Today it is the largest theatrical production company in the world, with eight shows running in various parts of the world. Remember that the next time you hand out spare change.

Two elaborate bits of machinery dominate the stage. The first is the pool, 150 feet by 100 feet at its full extension. Sections can be raised or lowered, so at times the stage can be completely dry, at other times shaped into peninsulas or islands.

The bottom of the pool is constantly moving up and down; the “telepherique,” a sort of giant circulating gantry crane 60 feet above the stage, moves back and forth at a more stately pace. It carries performers, changes sets, lumbers overhead with a strange elephantine majesty, a character in its own right.

There’s a trade-off here; the performers often get lost in the high- concept techno-dreamscapes.


Director Franco Dragone went for the big effects; in the process, he lost some of the intimate contact with the audience. The fourth wall is rarely broken here, and then badly — the performers are in their own world, working by their own rules; it often seems as though they cannot hear the applause.

The best acts penetrate the barrier. Karyne and Sarah Steben are still the best twin trapeze act in the uni verse, and if their entrance is too cluttered, the latter half of their act is as breathtaking as ever. (I’ve seen them perform maybe a dozen times; I would still fork over big bucks to watch again.)

The entire fire sequence, which features an eerie overhead mirror the size of a condo, two Samoan torch dancers and the aforementioned flaming citizen, seems impossible even as it’s going on. The joyous Russian swing, with members of a “bridal party” propelled into the air in gymnastic attitudes, is explosive and original.

The clowns are bad, but then the Cirque clowns are always bad — not since David Shiner in “Nouvelle Experience” has there been much in spired low comedy in the Cirque. Russian clowns (which is what we have here) are funny the way “Waiting for Godot” is funny, the way the last ember of hope in the drowned fire that is Western civilization is funny.


The high-diving act, despite its tedious use of a stooge “picked” from the audience (not even bad magicians do that anymore), is flat-out terrifying. And the show teems with other small moments of random amazement and beauty.

“O” doesn’t mean anything, of course — Cirque shows never mean anything, despite what it says in the programs — but the dream logic is just fine. It’s an alternative universe anyway; who knows what motivates people to act as they do?

There are two big problems with “O.” One is that it does not really have an end. There’s nothing that approaches the soaring, operatic bungee number that closes “Saltimbanco” or the angry, post-apocalyptic acrobatics (still the best circus act I’ve ever seen) that put an exclamation point at the end of “Quidam.”

The final fade-out in “O” is a powerful image, but it pushes the audience away rather than drawing it in. You take your catharsis piecemeal. Ineffable sadness is all very sophisticated, but it’s a hard thing to carry as you walk away from a circus.

Second: It’s a fragile show. The machinery is complex and temperamental. I saw three performances; in none of them did every major piece of equipment work right. In the show most of the critics saw, the ending fell victim to busted pool risers, and the improvised finale was inevitably limp.

In the other show that night, both the risers and crane went bust, and the performers were reduced to vamping on the fringe of the stage, calling on their old street-performer skills.

It was bittersweet, as though the Cirque, now totally devoted to advanced technology, had returned for a moment to the days when a guy in a funny hat could juggle one object and make you smile.

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By: Meissa Schorr | Las Vegas Sun
October 21, 1998

The big “O” received a standing “o” from the crowd at the Bellagio on opening night earlier this week.

Just like the fountains outside the casino, the newest Cirque du Soleil production show is making a big splash inside.

For the multitudes who swear allegiance to Las Vegas’ long-running Cirque production “Mystere” at Treasure Island, “O” is a less ominous, more soothing production, like a day at the spa for the soul. Maybe it’s all the mist wafting out into the audience.

It probably isn’t anything especially groundbreaking as far as the actual acts go — sure, there was a girl who balanced on the top of her head while swinging on a trapeze, a man engulfed in flames, some Mongolian contortionists who performed unnatural acts and a group of high divers who plunged 60 feet into the pool below.

All are Cirque-worthy, but what really raises the bar with this production is the addition of the 150-foot long, 25-foot deep liquid stage.

The notion that the water is the real star of the show is shown by these facts: The hotel spent four years and $70 million designing and constructing the 1,800-seat theater — and $20 million on the show itself, which is expected to enjoy a 10-year run.

Cirque, a Quebec-based company that has created 10 shows over 14 years, has never attempted an aquatic show before.

“O,” of course, is a phonetic play on “eau” — the French word for water. Cirque, never a troupe to miss an opportunity to elaborate, notes in the playbill that water is also symbolic of the circle of life, rhapsodizing: “O the circle, o the cycle, o la vie, an ode to thee o water of life, please carry me.” (Oh, puleeze.)

As the man responsible for creating all of Cirque’s productions, designer Franco Dragone told the New York Times last week that the decision to incorporate water had an “influence on everything,” from electrical lighting to costume design.

Cosutmes had to be made of water-friendly materials such as silicon and — would-you-believe-it? — bull hide. As any woman knows, water is the mortal enemy of long-lasting makeup, so all the makeup in “O” had to be waterproof.

To allow the cast members to wait in the wings, so the speak, underwater, all are SCUBA certified. Below the surface, cast members use air provided by divers. (Sure, it seems highly treacherous in the imperfect world of theater, and there have already been a few close calls, but one hopes that Cirque technicians have devised a foolproof plan.)

The pool itself holds 1.5 million gallons of water (kept a balmy 82 degrees Fahrenheit) for the performers to freely enter and exit. The theater’s temperature has been adjusted so that it would be cool enough for the audience in the seats, but warm enough for wet performers onstage.

Instead of a raised tank, such as the one on stage at the Riviera’s “Splash,” the “O” water’s surface only begins at stage level, with a base that rises and falls to constantly change the depth of the pool from an inch down to 25 feet deep. Most of the use of the water takes place at surface level, with performers either diving into the water, brushing its surface as they swing from trapeezes, or appear to “walk on water” when the surface is made shallow.

The cast of 74 includes a fabulous squad of 16 Esther Williams-style synchronized swimmers — led by former Olympian gold medalist Sylvie Frechette — who kick off the show by wiggling their legs at us from underwater.

Some of the highlights of the show’s underwater “breath-defying” acts include the Bateau (boat) act, performed on a steel frame of a ship swinging back and forth across the high seas, sort of like the “Pirates of Penzance” gone gymnastic.

Another crowd-pleaser is the exuberent Russian Swing act, an homage to the chapels of Las Vegas featuring girls in bridal gowns and their bridegrooms taking the plunge off swinging teeter-totters into the water.

Also of note for a Las Vegas showroom is the use of an eclectic international live band of 10 musicians, including a Chinese violin, Colombian guitar, Medieval woodwinds, and bagpipes, and featuring lovely music composed by Benoit Jutras. It’s a compelling Andrew Lloyd Webber-sounding score with a greater sense of urgency and a chorus echoing in the background.

(I know the company is Canadian and the show is French and it is set at the Italian Bellagio, but would it kill them to ever set a song in English words? Not that it really matters anyway — according to one viewer, all the lyrics are gibberish anyway, whatever the language)

Described by one critic as being in a Salvadore Dali painting come to life, “O” must be enjoyed for what is is: a visual orgy. Those who try to understand it are doomed to be tormented, advised another. Meaning is arbitrary anyway — you see whatever you want to see in it, one theater-goer said. You must understand “O” is not: brain food.

The only annoyance is when Cirque forgets that and tries to find deeper significance, offering up platitudes and psycho-babble, such as the Hallmark-worthy comment offered up by Cirque designer Franco Dragone, who describes “O” as “an homage to the theater, the place where we try to entertain all of humanity. For it is in the theatre where humanity tries to understand itself.”

(Frankly, Franco, if you’re looking to learn something about humanity from the theater, taking in a play by Arthur Miller or Anton Chekhov will do you more good than watching bodies fip in midair though hoops, but to each his own.)

But forgive Cirque for its high-minded aspirations. If you’re looking to see an example of the latest outlandish vision Las Vegas has to offer, or been raring for a sequel to “Mystere,” “O” won’t disappoint.

The first show in Las Vegas to reach the “double 00” — the big $100 ticket price — “O” will undoubtedly have you opening your wallet wide — and your jaw even wider.

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By: Gary Dretzka | Chicago Tribune
October 29, 1998

“O,” the title of Cirque du Soleil’s inaugural show at the new Bellagio hotel here, derives from the French word for water (“eau”) and a concept of infinity inspired by the shape of the letter itself. But “O” could just as easily represent what spectators will be heard uttering repeatedly during the troupe’s wet-and-wondrous performance. All together now, “Ohhh, my…”

Like a Salvadore Dali painting come fully to life on an enormous three-dimensional canvas, the production is a water-borne phantasmagoria that defies easy description and analysis. More than any previous staging in the French Canadian company’s 14-year-old history, “O” blurs the lines between the worlds of circus, dance, drama, sports and technology, filling the theatrical horizon with more disparate sights and sounds than the mind can absorb at any one given moment.

Yes, the usual roster of acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, contortionists and New Age musicians are on hand to thrill, enchant and challenge audiences with their physical strength and aesthetic cunning. What is completely unexpected, however, is how effectively director Franco Dragone is able to pay homage to the history of the theater — and tell stories of life, love and death — on a stage that’s rock solid one minute and completely liquid the next.

Just as the Bellagio rises skyward from a monumental plinth alongside a manmade lake, the conceptual foundation of “O” is provided by a 1.5-million-gallon pool of water (not, to be sure, an aquarium to be stared into like some Weeki Wachee Spring mermaid attraction). The 74 spritely members of the cast perform in, on and above this turquoise stage, whose depth and shape are controlled by a computerized system of submergible panels and platforms. While this mechanical marvel — which operates in concert with an overhead conveyor built to transport people, scenery, rigging and a midair carousel — lends dexterity to the imaginations of the creative team, the entertainers never become slaves to the technology.

In a set the size of an airplane hangar, it takes all kinds of magic to keep the 90-minute show afloat. The fun, as usual with Cirque, starts even before the house lights are dimmed. Clowns wander through the tiered, 1,800-seat theater, causing mischief and introducing customers to the production’s aquatic theme by picking volunteers to help combat a leak dripping from a pipe in the high, wire-mesh dome.

Before too long, an angel descends from the ceiling and an inquisitive boy, Guifa, moves toward an arm extended from a seam in the gigantic swathe of red fabric that covers the proscenium arch. A ghostly guide, Eugen, makes the curtain disappear in a whoosh, revealing the surface of the pool and an enormous surrealistic backdrop. The ethereal sound of the Cirque orchestra heightens, as Guifa, Eugen and several other eccentric characters scamper around the edges of the water. Costumed mannequins drop from the rafters and a corps de ballet of synchronized swimmers emerges feet first from the depths.

If all anyone knows of synchronized swimming is what they’ve seen performed in the bright glare of an Olympic pool or in a “Saturday Night Live” parody, they’ll be stunned to discover how lyrical the sport can be when freed from the chains of judged precision. Under the direction of Cirque choreographer Debra Brown and gold-medalist Sylvie Frechette, the 16 world-class swimmers have metamorphosed from athletes into artists — as have the high-altitude platform divers, who also appear several times during the show.

The dozen or so acts that follow will be familiar to longtime fans of Cirque, even if the context isn’t: Contortionists bend and twist their bodies into impossible shapes while floating on an ice floe; trapeze artists dangle high above the stage, using the pool as an escape route; acrobats catapult themselves into the pond, while striking a pose; and island dancers juggle fire, before a clown bursts into flames before our eyes.

Depending on the position of the submerged platforms at any given time, the many provocatively costumed characters seem to sprint across the surface of the water or disappear deep into the pool, where they are directed to air masks by stagehands in scuba gear. Eugen floats past us in an upside-down umbrella, as a sudden rainstorm changes the climate of the house in an instant.

Providing the dramatic backdrop for all of the activity on and above the stage are huge, patterned fabric dividers worthy of a Christo installation and a constantly shifting tableau of surrealistic images — from the River Styx one moment to the African veld the next. It is a set in nearly continual motion, from the first swim to the final bow, when the cast is lowered into the depths.

It has taken four years and more than $95 million to bring this aquatic spectacle to life in the parched desert. Of course, Las Vegas (also home to Cirque’s enchanting and fabulously successful “Mystere”) is the only city in the world with enough money, tourists and chutzpah to attempt such an adventurous endeavor, so there’s virtually no likelihood that “O” ever will go on the road.

Tickets are expensive ($90 and $100), but nothing in Las Vegas is the bargain it used to be. “O” is as spectacular and inventive a live show as you’re likely to find anywhere in the world right now — right up there with Broadway’s “The Lion King” and “Ragtime” — and the money invested in the project is clearly visible in the product.