Alegría ‘rigged’ to magnificence by Masse and team

Premiering in 1994, Alegría is one of Cirque du Soleil’s most enduring productions. The show has traversed the globe, showcasing a high-flying fantasy to 14 million-plus persons in 255 cities in 40 countries. To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the program has been reimagined and updated for a whole new generation to experience.

Having run into the same pause that every other tour experienced in the pandemic, the anniversary “Alegría v2.0” brings the decaying royal court presided over by former fool Mr. Fleur to the big top at Concord Place for an extended run beginning this week.

The production includes some of the more innovative trapeze design in Cirque history alongside fire dancers, contortionists and all the other spectacles one associates with the company. Thanks for much of this dynamic display goes to senior equipment and acrobatic riggings designer Pierre Masse. From the complex swinging trapeze that permits moveable trapeze heights and flight trajectory to the conveyor-like trampoline criss-crossing the stage floor, Masse and crew make it.

He was raised in a performing arts environment. His mother was a costume designer for the Montreal Opera and his father worked for 40 years in operations at Place des Arts. His entry into joining the family “stagehand” tradition followed studies in electrical engineering. This coincided with an explosion of higher-tech approaches to presentations.

“Initially, I started in the projection and lighting side of things, and actually came to Cirque in 1995 on the show Quidam as a troubleshooter, brought in by a friend who was the technical director to work out a software bug one night,” said Masse. “After getting it to run without an issue, they never let me leave. I began as a contractor and now I’ve been here 23 years, landing in the acrobatic and rigging design and development. It’s a ways from electrical engineering, but I found out I had mechanical design savvy, and here I am.”

Besides such Cirque shows as Varekai, Zumanity and KÁ, his work has appeared in everything from Chris Angel’s Believe to the new generation of arena shows such as the Avatar-themed TORUK — the First Flight, Paramour and Cirque du Soleil at Sea shows. Whatever the directors throw at him, he strives to make it possible working out complex constructions with a large crew. One of his favourite design challenges came out of Alegría, when a director wanted to incorporate two fresh circus school graduates into a trapeze duo act that danced across the stage heights.

“The idea was to present something like a ‘love dance’ in the air with side-by-side trapezes that they wanted to be able to rotate around the stage,” he said. “Trying to wrap my head around that was very challenging, because when you have someone swinging and then start rotating them you wind up with a gyro generating much greater gravitational pull on the artists and the gear.

“So first we workshopped it with the performers to attain their comfort levels and then came up with the mechanical design basics to more complex construction. All of this has to be incorporated into the overall design working with the set designer before I sit down to create the final mechanical rendering.”

From there, consulting engineers are brought in to analyze all the various safety factors and come up with compatible construction materials that will be safe over multiple operations. Using a 50-50 mix of custom purpose-built materials and commercially sourced items, Masse and his team then have to arrive at something that can be broken down and rebuilt time and time again. Limitations of working in the tent mean nothing can really be longer than three metres to move in and out of the structure.

“From there, we go to manufacturing, fabrications and then back to adaptation and practise with the artists for more fine-tuning,” said Masse. “The hardest part of the process with that particular trapeze was to fit it into the storyline of the show and figuring out how to have it transition from one section of the show to the next. Matching to the storyboard is a key part of the brand, while still addressing safety stress ratios typically a minimum of 10 times the load of the individual performing artist.”

This holds true for every single bit of equipment performers use in Alegría or any other show.

From the German steel wheel to the bouncy balance poles, nothing appears on stage that doesn’t undergo numerous safety checks on a nightly basis. You can’t run down to the local circus supply store to pick up a new trapeze if the need arises, so everything is put together to last and also be quickly repaired by the expert crews when the need arises. The approval process for even a switched carabiner requires approval from Masse all the way down to the crew chief.

“I think that we have a second-to-none safety system in place and that drives all the innovation that goes into the designs,” he said. “Naturally, everything I do is proprietary for Cirque. But over time, you see some of that custom tech finding its way out into the world over time. We are always innovating, and things like the high-speed winches we co-developed with Stage Technologies to move artists around quickly can now be seen in rock ‘n’ roll shows like P!nk’s where she flies around the venue.”

It’s clear that Masse loves his work and fans the world over benefit from the efforts put into by the technical teams. Prospective members come from many different disciplines and get put through something akin to “Cirque U” before being put out on touring productions. While a unique skill set is clearly required to do the design, manufacturing and construction of the many marvellous Cirque creations, Masse stresses that the most important quality for success in his side of the show is “passion and heart.”

{ SOURCE: Vancouver Sun }