Behind the Scenes of ECHO in Wash DC

For Cirque du Soleil’s “ECHO” show, it’s all about Ruby.

Ruby (which comes from Rubik’s cube) is the massive, two-story cube that serves as the centerpiece for the circus company’s production. On display at Tysons, Virginia’s Under the Big Top venue until Oct. 21, “ECHO” tells the story of the connection between humans and the animal kingdom. And Ruby sits at the very center, anchoring every act and artist while bouncing light in the form of projections.

“ECHO,” which is supposed to be the most technically complex production in Cirque du Soleil history, takes place in and around the cube. Ruby measures 23 by 23 feet, weighs 12 tons, has motors in each wall and can move up and down the stage. In total, 40 blocks of different materials make it up, and Assistant Technical Director Sarah Morales said that each piece must be placed in exactly the right spot.

“As much as all the squares look interchangeable, they absolutely cannot go anywhere aside from where they’re supposed to go and you don’t have the time or space to fix it,” Morales said.

This centerpiece has to support 40 artists at one point during the show, with the help of five winches (a mechanical device that holds wire rope) and 16 lines of wire rope. The top hosts a lightbox with approximately 1.6 miles of LED strips. At the same time, 10 projectors (placed all around the tent and requiring their own infrastructure built by the team) showcase imagery to support the artists during the show.

All in all, putting this traveling show together requires about 26 technicians. When the trucks roll up — everything travels with the team — it takes about five or six days to go from an empty parking lot to bringing the artists in for training sessions.

But this show is a little different than others. “ECHO” was originally set to hit the stage in 2020 until COVID-19 put everything on pause. For this show, though, Morales said it worked out because as the most technical show Cirque du Soleil has ever done, the creative team was able to take a lot of notes from the technician and redesign elements that weren’t quite working.

“I very strongly believe it’s the only reason it is as successful as it is,” Morales said. “We got a second go at it, we got a second iteration and there’s things that we wouldn’t have had time to fix before that we have time to fix now.”

Behind the projections and wire drops for artists are two heads of automation as well as another technician who splits between automation and rigging (how equipment or performers are suspended onstage).

Previously, the Cirque teams used a manual joystick to control all of a show’s elements. To power the show, Cirque uses a platform called TAIT Navigator, which has a mix of software and hardware elements for machinery, lighting, audio and more. The technicians have the power to manually override and take control if necessary, but Navigator has better precision, according to Assistant Head of Automation Dalen Vigil. That means the show can do more elements at a faster pace and do bigger flights because technicians can tell the system exactly what they want.

Navigator is huge in the performance industry, Vigil said; it is currently being used for Taylor Swift’s Eras tour and was employed in Rhianna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show. It’s ideal for shows like this, he noted, because it has a level of accuracy and consistency that humans can’t quite achieve.

“When I hit the go button, that winch is going to go to the exact same place, at the exact same time, every single time,” Vigil said. “In terms of artist comfort, they know exactly what’s going to happen and in terms of the artistic look, it’s always going to look the same.”

That consistency is necessary for a number of reasons. But it also helps with a goal of “ECHO:” making sure everything is identical for every single show.

“Our goal is to put on the highest level show every night, but make it the same,” Morales said. “If you see it the first week we’re here and somebody else sees it the last week that we’re here, you saw the exact same show.”

If all of that wasn’t enough technology, the show also features firefly drones that fly all over the tent. The fireflies are powered by motors within their bodies and flown through joysticks, and they fly by the motor making the wings flap just like real fireflies, Morales said and feature a small light that makes them glow.

With everything behind the scenes required, Morales said that the director decided to add a technical bow at the end of the show.

“We did it and the roar from the crowd was super cool because for me, like yes, they’re applauding those technicians but they’re it’s a moment to acknowledge the entire technical aspect — the whole machine behind it,” Morales said.