How I Did That: Relighting Mystère (Part 2)

By: Luc Lafortune

Entertainment on The Strip morphed into something new and exciting in 1993 when Cirque du Soleil opened Mystère at Treasure Island, as their first resident show in Las Vegas. The show has been relit and LD Luc Lafortune shares his experience with Live Design…

In all, I spent a little more than a month in Las Vegas — three weeks in January and another 10 days or so in April. By the time I got there, the crew had been at it for the better part of a year already.

From my perspective, the three weeks in January were probably the busiest. I had gone in early, before the dark, so that I might catch a few shows. I hadn’t seen Mystère in over a year and I wanted to get reacquainted before we started making changes. Of course, there were a number of meetings, with artistic and stage management. I also met with Stephen Dietrich, the technical director, just to follow up and keep everyone informed. We knew that we were also going to be touching up some of the scenic pieces and we needed to coordinate.

The first few days were spent taking out the old equipment and putting in a bunch of new gear. That was probably the most unsettling part in all of this, having to wait, and anticipating everything that could go wrong. Throughout the years, I was always haunted by that same thought. Are we going to have enough light? How could I even have thought that. It’s not a small rig, not by any means. It’s still over 560 units.

I chose to approach this chronologically, starting with top of show. Of course, the first few images we looked at seemed rather barren and it was then that the enormity of the task became most apparent. I think however that the vastness and emptiness that lay before our eyes also gave me an aperçu or a glimpse of what could be. Again, it’s that recipe with too many ingredients. Of course, some would say less is more. Maybe. I think it may have had more to do with ridding myself of all of the embellishments and making room for big, bold statements. The lighting didn’t need all of those trappings in order to be poetic or evocative.

The lighting for Mystère has always had a base coat of deep blue covering the entire floor. Back in ‘93, I used HMI fresnels. They were huge, clunky and they needed shutters, or rather louvers, and of course, there was all that heat. Overtime, we moved away from the fresnels and put in some movers instead. Now, in lieu of movers, I chose ETC Fresnel V fixtures. The thought was that since they’re going to be on a lot of the time, why not just put in a static fixture instead.

By then however, the vacantness of those first few images had made an impression and left an indelible mark. I was fond of the black floor and that huge expanse of nothingness, that void. The emptiness and vastness were reminiscent of the desert and the scarcity only helped enhance the performers presence. I was never particularly fond of clichés but perhaps less is more.

In some instances, I added rather than took away. At the top of Planche (teeterboard) for example, there use to be three ellipsoidals, all with the same pattern, G558 Grille 3, spread out across the floor. It looked a bit like a parquet floor. For one reason or another, we referred to it as the castle gobo. It worked but looking back on it now, it did look a bit awkward, like somebody tried… And yet, despite the awkwardness, I liked it. It gave the act an air of distinction. So rather than take it out, I added more, a lot more, all different sizes, different intensities and slightly different shades. At times, they’d overlap, slightly, one on top of another, at the edges. When there were just three, it looked exactly like that, three gobos, separate from one another. It looked like someone had gotten what at the time seemed like a good idea but had run out of time. Now, despite the fact that I was using as many as 11 gobos, it looked singular. It wasn’t three gobos anymore. It was one, big, bold statement, and it worked. The variation in size, color and intensity also gave the floor a lot more depth.

Mystère may have been a thirty-year-old show but the artists are young, and exuberant. Their vivacity and eagerness is contagious, and I didn’t want to leave them with the same’ ol lighting, just brighter, and more efficient. There was I thought an opportunity to remake Mystère and yet still have it look and feel like Mystère. I knew we were on the clock but I also knew that this kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often. I had some thoughts on how I could enhance the lighting but that was going to take time and I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough. Cirque and the hotel had invested large sums, not to mention resources, and if Mystère wasn’t going to look any different than before and just be more efficient, then what was the point of all of this? I knew that some of what I was doing was infinitely better however, anytime you’re dealing with acrobats, you have to be mindful of the fact that any change you make, you’re going to have to validate. So, I did something I hadn’t done before, at least not until then. I started taking pictures of the work I was doing and I sent them to Tim Smith, the senior artistic director. I wrote emails and explained what I had done and why I thought it was better. Sometimes, I just sent pictures. No explanation. It quickly became apparent that Tim and I were of the same mind. In the end, there was enough time. We then took a couple of days to validate and we opened as planned.

The success of these two weeks back in January may have prompted another week of work, in early spring. There were still a few more things I wanted to work on but hadn’t gotten around to, things like the clowns and the trapeze dismount.

Working with clowns can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. Clowns can be subtle. Posture and facial expression are hugely important and it’s paramount that we see them well. The difficulty is that more often than not, there’s just a few of them onstage at any given moment. Sometimes they’re alone but oftentimes, they’re all over the place, on stage, out in the house, there’s no telling. The temptation then is either to flood the stage with tons of light or to go dark and use only follow spots, in that Vaudevillian way. But darkness can be oppressive, and oppression is seldom funny. As for flooding the stage with light, by contrast, the actor then becomes small.

Another thing about clowns is that they interact with the audience a lot. Often times, the audience is as much part of the act as the performers. So, rather than flood the stage with light, I decided to illuminate the audience, not by actually lighting them but rather by lighting the ceiling. The Mystère showroom has this beautiful hand-painted fresque. I always liked it and I thought that if I lit it, I’d be drawing the audience in, breaking thru that fourth wall. The color mixing that the LEDs provided allowed for that, but in a subtle way.

It’s also not unusual to close with a big act. At Mystère, that would be trapeze, and one of the many highlights is what is otherwise referred to as trapeze dismount. That’s when the artists, one by one, jump into the net and then all take a bow. During the actual act, there’s not a whole lot I could do with the net. The artists absolutely need to see it, not only the net but also its edges. Falls are never part of the act, but every so often, they do happen, and as much as possible, the artists, knowing they’ve missed, try to manage their fall.

Dismount is different. It’s expected. It’s a controlled descent and as such that gives me as a designer a bit of latitude. When fully extended, the net appears to look like a thin blue line, not unlike that thin layer of ozone that surrounds the planet. But when the artists land, it expands. So, by using a mix of Rosco’s 79664 Reflected Water 3 gobo on top of a glass gobo and a bit of rotation, I was able to create a morphing effect that some might say mimicked water. The really cool thing about this particular effect is that it was made even more interesting whenever the artists hit the net and the net expanded downward. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see it live. The coaches and artists asked if they could train with it a bit longer and of course, we acquiesced.

By the time I was done re-lighting Mystère, the lighting looked, I thought, better than ever. Every act was distinct, and yet it was all connected and everything flowed. I thought about the work I did back in ‘93 and wished I knew then what I know now.

{ SOURCE: Live Design }