The Technology Of Cirque’s Spectacular KÀ

One of the most breathtaking theatrical productions on the planet – I feel perfectly safe making that claim – turns five years old this month: Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ.

If you haven’t yet seen KÀ, Cirque’s resident production at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, put it at the top of your list for your next visit (better yet, plan a visit right now just to see it). Its combination of artistry, athleticism and technology is staggering, and will leave you gasping with disbelief and wonderment.

Even if you’ve seen other Cirque shows, you’ve seen nothing like this. (If you want a sneak peak, watch the trailer or see an excerpt from “G4 Presents “Inside KÀ by Cirque du Soleil.“)

A Bit About KÀ

Uniquely among Cirque shows, KÀ follows a narrative. Its depicts the coming of age of the fraternal Imperial Twins, “through their encounters with love, conflict and the duality of KÀ, the fire that can unite or separate, destroy or illuminate.”

While the only spoken dialog is a brief scene-setting narration at the top of the show, the storyline is nonetheless clearly communicated through the music, sets and the artists’ performances. In addition to the daring acrobatics we’ve come to expect from Cirque, KÀ prominently includes Capoeira dance, puppetry, projections and martial arts.

And the technology that drives the show? It merits as much acclaim as the performers and creators.

We recently got the chance to meet KA’s technical director, Erik Walstad, who treated us to a backstage and booth tour, and gave us an up-close and personal look at the state-of-the-art technology, much developed exclusively for the show, that makes it run.

For the fanciful, inventive ‘O,’ which opened at Bellagio in 1998, Cirque’s artistic geniuses replaced the stage with a 1.5 million gallon water tank. That allowed Cirque to explore new performance realms, such as synchronized swimming and diving, and to reimagine familiar ones. The artists performing on the Russian Swings, for example, have much more latitude when they can “land” in water, as opposed to on their feet.

The Russian Swings sequence from "O." Photo: Veronique Vial Costumes: Dominique Lemieux.

Into The Void

With KÀ, rather than replacing the stage with something else, Cirque simply got rid of the stage. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Where the stage should be is a vast open space, referred to within the company as the “Void,” that extends five stories below the theater level and some 10 stories above it.

Audience members see plumes of fire bursting out of the Void as they take their seats and await the show’s start.

Even before taking your seat, you know right away that this is no ordinary production as flames emit randomly from the Void where the stage should be.
About halfway down into the Void, looking up at the house. Notice the technician above and to the right of the green column, peering down from stage level.

From within the Void a combination of two primary stages and five further “lifts” appear and disappear as needed. The boat used in the “Storm” sequence, pictured below, is raised to stage level by a lift, but the artists alone create the boat’s motion by rocking and rotating it.

Photo: Tomas Muscionico. Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt.

The Tatami Deck

The first main stage, the “Tatami Deck,” is a 30-foot-square platform in the back of the void that extends forward and retracts on cantilevered sliders. “Think of it,” Walstad likes to say, “as the world’s largest  kitchen drawer.”

The breathtaking "Slave Cage" sequence takes place on the extended Tatami Deck. Photo: Tomas Muscionico. Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt.

The Sand Cliff Deck

The second, the “Sand Cliff Deck,” is a magical 25 by 50 by 6 foot stage which swirls up, down, and around by means of a hydraulic gantry crane. Think of the gantry crane as a 72-foot tall “H” facing the audience. The Sand Cliff Deck sits on a pivot atop the cantilevered arm extending horizontally from the cross-bar of the H. The crossbar can slide up and down the height of the H, taking the stage with it, and the stage can revolve 360° on its pivot.

To give you an idea of the Sand Cliff Deck’s mass, notice the technicians standing under it in the photos below.

The Sand Cliff deck, resting at stage level...
... and being raised and rotated in preparation for video calibration.

Is that all? Heck, no.

The Sand Cliff Deck tilts from 0 to 110° on the end of the arm. That means that the stage, at a mere 80,000 pounds, can be spinning at up to two feet per second, either flat or tilted at an angle, with artists clambering across it, as it’s raised or lowered. For the climactic Battle scene, the performers fly up and down the completely vertical Sand Cliff deck on winches, controlling their movements via wireless joystick.

In the climactic Battle sequence, the Sand Cliff Deck is completely vertical and raised above stage level. The audience views the scene as if from overhead. Photo: Tomas Muscionico. Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt.
Just for fun... what the Sand Cliff deck looks like from behind and below stage when it's completely vertical for the Battle and other scenes.

Lights and Sound

The technology doesn’t stop there.

KÀ features an enormously complex lighting design. All but a few dozen of the show’s 3,300 lights are fixed instruments. They’re checked every show, and any refocusing they need has to be done while the show is running. That’s not the easiest way to do things, but it would be too costly and time-consuming to refocus that many lights in show conditions without an audience.

Just a few light instruments... This is a section of the "Post and Beam" structure, which extends from both sides of the stage nearly into the lobby. In addition to being decorative and establishing an ambiance for the show, it serves as a set piece from which the artists perform before and during the show. Photo: Tomas Muscionico Costumes: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt.

In addition to the lights, the shows employs incredibly sophisticated video projections which combine CGI and human input which turn the performance space into something approaching a movie screen. To create the interactive projections that follow an artist’s movement, an infrared-sensitive camera pointing at the stage captures the artists and their movements, which are tracked by a computer.

Additionally, the surface of the Sand Cliff area is essentially a giant touch-screen that can determine the precise position of each artist. The information gathered from them influences the mathematical parameters of any number of worlds that are then re-projected onto the deck, using a program designed exclusively for the production. Depending on the scene, the Sand Cliff Deck can look like an ice-covered mountain, a battlefield littered with arrows, and much more.

Three video projectors are used to cover the deck, and they’re calibrated before each show.

Calibrating video projections onto the Sand Cliff deck

As with every other Cirque production, sound and music are an integral part of the show. KA uses a live band, which occupies two sound studios immediately below and behind the stage. Each of the musicians and singers is onstage for at least part of the show, so they perform in makeup and costume, even though they spend most of the show out of sight.

One of the two KA music studios

To fill the 1,950-seat KÀ Theatre with sound takes 524,150 total watts of amplifier power pumping an intricately layered mix of sound effects and music to 4,774 loudspeaker drivers in 2,139 cabinets. In addition, every seat in the theatre has two speakers built into its headrest that allow sound effects to be targeted, manipulated and customized to any of 16 seating zones.

To make all this work, technical director Walstad oversees a crew of nearly 200 technicians, 100 of whom are working during KÀs ten weekly shows. That’s right – the techies actually outnumber the performers (of which there are about 75 per show).

In the booth with KÀ technical director Erik Walstad

You’ve probably surmised by now that this isn’t the kind of Cirque show that can tour to a city near you; you need to go to Las Vegas to see it. As someone who’s seen it half a dozen times – and paid for each of those tickets myself – I can’t recommend it highly enough. Happy 5th birthday, KÀ. I look forward to seeing you again soon!

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