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September 2, 2014

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O’: Holding their breath as the curtain rises

LAS VEGAS - 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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