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October 2, 2014

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Underworldly experience

Musicians of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka’ perform deep beneath the MGM Grand stage

Image

Leila Navidi

Ka” guitarist Lionel Hamel warms up with other performers before the Cirque du Soleil production at the MGM Grand. The musicians spend much of their time in underground studios where the music is coordinated with the onstage action.

If You Go

  • What: “Ka”
  • When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
  • Where: MGM Grand’s Ka Theatre
  • Tickets: $69 through $150; 531-2000
  • Locals discount: Through Saturday, locals can get a 50 percent discount on $99 and $125 tickets; they must have Nevada ID when picking up tickets.

Beyond the Sun

Before making the descent, you are confronted by visions. At the entrance to the first level, dozens of otherworldly creatures assemble, chattering in a Babelogue of unplaceable languages. Fierce warriors, near-naked but for the stripes and spots and scales of their full-body tattoos, cluster around some esoteric variant of dominoes. Ravishing females — they must be royalty of some sort, judging from their ornate headdresses and regal garb — lounge in languid poses.

Venture farther inward and sudden volcanic belches of flame singe the nostrils. Down, down, down you go, passing covert nests of even more otherworldly creatures in contorted poses, peering curiously at a stranger in their midst. Onward to the core of this secret world.

Who could imagine that somewhere beneath the MGM Grand — way below, four stories below — a costumed cabal of musicians is waiting to summon a vibrant world from a subterranean bunker tunneled deep within the serpentine bowels of the casino’s theater?

Welcome to the pit.

The orchestra pit, that is. Or, as the musicians of “Ka” prefer to call it, “the dungeon.”

It’s a place with no parallel in the world of live performance music. And a visitor to these hushed and hidden antechambers feels as if he is retracing Orpheus’ adventures in the underworld, somehow granted access to observe mystic musical rites, arcane secrets and enchantments, secret skills and languages. And as fascinating as it is to watch “Ka” unfold onstage, it’s a rare and near-priceless privilege to watch it from inside out — there’s much more to the kinetic, kaleidoscopic Cirque du Soleil show than meets the eye.

More conventional Las Vegas shows house their black-clad bands below the lip of the stage or stash them behind the performers. But “Ka’s” international cluster of musicians, a micro-orchestra, is sequestered unimaginably far from the action — and then further divided among three windowed studios.

In one room, audio technician Michael Atwood calmly tends to his inscrutably complex banks of glowing screens and blinking meters.

The middle studio, which resembles a very nice suburban rec room, complete with comfy sofa and piles of magazines, contains musical director Richard Oberacker (keyboards, United States), Janine De Lorenzo (assistant conductor and keyboards, Australia), cellist Julie McInnes (cello, vocals, Australia), Lionel Hamel (guitar, Canada), Hubert Gall (accordion, France) and Rochelle Collins (vocals, United States). For 10 performances a week, more than five hours a night, this is home and office.

The atmosphere is much different in the rumpus room across the hall, where the pulsing and pounding rhythms made by bass player Derek Jones (bass, United States) and drummer Eric Scribner (drums, United States) occasionally leak through the glass partitions.

Adding to the oddness of this scenario, all the musicians except Oberacker and substitute accordionist Tatiana Semichastnova are elaborately costumed and in full makeup, decorated in a hybrid of Kabuki and sci-fi, eyes and lips outlined in scarlet and black, gold and silver, faces dotted here and there with glistening jewels.

This seems strange at first, because they are far out of sight of the audience. But this is a Cirque show — several times tonight they’ll be called upon to scamper onstage and play live as part of the pageant.

The lights are kept low in the studios, and the musicians focus intently on a large, wall-mounted video monitor displaying the onstage action. Oberacker can zoom in or out with a joystick for a detail or an overview of the performance in progress. Presiding over a double deck of keyboards, labeled with sound cues and effects, he conducts and encourages his musicians as they augment the digitally recorded orchestra swells and massed choruses of composer Rene Dupere’s dynamic score. It looks more like a recording session than a theatrical performance.

For all the tremendous sound and motion upstairs, it’s strangely silent down here once the show begins at 7 p.m. The musicians wear headphones much of the time. The most prevalent sound is the soft drumming of fingers on electronic keyboards — like a troupe of tap dancers wearing socks over their shoes.

The hush is occasionally, startlingly, broken by a solo from one of the singers or the acoustic instruments.

“One, two ... Julie, go...,” murmurs Oberacker, cuing cellist/singer McInnes, who matches her vocal acrobatics to the aerial antics on the screen. Later she’ll emit an eerie series of eeeeeeees and aaHEEEaaahaahs — part of the score’s dreamy invented language — and various breathy, percussive pants and gasps, and even birdcalls using her cupped hands.

“What does ‘aaHEEEaaahaah’ mean?” De Lorenzo jokes over the headphones after McInnes finishes her haunting solo.

Over the headphones everyone attends to stage manager Noemie Dube-Dupuis quietly calling cues: “Standby, starfish” — and the audience laughing and applauding as that giant starfish begins his comic wrestling match. Dube-Dupius’ whispered shorthand will result in a rain of flaming arrows, a cascade of sand, and an awe-inspiring aerial ballet on a vertical wall that outdoes video game graphics and CGI movie effects.

Amid this spectacle there’s a poignant bit of shadow puppetry and a breath-stopping baton-twirling dance, delicately underscored by McInnes’ impassioned cello obbligatos. It’s the attention to even these simplest of theatrical elements that marks the essence of Cirque shows. And “Ka’s” underground musicians are a large element of what makes the show so effective and unforgettable.

“Now let’s have some flute magic, shall we?” Oberacker says over the headphones. With serene nonchalance, De Lorenzo accompanies an outsized crab’s dance in the sand with playful skittering of muted notes on her touch-sensitive keyboard — with one hand.

Singer Collins steps to her mike and lends soaring vocals to a passage with a giant winged creature circling the stage. Hands in pockets, she closes her eyes and absently scratches her nose after a particularly lovely passage (she couldn’t do that onstage). Later, she and McInnes will duet, their soprano and alto ululations intertwining and ascending in wordless otherworldly beauty.

After hitting the last note of a dizzying crescendo, Oberacker swivels his chair slightly to the left and shifts between checking his e-mail and casually surfing the Huffington Post blog. De Lorenzo moves her sheet music aside and flips through the latest issue of Dwell magazine.

Their apparent ease with this intricate and intense music is born of deep familiarity, Oberacker says; he and De Lorenzo have both been with “Ka” since its creation in 2004, and the music and the corresponding stage movements, he says, have become innate, second nature.

“We all have off nights, of course. Anyone can slip and make a bad note,” De Lorenzo says. “But this music is embedded in me — I feel like it’s tattooed on my fingers. That’s why I can do it with my eyes closed and reading a magazine,” she says, laughing.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the musicians begin to depart one by one — an elevator is waiting to whisk them upstairs for the big finale. Each one will have to negotiate his way in the dark — climbing ladders, dodging moving platforms — to hit his mark.

By 8:25, Oberacker is alone in the room. “Now let’s see the band, the real stars of the show,” he says, grinning. Jiggling the joysticks, he zooms in to bring up close-ups of his “roommates” onscreen: There’s De Lorenzo in a crimson gown and beaded headpiece, pounding her martial drum. At the heart of a courtly procession, McInnes sings a moving elegy and gracefully gestures as a caterpillar puppet wriggles over her feet. And Hamel, tall and bald with a jet-black topknot and a double-necked guitar, still looks like the fifth KISS member.

Finally, after all the other performers receive their due, it’s time for his musicians to take their bows, to loud appreciation from the crowd.

The blazing stage quickly darkens. All the performers in the “Ka” corps, onstage and below, dash through the intricate catacombs to gobble dinner, fire up cell phones, close their eyes. There’s exactly one hour till the next performance. And the world begins again.

Joe Brown can be reached at 259-8801 or at [email protected]

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