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November 20, 2014

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Behind the scenes at Cirque’s ‘Zarkana’: Unloading 65 trucks of spectacle

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Sam Morris

Stage hands work to assemble set pieces as the Cirque du Soleil show “Zarkana” moves in to its new residence at Aria Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012.

'Zarkana' Arrives at Aria

The singer and actress Cassiopee gives an interview as the Cirque du Soleil show Launch slideshow »

The Zarkana Theater at Aria is so new that the blue paint on the aisle floors hasn’t dried, and production manager Robert Lemoine nearly slips as he walks down to survey the scene. Still, as Lemoine points out, it’s difficult to believe that just days ago, the former Viva Elvis Theater was empty.

Barely a week into load-in — the last of the show’s 65 trucks arrived Thursday — a 52-ton tech grid dominates the stage, as do several dozen workers drilling and hammering at a potpourri of set installations: At stage right, some focus on a 28-foot-tall bandstand shaped like an eagle’s head; behind them, others put the finishing touches on an LED wall standing 40 feet tall and 90 feet wide and containing more than 3 million pixels; and scattered across the stage are 150 feet of carved planks that will be assembled into the twisting snakes that make up one of the set’s three prosceniums.

The rehearsal deadline is Oct. 17, so multitasking is a must. Still, Lemoine and his team are at ease.

“This has been the best and easiest transfer we’ve done so far because of the seasoned technicians. The MGM team really knows what they’re doing, so that’s been a huge help for us,” says Lemoine of the local crew of about 120 people “Zarkana” inherited from “Viva Elvis.”

Lemoine has been with “Zarkana” since its inception — five moves to four venues, with locations ranging from New York to Madrid to Moscow. “It hasn’t always happened in such an efficient way in the past. We always tour with just a small team of technicians, so the involvement here is at a different level.”

Rather than the setup, the biggest challenge for the “Zarkana” team has been figuring out how to make the transition from a traveling show to a permanent fixture on the Las Vegas entertainment scene.

“We’ve had 75 artists we’ve had to relocate in a 28-day time window,” company manager Tony Ricotta says. “Helping everyone get to know their new home after years on the road has been the biggest challenge by far.”

Nonetheless, Ricotta is nothing short of thrilled in anticipation of Nov. 1 — opening day for “Zarkana” — in part because the new home fits in with the cast and crew’s comfort zone with their numerous Cirque du Soleil brethren.

“We know what the market is, we know what the audience expects,” he says.

“Sure, there’s playful competition between the different shows, but we know that ‘Zarkana’ holds its own against all the others.”

Ricotta says the theater’s 10,000 square feet of stage floor — far larger than any of the venues they’ve performed in previously — and close seating arrangement will give Las Vegas audiences a more intimate, up-close experience than at any past performances.

As one of Cirque’s newest shows, "Zarkana" incorporates technology like the LED wall, shifting prosceniums and a 32-foot-long high wire to enhance Cirque’s tradition of spectacle in unprecedented ways.

“This is my fourth Cirque show, and it’s unlike anything I’ve worked on before,” assistant head of wardrobe Kathy Wusnack says. “It’s like a traditional Cirque show got a shot of steroids. It definitely has its unique challenges that we’re still figuring out, but I’m just excited to work it and see it come to life.”

Ricotta, however, is quick to note that the show by no means relies on technology to impress. Rather, the show's focus on the performers and their physical feats marks a return to the craft of circus performance Cirque du Soleil built its reputation on more than 20 years ago.

“The show uses technology to its advantage, but this is not a technology-based show. This is a performance, and we really stress the artistry and acrobatics as the main offering,” Ricotta says. “The content ... is so vast that you forget the technology, it becomes window dressing. It’s expensive window dressing, but you appreciate what they’re doing, and you’re back to that core moment with Cirque du Soleil.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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