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October 22, 2014

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Q+A: Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O’ at Bellagio celebrates 15 years, technical wizardry

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Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio.

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘O’ at Bellagio

Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio. Launch slideshow »

Audiences at “O” are hypnotized by the split-second timing that divers and acrobats have to master at Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic show that is now celebrating its 15th year at Bellagio.

There are nearly 400 cues that could go wrong in the 100-minute spectacular in the 1.5 million-gallon pool but incredibly never have.

From a ceiling height of 110 feet, divers look down onto what appears as a postage-stamp sized plunge pool as the stage slides open to reveal the water they will propel into. Underneath in the 25-foot depth, the water SCUBA safety experts wait to ensure that there are no mishaps to the divers who are swum away to safety before the stage closes over them.

Barry Farley, head of aquatics for “O,” told me: “The technical part of this show is just as large a star as the divers and the acrobats. I don’t want to take anything away from them because everybody has a huge part in this.

“But if you’ve seen the show, you have to be fascinated by the technical aspect of it and wonder how everything works so smoothly. It is an incredible collaboration. I don’t know if technically it’s a bigger star or not, but it certainly is a huge component.”

The show’s automation department has two sets of computer controls that run simultaneously. One known as the Deck Board has 198 computer operator-activated cues to move such stage elements as the seven lifts, curtains, lights and ladders.

The other control console is the Telepherique Board with 196 cues that run the winch units to fly in the artists and position the safety nets. There’s a backup system that contains both cue structures. In the event of a board failure, the operator can jump to the safety console running simultaneously.

All of the 150 technicians and 85 cast members have SCUBA certification. The pool takes 12 hours to fill, and the filtration system cleans all 1.5 million gallons three times each day.

Barry, who works on the technician side of the production with the SCUBA divers, added: “There was a specific goal in mind when ‘O’ was created. The people had the vision that they wanted to see this. They told the technical guys, ‘Make this happen.’ So it was simply a case of ‘ how are we going to do it?’

Here’s our conversation:

How long did it take to get this whole thing from the dream of people diving, people vanishing and people swimming? How long to go from conception to reality?

Several years, for sure. I don’t know when the original idea was dreamt up. I started here January of 1998, and the theater was in place, there was water in the pool, but it was basically an empty room other than just the pool itself.

Then we started bringing in components of the show creating the show several months later. I think director Franco Dragone and Steve Wynn, who created Bellagio, started on the vision three years before he started building a big theater with a big pool. Rehearsals alone before “O” opened took 12 months.

Being in charge of the SCUBA divers, that means that one of your responsibilities is the total safety of the artists underwater?

That is absolutely correct. My divers are actually called artist handlers, and we’re involved with moving the artists underwater. As you’ve seen in the show, you might have seen somebody jump into the water and then disappear, and the effect from the audience is “where’d they go” “How are they holding their breath?”

Or you might have seen somebody appear that you didn’t see before. They just appeared out of the water; you don't know where they came from. My people are down there moving artists, giving them air, moving them through the water according to a certain choreography. Every move has its own particular time to move this artist or wait for the artist to fall into the water. There’s a choreography to getting them the breathing regulators, and that’s all very well rehearsed to the split second.

I have four artist handlers during the show and then two more divers that are on communications setups. They wear a full-face mask with communications capability in it. Then we have two other departments that dive also during the show; the carpentry and rigging departments. Carpenters are responsible for moving set pieces under water, and the riggers are responsible for rigging all the apparatuses or anything like that. A total of 14 technicians work underwater for every show.

I’m tempted to say that if you did this on dry land, it would be a lot easier, but how much tougher is it to do underwater?

It’s not as tough as it might seem. The people who I hired come in as divers with a lot experience being around SCUBA students or other divers. They’ve got a background of that. So the artist handling is not really a stretch for the people that I would hire.

Underwater, you can’t have a script or a rundown, so what do you do to make sure nothing goes wrong? With so many moving parts, an awful lot could go wrong?

When I have meetings with my divers, I talk about complacency and stop it creeping in. I try to combat that before it happens and keep everybody on their toes. We also train rescue scenarios every month within my department as a group because my specific department would be the first responders for any sort of incident in the water. So we do rescue training; that’s always on our mind. We do theater-wide rescue trainings once a month to keep everybody tuned in on how to do rescues pertaining to certain disciplines.

I think more than anything, I talk about the complacency: “Don’t get set in your ways and always be on your toes and always look for things that are out of place.” If that crept in, it would be a bad thing. I can’t have it. I tend to get up on a soapbox, and my divers all know that, but they also know why I do it.

In 15 years, there have been some incidents that we’ve had to deal with. Maybe an artist was out of place or maybe there was a gear issue that was unexpected and we had to deal with and cover, but there hasn’t been anything major that’s been totally crazy or life threatening.

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On a regular stage, the actor hits his mark. How does a guy diving 60 feet from the ceiling hit the same mark every night?

They’re pretty good. When they dive in, it looks like a slice of pie from that height. Guess. For those high dives, they don’t have the entire pool available. It’s just the little slice where the lift is lowered. They’ve got to hit it.

It looks pretty big to the audience, but when you’re way up there looking down, it looks like it’s just an inch, a postage stamp. It’s ridiculous when you look down from above, but they’re mighty talented hitting the same mark. You don’t get that job if you have a fear of heights!

Is there one or two acts in the show that you really have to keep an eye out for every night?

Yes. There’s a large skeleton-like set piece that looks like a boat, but it’s just the framework of a boat. They perform similar to a parallel bar act in addition to a flying act combination on it. We train a lot on that as far as rescue scenarios of people falling off or hitting things. I talk to my divers all the time; if you just watch that act, you can see about 90 things that could go wrong if somebody just steps in the wrong place.

While that act is happening, we’re off to the side where the audience can’t see us; we’re just sitting there in the water watching the act. If something were to happen, we would have to respond appropriately immediately. That one makes me a little crazy sometimes when you see how close they come to it.

The Russian swing act is a little zany for us, too, when they have the three swings going at once. That one can get very crazy. If somebody is out of place by an inch, it might back the whole thing up. There’s pretty good potential on that one, but they’ve managed to pull it off every night.

Who cues who to make a call of “don’t jump” because they might hit somebody in midair?

They’re watching each other, and there’s a little sequence that they do when they’re going off the swings. You don’t know it from the audience, but that’s part of the choreography of the act to ensure the split-second timing. They know the timing of that, and they know that if something is off, they would just simply wait for that. They rehearse that act every week, so they get a lot of time on the swings.

We don’t rehearse the divers, but we do rescue scenarios every month and four diver meetings a night: one that starts the shift, one after we preset the show before we all eat dinner, and then before each show, we have a very specific show lineup and another before the second show. That’s every night we have shows.

Safety is obviously the priority even though the mission is entertainment.

It has to be. There’s just too much stuff going on in this show to be relaxed or lazy about it. You have to; there’s no other way around it. There are so many computer cues to worry about. One diver can have as many as 50 to 70 cues. Some are simple, some involve more work, but all are very important. Multiply that by six just for my team.

We also have a person who sits in this little area called the crow’s nest, and he has a console and communication with the two underwater SCUBA divers who have the communication lines. They’re also additional communications between the divers and stage manager.

The crow’s nest is way up high. You can’t see it from the audience, but it overlooks the stage, stage right way, way up high overlooking the water. It’s actually a hard-lined communications line that goes right to the divers’ facemasks.

We also have three underwater cameras and a speaker system in the pool we call the Neptune that lets you make an announcement in the pool through the underwater speakers. There are actual cues that also come through those speakers to the performers.

There are music cues, too, specifically for the synchronized swimmers

for a lot of their choreography.

Is this one of the most elaborate shows ever staged anywhere in the world?

It’s way up there. I mean, I’d like to brag, of course, and say, “Yeah, this is the best one,” but there are a lot of technically advanced shows. But this one is doubly difficult in a sense because there is water involved.

It gets a little crazy, and it affects the maintenance a lot, too, because of the water. It all becomes increased. Things wear out faster and costumes wear out faster because of the chlorine in the water. The laundry department has more than 50 loads a day. The lifespan of some costumes is only six weeks. Being in water definitely changes the game.

Click to enlarge photo

New VIP seating at Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio.

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For its 15th anniversary, this aquatic masterpiece of surrealism and theatrical romance has introduced seven exclusive VIP box seats to provide a unique opera house-style and feel to experience “O.” Guests have their own private server for champagne, chocolate truffles and strawberries.

Each suite, separated with private doors and soundproof drapery for separation, has four seats and dedicated speakers. They were constructed for premium views from the former part of the lower balcony loggia level.

“O” is performed twice nightly at Bellagio from Wednesday through Sunday. There will be no performance March 21 because of the “One Night for One Drop” charity performance at Mandalay Bay involving cast members of all Cirque shows.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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