Cirque du Soleil: Dralion

Everybody knows Cirque du Soleil. The name itself is is synonymous of extreme professionalism, both from a technical and athletic point of view, and great fun. This is why I never miss the chance to go to one of their shows. Last November the Cirque was in Italy so I immediately took the opportunity to see them again and went to Turin, where their show was planned at PalaOlimpico. The title of the show, Dralion, was really engaging and created “great expectations”, as I couldn’t figure out its meaning… one more reason to have a first-hand look.

After a warm welcome by Julie Desmarais, Publicist for “Dralion in Arenas”, I was introduced to the main professional figures of the tour to gather some facts and figures, in order to show our readers how such a large production as this plans and carries out what is needed to create a great performance.

My “amphitrion” was Tyler Davidson,  Assistant Production Manager, who spared a couple of hours to “show me around” and introduce me to the techs. So… let’s get going!

hoop-diving

 

Tyler Davidson – Assistant, Production Manager

ZioGiorgio.com: Hello Tyler, and thank you for sparing some of your time for this interview. What is Dralion?

Tyler Davidson: Dralion is basically a show mingling East and West; a lot of artists are Chinese and there’s a lot of red and gold and dragons in the theme of the show. What the people will see is a big stage, which is kind of a standard for Cirque du Soleil, a big scenic back-wall and then a grid with a bunch of tricks and surprises built into it.

What we do in every place we perform is to try to make it as similar as possible, both for the audience and the performers, to make it the same as it is in every other venue…

ZioGiorgio.com: Talking about the venue, did you have to adapt the production in terms of stage dimensions and so on?

Tyler Davidson: What we do in every place we perform is to try to make it as similar as possible, both for the audience and the performers, to make it the same as it is in every other venue; this venue in Turin is quite easy to deal with. Sometimes we play in smaller venues, and we have to make our backstage smaller and work that out, but we don’t make any adjustments to the scenery, so the stage is always the same, the wall, the grid, all of those units fit together and they must do so in a specific configuration. Things we adjust are, for example, the ways we do our job if the loading dock is small, but the experience the audience will have is pretty much the same show every week.

ZioGiorgio.com: As far as safety issues are concerned, did you find Italian regulations consistent with the standards you are used to meeting in other countries?

Tyler Davidson: Every city we go to we always have a meeting with local fire department officers, and they just come and have a look and approve all our safety plans. It’s rather similar in every place, in the end we all want the show to be safe, so we just work together to reach this goal for every show.

ZioGiorgio.com: As regards logistics, is this an easy place to work in?

Tyler Davidson: This one is not bad, the floor is very big, being ready for Olympic-size hockey matches, which gives us a lot of floor space; there are lots of seats for the audience, so it’s fairly easy from that side. The loading dock maybe is a bit small, but certainly not the smallest we have found! You know, we are ready to play in any size of venue, and this one is quite easy.

We have none of the crew who overwork or are overloaded. Each crew works about 8 hours, so we don’t suffer the problems like those of big stadium concerts…

ZioGiorgio.com: How long does it take to set up this show?

Tyler Davidson: The first crew that shows up, the rigging crew, starts in the morning at 8 am, and the last crew are the sound and light guys, who finish at 9.30 pm. In every city this situation is different, the rigging can be easy or trickier, but here we had no problems, yesterday we were not exactly done at 9.30 because the artists had a two-day stop and they had to bring their bodies back to “being ready” for the show. So from a technical point of view, we’re show-ready, but sometimes we need some more time for the artists to get their stuff done. That’s pretty much our standard operation.

ZioGiorgio.com: Do you have redundant crews that work shifts or do you rely on a single crew for each area of the production?

Tyler Davidson: We are quite efficient from this perspective, and we have none of the crew who overwork or are overloaded. Each crew works about 8 hours, so we don’t suffer the problems like those of big stadium concerts where there can be a 3-day setup and it can become quite difficult to find the crews. For us, this is not a problem, because we’re very quick and efficient in putting the show together. And the same goes for load in/out. We do it all in about 4 hours, we bring in a crew, and when it’s all packed up everything goes off.

Quick Tour around the Venue

Tyler Davidson: When we pack this all up (the whole show) it goes into 21 trucks. Everything you see is all on wheels and everything that is not on wheels has a cart that is on wheels. We did a rough count and I think we are on 7300 wheels. All the stage is on wheels, so it’s easy to roll the stage to its specific place. The grid unit you can see in the back is all on wheels, so when it lowers down we can roll it and then it all packs up. Let’s have a look at the back of the wall unit… it’s a pretty neat operation. It looks like it’s quite big, and from the front it looks incredibly heavy, 24000 pounds (about 10 tons). The top section gets built and lifted up, then we connect the next section underneath, and so on, and then it sets down on these bases that have wheels and we can disconnect it from the motors and roll it to where we need it to go. This venue has a really nice, smooth floor, so the wall can be moved by just 4 stagehands, because it’s perfectly balanced and really well engineered.

We have a trampoline that is set up on the stage in the blackout, and we have a crew that prepares and sets the trampoline up in about 45-50 seconds, in the dark, without talking to each other… all very fast, and from the backstage point of view it’s an exciting moment of the show.

Of course, we have a live band for the show: drummer, percussionist, the musical director who plays keys 1, guitar player keys 2 who also plays bass, and a violin player. The band leader is continuously watching the show, and he sees if somebody is maybe moving a little bit faster or slower, or something is happening, and adjusts the music always talking to the musicians… He’s not a composer but he sort of refits the music during the show, so every time it looks like the music is absolutely perfect for the show.

In the Backstage and Training Area

Tyler Davidson: The training area is the part we always try to make the same every week, so even though the arenas are always a little different, when the performers come through that curtain they know that there’s always going to be this training area, with this squishy mat so they can stretch, and we always have quick changes stage right, the monitors for watching the show stage left; when they come off stage, they know what to expect.

 

Rob Pharand – Head Carpenter

ZioGiorgio.com: Hi Rob, nice to meet you. What is your role in the production?

Rob Pharand: I’m the head carpenter, I started three years ago, and I have a crew of 5 carpenters. This stage is a very nice one, it’s all aluminum, it was built in the States, in Pennsylvania, all custom-built. When they built it I think they employed every welder in the State!! It’s a pretty big project… It’s great to be here, I mean, I’m 32 years old and every job I have done has led me to this job and I enjoy doing it, I’m pretty passionate about it. The stage surface itself is about 200-250 pieces, it’s like a puzzle, it all fits together. We do everything, from the building, maintaining and operating of the stage, we run show traps in the stage, place set pieces during the show, usually in the dark which is rather dangerous.

ZioGiorgio.com: How long does it take to do your stuff?

Rob Pharand: To build everything? It obviously depends on the facilities, the loading facilities and the local crew, but a general good load is about 5 to 6 hours to get everything in and up.

 

Glen Beckley – Head of Sound

ZioGiorgio.com: Hello Glen, can you give us a general description of the sound system?

Glen Beckley: This is a Meyer sound system, and it’s a distributed sound system, so instead of having just left and right we have a total of eleven clusters; as you can see, the audience sits on three sides and the stage is in the middle, and in theory every bank of seats has its “dedicated” stereo system. In addition to that, the seats on the floor immediately next to the stage have a stereo system too. So it’s a hybrid formed by line array and point source systems. We use MICA line array boxes, JM-1P and MSL4 boxes, and HP700 subs which we fly in cardioid configuration and we also have two stacks of those on the floor. So, 15 subs, 36 MICAs, 26 JM-1P, 6 MSL4, a pretty big system. At Front of House we have a Soundcraft Vi6 console, 96 channels of which I use about 84; in the backstage we have a Yamaha PM5-D with DSP.

This is a Meyer sound system, and it’s a distributed sound system… in theory every bank of seats has its “dedicated” stereo system.

ZioGiorgio.com: Is the band on IEM or standard monitors?

Glen Beckley: The band is composed of six musicians, they are all either on headphones or IEMs; all but one are wired, the percussionist has an on-stage appearance at the end of the show so he has a wireless set. Then we have two singers who are on wireless too, they use DPA 4088 headset mics, which have a cardioid pattern. The drums and percussions are very “heavy”… the drums and percussions alone, with their associated electric pads, take up 32 inputs so… We also have a system with some loops, normally we run 8 outputs but we have another four that we can throw in with basic guitars and strings or some backup tracks if we need to cover some gaps. In addition to that, we have three clowns and an Indian-style dancer with lavalier mics, and some sort of taiko drums, with microphones inside.

musicisti

ZioGiorgio.com: Moving to the tuning of the system and the acoustics of this venue, did you have any issues or is there anything particular you would like to point out?

Glen Beckley: Well, we’re kind of lucky because it’s a distributed system and we have a lot more options to work with the acoustic environment, because we can spread it around. Each individual cluster can be made to contribute only the exact amount of energy we need. Of course, it takes quite a long time to set up, the show is complex and it takes quite a while to load in; this is good for us because we have a lot of time to tune the system. For a rock concert you get an hour if you’re lucky, and you could never tune a system of this scale in an hour… we normally have three hours, so this allows us to kind of work of the building acoustics with a lot more accuracy and detail. This room is pretty flat but it’s also quite cold, the struggle for me last night was really making the sound “involving”; with a show like this, the music is kind of important, involving the audience in the show. One of the reasons of this PA configuration is that it is closer to the audience,so  they feel like being physically closer to what’s going on, and I always try to make an “inviting, warm and pleasant” mix. The other nice thing is that we’re here for a few shows, so I get a few chances to get it the right way! (laughs, ed.)

ZioGiorgio.com: Going back to the PA system, what was the main reason that made the production choose Meyer?

Glen Beckley: It’s a matter of confidence. Cirque has a very long relationship with Meyer, there’s a lot of history between the two companies. It wasn’t my choice because I wasn’t here when it was designed, but I’m a really big fan of Meyer systems, I’ve been working with MICAs pretty much since they came out in about 2005… The Meyer sonic signature has always been one of my favourites to mix on, I really love the midrange and detail I can get… they’re really musical boxes.

ZioGiorgio.com: Is there something particularly challenging in this show soundwise?

Glen Beckley: Oh well, there’s not one specific element of the show I would point to as particularly challenging, the challenge really is getting all these different pieces of PA systems to work together, as it can really become a confusing mess…!!

 

Josh Mowczko – Head of Lights

ZioGiorgio.com: Hi Josh, can you please give us a general description of the lighting rig you’re using on Dralion?

Josh Mowczko: The lighting rig is all Clay Paky fixtures, all Italian fixtures; we have 72 moving lights, we use the Alpha Spot HPE 1200s, the Alpha Wash 1200s, Alpha Spot Profile 1200s, the Alpha Spot HPE 700s, Alpha Wash 700s, and the Alpha Spot HPE 1500s.

ZioGiorgio.com: No Sharpies?

Josh Mowczko: No Sharpies [laughs, ed.]. This tour started before the Sharpies came out. The 700s are actually very nice, they make a nice beam, not as clear as the Sharpies but… Then we have followspots by Robert Juliat, atmospheric effects are Look Solutions, we have three Unique 2 hazers, and we have 4 Jem Glaciator Extremes for the low fog. Our conventional fixtures are ETCs, we have Ocean Optics c-changers instead of color scrollers; distros are provided by Theatrics and our dimmers are ETC with a built-in custom emergency light system. For control, we’re running 2 grandMA 2 by MA Lighting, with the grandma 3D visualizer and the remotes too… super-cool and super-easy you know! A bunch of these things you see hanging here are lanterns, custom-made for us, and we also have a kabuki drop, controlled by a custom relay system, which is also controlled by the board.

It’s all about the elements that make the show… It’s kind of a dark show, and it’s not very flashy, there’s only a couple of “flash and trash”!

ZioGiorgio.com: As far as the design of the show is concerned, what was the approach that the LD followed?

Josh Mowczko: It’s all about the elements that make the show. I didn’t do the design, the LD was Luc Lafortune, but from what I gather, from the way he implemented colours, these are representative elements of the show, so the same colours are being repeated throughout. And he uses this at a great advantage at certain points. For example, we have an act that’s completely red, and right after that he puts a blue act, so the colours are even more vibrant… he uses that a lot, which I think is really cool. It’s kind of a dark show, and it’s not very flashy, there’s only a couple of “flash and trash”! It has effects at certain points, but it’s more a refined show as far as lighting goes. It’s functional.

ZioGiorgio.com: What about video contributions?

Josh Mowczko: We have no video on the show. The only video we use is the cameras for backstage. On the kabuki, at the beginning, I just use the 1500s projections and that’s it.

ZioGiorgio.com: Was this an “artistic” choice?

Josh Mowczko: Yeah, when we were in Montreal I heard someone talking about having enormous video screens for the people to follow the performances, but I think they decided not to use them very early in the process. The only treatment that survived when we moved to arenas is the lanterns. This show was created before all the video stuff became very popular, so they probably wanted to keep the original feel for the show.

 

Paul Fernhoff – Head of Automation

ZioGiorgio.com: Hi Paul, thank you for finding some time for us. What kind of automation is needed in this show?

Paul Fernhoff: We use Navigator by Fisher Technical. The automation system is custom-built, except for the main winch that we use for flying acts, for which we use a 5-15 by the same company. It can hold 500 pounds and its maximum speed is 15 feet per second. We do not use it to its full speed and we never load 500 pounds on it. In our system we also have the so-called “solay”, its a big ring that rotates, there’s three lifting motors, so the unit can go up and down, it can rotate and roll around wherever we desire. We have a highly encrypted communication system to and from the upstairs grid coming here to the console. In the grid we also have a unit we call “The Bridge”, which kind of “bridges the gap”, it’s an aerial work platform, run by four variable speed chain motors. The variable speed is needed to make the speed consistent, it’s not like standard chain motors. Then there is the lantern, which is the giant white fabric around the stage. Everything is controlled down here by the system. We run a set of cues; there’s one operator here at the console, and another automator that’s up in the grid during the show who fixes emergencies with the system and stuff like that. We also have the star-lift which is in the central part of the deck, it’s the main lift in the show, it comes out of the deck and runs on four motors, and can also rotate 360 degrees, positive or negative, both directions.

 

Last but not least, we had a chat with our Italian friend Massimo Tabai, monitor engineer, who offered us a complete picture of what happens on stage as far as sound is concerned.

Two elements are needed: a very good band who can follow the director’s guide and flexible software to run the sequences.

ZioGiorgio.com: Hi Massimo! What can you tell us about sound on stage?

Massimo Tabai: Let’s start from the band: there are 6 musicians and 2 singers. The main setup is rather standard, with drums, bass guitar, electric guitar and keyboards, plus a violinist and a percussionist. The bass player also plays second keyboards. The music director is the first keyboard player who launches the sequences from a PC running Ableton. The most characteristic feature of this kind of show compared with a concert is that the music being played complements completely the act that is being performed on stage, so it has to be continuously changed and adapted to cover any “not so perfect” performances or delays. In order to achieve this result, two elements are needed: a very good band who can follow the director’s guide and flexible software, such as Ableton, to run the sequences. You can imagine that, in this context, communications are paramount. The music director interacts with the Stage Manager, and communicates with all the musicians (including the singers, with the FOH and, obviously, with me. All communications pass through my console, a Yamaha PM5D linked with a DSP5D to reach the channel count we need. It’s not a very comfortable configuration, but you get used to it! The stage console is also used as a backup of the FOH console, therefore all the monitor mixes are set in “Pre” and I use the master for the audience backup mix.

ZioGiorgio.com: Are the musicians using standard monitors or IEMs?

Massimo Tabai: All the musicians, except the drummer and director who wear headphones, use MG6pro in-ear monitors by Futuresonic, a really excellent American product; besides sounding really good, they are also well manufactured and solid. All radio frequencies are Sennheiser; we use a scanner by Aaronia for the setup… really great; it gives you the scan response over the whole spectrum in real time! In my rack we also house four ClearCom Tempest Stations, linked with the cabled stations. Tempest is a a WIFI-based wireless communication system that allows us to go all over the world without suffering from licensing issues as far as radio frequencies are concerned. It’s not easy to configure it, but once you set it up correctly, it’s really good.

ZioGiorgio.com: It’s nice to see an Italian sound engineer in such an important international production. When did you start working for Cirque du Soleil?

Massimo Tabai: I entered the production as monitor engineer last year in January, and I took over a project that had already been running for 3 years with two different monitor engineers. When you enter such a consolidate situation, you must be very careful because the musicians have been listening to the same mix almost every day for years… my predecessor left me an optimal situazione, without any particular issues; you know, you just have to think of what can be improved, talk to the musician and work with them to get everything going as best as possible.

 

Generally speaking, I was rather impressed by the extremely high technical competence of the staff and the very interesting solutions chosen for the show, in particular as far as the Meyer audio system configuration is concerned. Unfortunately, due to a mundane misunderstanding, I wasn’t able to attend the show, nevertheless I had the chance to have a look at some “bits” of rehearsal and I could really appreciate the quality of all the aspects of the show. In spite of the venue being empty, the sound was good, with even coverage, (although I listened to a recorded track, and not to the band playing live…). The monochrome lighting was indeed effective, as explained by the lighting designer, as I noticed watching a small part of the “red” number, whose impact was made even stronger by this kind of illumination.

Final consideration: in such large productions, organisation, coordination and teamwork are paramount. Cirque du Soleil works “like a Swiss watch”, nothing is left to chance and the result can be summarised in a single word: marvellous.

Alex Panella
ZioGiorgio Network

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