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The tech inside Cirque's big tent

A beyond-the-tightrope look at the technology that makes the Cirque du Soleil soar.

SAN FRANCISCO--It's six hours before a performance of the new Cirque du Soleil show, "Corteo," and backstage, computers are controlling a series of dollies hanging from two giant arched tracks bridging the stage.

Hanging from the dollies are three massive chandeliers from which acrobats are practicing gyrations and twists.

The dollies are the kind of rigging gear seen in just about any circus or theater with acts that require people or props to be elevated far above the ground. But the system running the dollies' deployment--a crucial element of the show, since nearly every act involves one or more performers flying or leaping high into the air--is entirely automated, something that would have been unheard of to Cirque du Soleil's progenitors and that is rare even in some of the Cirque's other shows.

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Video: High wires and high tech reporter Daniel Terdiman goes behind the scenes to see how technology helps performers achieve mind-boggling feats of balance and flexibility.
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Under the giant blue and yellow tent in which "Corteo" performers leap, contort and clown, technology is everywhere, even if the audience hardly knows it.

"We keep getting smaller and smaller (technological) components," said Michael Wilder, the technical director on "Corteo" and a two-year veteran of "Quidam." "It's always a question of pushing (the technology) as far as we can and giving the creator as much as we can."

Most of the show's lighting, for example, is controlled using a protocol called Wireless DMX. The idea, Wilder explained, is that so much action goes on in midair--like the acrobats suspended from the chandeliers--that it would be impossible to use a wired system. Thus, technicians use computers that automatically send signals to hundreds of lights throughout the theater, both in the air and attached to beams or trusses, turning them on or off as needed.

Another high-tech, albeit lighthearted, piece of technology in "Corteo" is a set of three small spotlights on wheels that appear during the show and that were designed with lights on swivels that bob up and down, lending them a personality that gets the audience laughing.

As simple as the spotlights look, they are directed from backstage by wireless airplane controllers, allowing the stage manager to send them scurrying around the various performers at will.

Of course, Wilder said, the system doesn't always work.

Backstage at Cirque

"Sometimes the frequency goes haywire and (a spotlight) will take off and one of the actors has to go get it," he said. "It's still a live show. Computers still burp and crash."

"Corteo," which is showing in San Francisco through Jan. 8, is on its second stop in the U.S. after its April debut in Montreal. It is one of six Cirque du Soleil shows currently touring the world that complement five permanent installations in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

Beyond the unique collection of jugglers, acrobats, clowns and trapeze artists in "Corteo," what sets the presentation apart from the company's traveling shows like "Alegria," "Varekai," "Saltimbanco" and "Quidam" is that it's the most technologically advanced touring show the Cirque has ever created, with more than 30 technicians operating the controls that enable the performers to spotlight their sometimes mind-boggling feats of flexibility and synchronicity.

Cirque du Soleil first began pushing boundaries in Quebec in 1984. It started taking its acts on the road in 1985, and by 1987 had crossed into America. In 1992, the oldest of its still-existing shows, "Saltimbanco," hit the road. Since then, the company has built out its full roster to include 11 different shows, and it has performed in front of more than 50 million people.

Each Cirque show has its own theme, and "Corteo" is no different.

The show, which has also played in Toronto and Minneapolis, is a "joyous procession, a festive parade imagined by a clown," according to the Cirque du Soleil Web site. The show, the site says, plunges audiences into "a theatrical world of fun, comedy and spontaneity situated in a mysterious space between heaven and earth."

Space between heaven and earth
But for all its whimsy and nostalgia, Cirque du Soleil has always tried to stay ahead of the innovation curve, Wilder said. And by continually developing new touring shows, it's no accident that many pieces of successful technology it discovers along the way are later brought together under a single big top.

"What makes 'Corteo' the most advanced (show)," Wilder said, "is that we've taken pieces of technology from this show and that show and put it together in one show."

At the same time, he explained, "Corteo" is serving as a test bed for new technologies that Cirque du Soleil wants to implement in its older touring shows. For example, as the "Corteo" team has seen the value of incorporating functions like fully digital sound mixing, that message is spreading to the older shows.

Now, the other touring shows are slowly switching over from analog sound mixing systems to digital. Thus, Cirque's other traveling shows may soon include sound rooms similar to that of "Corteo" that are brimming with racks of digital mixing equipment and a massive digital mixing board.

But it takes time to work out the kinks that come from introducing new technologies into older regimens, Wilder explained.

And with acts like the chandelier piece, in which many hundreds of pounds of equipment and performers are suspended in midair and counting on precision movements, the computer program that runs the dolly system--it was written specifically for "Corteo" by Montreal-based automation company Microtrol--is invaluable, just as are the people who run the computers, Wilder said.

That's especially true during acts like "Paradise," the opening sequence after the show's intermission, when around a dozen acrobats take turns doing astounding leaps and twists off a 150-foot-long trampoline that spans the stage.

During intermission, Wilder explained, the artists and crew race onstage and begin setting up the trampoline. But because the artists leap so high in the air and count on the trampoline to save them in case of a fall, it must be installed with absolute precision.

Thus, a computer-controlled motor under the stage pulls the trampoline taut, beginning at each end and moving toward the middle. Once taut, technicians move onto the stage and employ laser-leveling technology that ensures that the trampoline is set up exactly as designed.

"The amount we rely on our technicians is amazing," he said. "The artists trust these guys and girls with their lives every day."

In any case, as the technology used in "Corteo" and other Cirque show gets more advanced, and more is implemented, Wilder and his crew, as well as their colleagues in other shows, must continually confront a learning curve as they strive to stay as advanced as possible.

"You end up pushing your employees," Wilder said. "Our staff has to keep learning and growing with the new technology."