What Happened at Cirque’s KA, from A Thoughtful Tone


After reading the piece this last week from Alexandra Berzon on Sarah Guillot-Guyard‘s passing in the accident at Cirque du Soleil’s KA, there needed to be less frustration in my head towards why we always end up getting the bloody end of the media.  From Indiana’s high school stage collapse to the Sugarland disaster at the Indiana State Fair, to numerous accidents and disasters across the world in our industry… unless it’s an article about how much death or blood happened at certain accident, a piece of advertising, or an article that only reaches our audience in industry trade publications, we really don’t get that much good press.  In those instances, it’s great to have writers like Kevin Mitchell in our business, because he’s able to take confusing and angering data and numbers and turn it into categorized emotions that we can all read peacefully, around 120/75 beats per minute.

Thanks for writing this, Kevin.  From Kevin Mitchell’s Stage Directions article, which you need to read whether you’re in Entertainment or not:

What they discovered was that during Guillot-Guyard’s high-speed exit up and off the platform (which was a designed part of the show), she came into contact with the underside of forestry scenery. That sent a force up the cable, which went from the cable through a pulley wheel across to a second smaller pulley wheel—at which point it should have gone down to the winch. The winch had a no-load protector on it that, had it seen that force, would have shut the winch down. In this instance, though, what happened was that final pulley wheel collapsed forward. As it collapsed forward it allowed the cable to jump out of the wheel and find the sharp edge of the pinch point where that equipment had collapsed. The edge cut the cable and Guillot-Guyard fell.

Pearson wants to be very clear about this sequence of events “because I heard several things in the early stages that had been reported: Sarah had been traveling faster than everyone else, she slipped free of her safety gear—none of that was true,” Pearson says. “The cable did not snap, the harness did not fail, none of the connections failed. The cable was cut because it was able to jump out of its pulley wheel and find the sharp edge it was never supposed to have seen.”

Head on over to Stage Directions now and read the rest of this piece.  Go on, check it out.

Sensationalizing Death – WSJ’s Article on Sasoun’s Fatal KÁ Accident

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

Our industry is entertaining enough; that’s why we’re called Entertainment.  But, we are human, and we do make mistakes.  Those mistakes are at the heart of the Wall Street Journal’s latest article on the death of Sarah Guillot-Guyard at Cirque du Soleil’s  back in June 2013.

When something so tragic happens, wouldn’t you think that the death and subject matter enough would merit a story without really having to do much to it? It’s disappointing to see Alexandra Berzon’s article in the Wall Street Journal on Sarah Guillot-Guyard’s death be so sensationalized. One would think that an article in such a publication would preclude that kind of pulp. Right? Am I dreaming past the “If it bleeds, it leads” kind of reporting?

It’s not really her fault, I guess.  What people like to read about is other people bleeding.

I like what Alexandra Berzon normally says, I mean she is a constant writer on the plight of oil workers in our country, her WSJ work on that alone is pretty tremendous.  But why treat oil workers like human beings suffering the plight of working so hard in an industry that treats those workers like shit, and write a story about KÁ that makes our people and our work seem like the perfect setting for an episode of The First 48?  That’s rough, dude!  If anything, you’ve just made it harder for us who research and write within our industry by betraying the trust of the people you were interviewing, because you sure apparently did betray the trust of those who let you in, and completely let you in.  That part seems pretty painfully clear, from company member Erica Linz on Facebook.  I’ve quoted here here en toto:

There is a written companion to the WSJ KÁ video… The first sentences are everything, EVERYTHING that was wrong with the media response after the accident. I won’t post it outright because those first words dump painful salt in a wound that a lot of us carry. (My friend Diane has posted a free link in the comments. If you are like me, you’ll read it even if it’s upsetting, and I don’t want you buying a subscription to Wall Street Journal to do so.)

Shame, shame on you Alexandra Berzon. You assured me and we spoke at length before I agreed to do your interview about how you were not going to treat Sasoun’s story as an “if it bleeds it leads” headline. You decried the actions of journalists who had and assured me that you were asking to speak to those who loved her so you could portray her as a real person and stitch together the sincere truth. Your first line eradicates any illusion of integrity you aimed to portray in those conversations. Blood and gore will always get attention… You may as well have put naked chicks and flashing lights around the article for hype if you were going to approach it with the level of class you did. I’ve seen porn ads more subtle. Even your choice of including the word basement in that first paragraph… an image that connotes childhood fears, darkness, isolation and the work of serial killers. Very clever… Surely the fatal accident wasn’t tragic enough to get people to read on it’s own.

I am appalled by you.


Let me say — I don’t have a Pulitzer like Alexandra Berzon. I mean, come on – my website is called for feck’s sake — really creative naming, I know. But seriously, read this – what’s the tone set here?  It’s like reading some Tarantino:

Sarah Guillot-Guyard lay dying on the floor of a basement inside a darkened Cirque du Soleil theater here, one leg broken and blood pooling under her head.

It was June 2013, and the 31-year-old mother of two had fallen 94 feet in front of hundreds of horrified spectators after the wire attached to her safety harness shredded while she performed in the dramatic aerial climax of the company’s most technically challenging production, “Kà.”

It was the first fatality during a Cirque show, and it capped an increase in injuries at Cirque with the “Kà” production. The show had one of the highest rates of serious injuries of any workplace in the country, according to safety records kept by Cirque that were compared with federal records by The Wall Street Journal.”

Here’s a bit of a video on their story:

There are a couple of really odd things about the reporting on jobs numbers too, things that when you look at numbers and no backstory, it seems like it could potentially be feasible.  Check out the chart posted in the WSJ story:


This graph is saying that per 100 workers, KÁ had an increasing injury rate, per 100 workers, of about 35 per 100 in 2010, 48-50 per 100 workers in 2011, and almost 60 per 100 workers in 2012.  However, this is a odd selection of things to compare KÁ to, especially with respect to workplace injuries.  Why not Stunt personnel, Commercial Divers, Military contractors?

Compared to Nursing and Residential Care facilities, Manufactured Home Manufacturing, Police Protection (a pretty broad category, frankly) Skiing facilities, for whatever reason, Construction, and Foundries, holy crap, KA has a SERIOUS increase in workers per 100.  But the industries that the Wall Street Journal chose to select have tens of hundreds of thousands of workers!

Here’s the thing:  As far as Ka goes, there’s about 80 employees.  All techs and non-artistic management are MGM employees.  Just to make this make a little more sense to anyone who is interested in making some sense out of these numbers, here’s the 2013 US Department of Labor’s Employer-Reported Incidents Report.  It’s a PDF link, comb through it just a little and you will instantly see a problem with the way these KÁ stats were derived.

Also, for all of you nerds like me out there who like to see just behind the veil of journalism — although in this case, it’s more like a Fox News kind of play…  here’s the raw data:

2012 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

2011 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

2010 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

Please, comb through these and see if you find the same really odd comparisons here to industries with hundreds of thousands of workers.

OSHA Stats

Here’s some interesting data from the Occupational Safety and Health Organization that we all know as OSHA:

Worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities

4,585 workers were killed on the job in 2013 [BLS 2013 workplace fatality data] (3.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) – on average, 88 a week or more than 12 deaths every day. (This is the second lowest total since the fatal injury census was first conducted in 1992.)

817 Hispanic or Latino workers were killed from work-related injuries in 2013–on average, more than 15 deaths a week or two Latino workers killed every single day of the year, all year long.

Fatal work injuries involving contractors accounted for 16 percent of all fatal work injuries in 2013.

Construction’s “Fatal Four”

Out of 4,101* worker fatalities in private industry in calendar year 2013, 828 or 20.2% were in construction―that is, one in five worker deaths last  year were in construction. The leading causes of worker deaths on construction sites were falls, followed by struck by object, electrocution, and caught-in/between. These “Fatal Four” were responsible for more than half (57.7%) the construction worker deaths in 2013*, BLS reports. Eliminating the Fatal Four would save 478 workers’ lives in America every year.

  • Falls — 302 out of 828 total deaths in construction in CY 2013 (36.5%)
  • Struck by Object — 84 (10.1%)
  • Electrocutions — 71 (8.6%)
  • Caught-in/between — 21 (2.5%)

Top 10 most frequently cited OSHA standards violated in FY2014

The following were the top 10 most frequently cited standards by Federal OSHA in fiscal year 2014 (October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014):

  1. Fall protection, construction (29 CFR 1926.501) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  2. Hazard communication standard, general industry (29 CFR 1910.1200) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  3. Scaffolding, general requirements, construction (29 CFR 1926.451) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  4. Respiratory protection, general industry (29 CFR 1910.134) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  5. Powered industrial trucks, general industry (29 CFR 1910.178) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  6. Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), general industry (29 CFR 1910.147) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  7. Ladders, construction (29 CFR 1926.1053) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  8. Electrical, wiring methods, components and equipment, general industry (29 CFR 1910.305) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  9. Machinery and Machine Guarding, general requirements (29 CFR 1910.212) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  10. Electrical systems design, general requirements, general industry (29 CFR 1910.303) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]

Frankly, there is a modicum of trust that people place in you when they invite you in to cover something so tragic as a fall death in the Entertainment Industry.  Here’s how an industry writer does it; now Alexandra, I totally respect the way you do things in every instance except for this one, but here’s an opportunity to learn how to deal with this industry.  This is from Jacob Coakley, one of the most prolific Entertainment industry writers to which I subscribe — this is from Jacob’s article Battle Tested:

So what did Cirque do to insure an accident like this couldn’t happen again? The first and foremost factor in the accident was the speed at which Guillot-Guyard was ascending. Cirque has completely eliminated the possibility for performers to gain that speed. The final fly-out of artists off the top the platform is now fully automated, with limiters on the speed at which an artist can approach the grid. “This involves a zone large enough under the grid that no one can enter above a specific speed without being governed. If they do run to the zone at full speed, the software shuts them down.” And there’s a second software system monitoring the limiting software—if the first doesn’t shut down in an over-speed situation then the second one kicks in. “This can react quicker than a person on an emergency-stop switch, although we still have those in place, too, during the act,” adds Pearson. 

They have also changed the behavior of winches when artists are still in front of the wall as well, though they haven’t automated that. “For us and the artists, it was important that they retained control of their winch lines throughout the majority of the act,” Pearson says. “This allows them to react with their bodies for the start and end of a move at high speeds. In doing so, it was still possible for collisions in the choreography to occur, so we engineered out the severity of those collisions by ensuring that if one person makes a mistake, the winch software and hardware will not allow them to continue until that error has been corrected. So ultimately it doesn’t remove human error, but makes sure that human error is not going to cause something worse to happen.”

They did this by changing how the winches operate under extreme load changes, replacing the primary and secondary brakes for new upgraded ones that won’t allow movement on the winch with the weight of two people on a line. The system also now uses no-load payout so if one of the lines sees zero weight on it, it will stop operating. 

In terms of hardware, they lowered the winches to replace a small diverter wheel with a larger pulley block also bolted to the grid steel frames. 

“We looked at every angle to see what could introduce an excessive shock load in the operating system and then worked with our engineers and manufacturers to remove the possibility of those forces being introduced during the act,” Pearson says. And to make sure the artists were comfortable with equipment, they brought in the manufacturers of each component in the system to explain how the system had been designed and how equipment choices were made to ensure safety. “We also brought the winches out of the grid, so we could show people up close what had happened and how we had mitigated it. This went all the way down to what bolts are used, what specifics are looked at in cable choices and how we maintain a 10:1 safety ratio. For some this was the first time they had touched the equipment at that component level, so we have identified that this will be an important part of new artist orientation in the future.” 

Yet he admits that as a company that flies people, there will always be a level of risk. “We continue to focus on training and ensuring the most up to date upgrades on every piece of equipment. We take into account everything we can think of, such as power outages, to ensure that in those circumstances everyone knows how to respond and everyone in the air is safe. This is maintained through rigorous protocols such as rescue procedures, operational protocols and equipment enhancements, like artists wearing wireless communications so we can talk to them in the air as well as retaining a first response team on the show and holding monthly rescue trainings for any act that may require an artist to be helped down from a wire.”


The Slideshow

WSJ provided a bit of moving graphics along with the story to, you know, help the illiterate understand.  I’ve taken the liberty of taking screenshots of the non-animation sections, hence screenshot…  for those of you unfamiliar with the story, this part actually helps:

WSJ Slide 1

WSJ Slide 1

WSJ Slide 2

WSJ Slide 2

WSJ Slide 3

WSJ Slide 3

WSJ Slide 4

WSJ Slide 4

WSJ Slide 5

WSJ Slide 5

WSJ Slide 6

WSJ Slide 6

WSJ Slide 7

WSJ Slide 7

WSJ Slide 8

WSJ Slide 8

WSJ Slide 9

WSJ Slide 9

WSJ Slide 10

WSJ Slide 10


Tragedy at KA in Las Vegas — Sarah Guyard-Guillot Falls to Her Death During Final Fight Scene


Update, Wednesday, July 3, 2013:
Clark County Nevada Coroner’s Office releases a statement in the investigation of Sarah Guyard Guillot’s death. From the press release, bolding is mine:

The Clark County Office of Coroner/Medical Examiner has determined that Sarah Guillot-Guyard, a performer in KA by Cirque du Soleil, died on Saturday, June 29, from multiple blunt force trauma suffered when she fell approximately 90 feet.

Guillot-Guyard, 31, was a citizen of France and resident of Las Vegas.

The manner of her death was accidental. The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is continuing the investigation into how this accident occurred. The OSHA investigation could take up to six months to complete.

We extend our sincere condolences to Sarah Guillot-Guyard’s family, as well as to her extended Cirque du Soleil family.

Sarah Guyard-Guillot, left, and Sami Tiaumassi perform as Forest People during Cirque du Soleil's 'Ka' in 2008 at the MGM Grand Las Vegas. Guyard-Guillot, mother of two young children, was pronounced dead at a hospital late Saturday night after falling about 50 feet from the show's stage during a performance of the show.

Sarah Guyard-Guillot, left, and Sami Tiaumassi perform as Forest People during Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ka’ in 2008 at the MGM Grand Las Vegas. Guyard-Guillot, mother of two young children, was pronounced dead at a hospital late Saturday night after falling about 50 feet from the show’s stage during a performance of the show.


I’m so sorry to report that Sarah Guyard-Guillot, otherwise affectionately known as “Sasoun,” fell to her death at Cirque du Soleil’s KA at the Saturday night show on 30 June 2013.  Sarah was a mother of two beautiful little kids (an 8 and a 5 year old) and had been working for Cirque since 2004 at the MGM Grand.  She was also a part of the Cirque family — and if you’ve ever known someone who worked for Cirque, it is truly a family and they are truly devastated at the loss of such an amazing performer.  Furthermore, KA has one of the most scrutinized safety and performance systems of all of the Las Vegas shows, and something must have drastically failed in order for Sarah to have fallen.  Her passing breaks the hearts of the entire Cirque family.

This was the first death accident in Cirque’s 30+ year history, which leaves the production closed until further notice and leaves the cast, crew, and Cirque family hurting today as they mourn the loss of such an amazing person and performer.


From a press release at KA regarding Sarah Guyard-Guillot’s tragic death:

Las Vegas (June 30, 2013) – The entire Cirque du Soleil family is deeply saddened by the accidental death of Sarah (Sasoun) Guyard-Guillot, artist on the production KÀ, that happened on Saturday, June 29th, in Las Vegas. The artist’s immediate family has been informed of the accident.

Our thoughts are with her family and the entire Cirque du Soleil family.

“I am heartbroken. I wish to extend my sincerest sympathies to the family. We are all completely devastated with this news. Sassoon was an artist with the original cast of KÀ since 2006 and has been an integral part of our Cirque du Soleil tight family. We are reminded, with great humility and respect, how extraordinary our artists are each and every night. Our focus now is to support each other as a family. “ said Cirque du Soleil Founder, Guy Laliberté.

We have been working with the appropriate authorities and have offered our full cooperation.

Performances of KÀ will be cancelled until further notice.

There aren’t a lot of details surrounding the accident and subsequent death of Sarah Guyard-Guillot, but from comments posted at Sasoun’s memorial page are heartbreaking — each and every one.  Sarah will most certainly be missed, and her talent will go unchecked after being so shortly and accidentally taken from Earth.

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

The stories on Sarah’s accidental fall are numerous, but there are a few things that have ringed repeatedly regarding the accident — from the Las Vegas Sun:

According to reports from audience members, the incident occurred Saturday night during the latter stages of the production at MGM Grand. Guyard-Guillot was one of the artists suspended by a wire from the show’s vertical stage in the show-closing Final Battle scene. As she ascended to the top of the stage, she slipped free of her safety wire and dropped to the open, unseen pit below the performers.

After the incident, one eyewitness seated in the middle of the audience and just a few rows from the lip of the stage said Guyard-Guillot dropped from the left side of the set (or on the right side, as audience members face the production) over a distance of at least 50 feet. In the act, performers wear harnesses that are clipped to cables, and that apparatus is designed to keep them in position onstage. Guyard-Guillot was reportedly still in her harness when she fell from the stage.

The show momentarily continued, but then the music halted, and the performer’s screams and groans could be heard from below the stage.

“(The artist) was being hoisted up the side of the stage and then just plummeted down,” said Dan Mosqueda, visiting with his wife and 10-year-old son from Colorado Springs, Colo. “Initially, a lot of people in the audience thought it was part of the choreographed fight. But you could hear screaming, then groaning, and we could hear a female artist crying from the stage.” Mosqueda’s wife, Annie, has a background in theater and tweeted about the incident soon after it occurred.

Minutes after the artist’s fall, a recorded announcement was played on the theater’s sound system informing ticket-buyers that refunds or vouchers to future shows would be offered to those in the audience, and the crowd was dismissed.

From Fox News in Las Vegas, which has quite a bit of information for Fox News:


From a post at the Examiner:

The accident happened just before the show’s finale Saturday. The scene where the Cirque du Soleil performer was killed is one where the artists are on lines controlled by remotes, hanging 50 feet up in the air…

Witnesses indicate that the incident happened during the battle scene with the vertical stage near the end of the show. Sarah Guyard-Guillot, 31, was suspended by a wire and she slipped free of her safety wire. She dropped into a pit below the performers, and it seems she fell about 50 feet.

The show continued for a moment, but was then halted and attendees were told they could get refunds or vouchers for another show. Sadly the Cirque du Soleil performer died on the way to the hospital, reports indicate.

Authorities are investigating Sarah Guyard-Guillot’s death, and for now further “Ka” shows have been canceled. Despite the risky maneuvers the performers do throughout the various Cirque du Soleil shows, this is the first death that has happened in the thirty years of the troupe’s acts.

Sasoun doing what she loved

Sasoun doing what she loved

A video commentary from Sealight Films:

Please visit Sarah Guyard-Guillot’s memorial page, send the Cirque family a nice message.  Sasoun was taken before her time.  My thoughts are with her children, the Cirque family, and anyone affected by this horrible tragedy.  I’m so sorry to have to report on another entertainment death. I will do my best to get any facts I can to pass on. Stay tuned to for more information.






The Repair of The Cirque du Soleil Stage with “Rigging Riley”

I’m a little behind the times on this, but after meeting Erik, Fox, and Jeff from KÀ, pretty much any time I see news on that deck it totally gives me goosebumps!  Watch the video below of KÀ’s monster gantry crane being operated on with Rigging Riley from NatGeo.  You just have to see this, whether it’s lighting centric or not.

(I must say – I hope Riley enjoyed his little cameo…  I know that there’s no way that Erik needed anybody’s help to figure out that fix!  He’s a freaking brilliant guy!)

Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ with, Part Deux

After that first post today, I had a bunch of images that Amanda Lynne had taken of the backstage tour, and the Fabulous Mister Fox put me in touch with some images from the technical rehearsal period of the show!  It is absolutely outstanding to see these images with the consoles and monitors lighting up the camera’s view, right as the art is being born!

One aspect of that I felt I needed to break up into a new post is the projection system that has been implemented.  At several times during KÀ you are exposed to large scale projections that move the largest mountains and swirl the world’s oceans, quite figuratively.  Projections interact with the performers on several occasions, making the surface where they are performing have its own pulse.  Rocks fall from performers’ footsteps; projected water reacts with where a performer is standing.  People take running slides down the side of a mountain texture, and they leave an imprint.  That is called precise attention to detail!  An army of infrared sensors, position data from the scenic automation encoders, direct tracking of performers, and a system of inductive tiles on the Sand Cliff Deck  track the projections and calculate them in real time.

Let me say that again:  the video in is generated in real time along with the human interactions in the show.

The induction tile system is also quite amazing – there are 18,000 3X3 inch induction points, all which get their data sent directly to the projection computers via wireless.  Also, during the show, since there are more than one type of surface being projected on, alternate projector settings are loaded during the show, and played through the three Barco R18 projectors shooting from FOH.  This system is amazing to me – mostly because this is the payoff.  This scene is the Sand Cliff Deck with projections interacting with the performers.  This is quite possibly one of the most amazing moments in the show.  It is ethereal, magic, and that 80,000 pound platform has performers on it, sideways, and fighting!

Battle, photo by Tomas Muscionico; Costume credit: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt

The induction tile system – a sample tile:

There are so many random facts that I wanted to add in the other article but I couldn’t fit them in and still meet my format!  Such as:

  • was the first Cirque du Soleil show to encompass a cohesive storyline
  • KÀ is the Egyptian meaning of the spirit of duality and the Japanese word for fire
  • The language in the show is of Cirque du Soleil’s creation, breaking the language barriers for the multiple nationalities that comprise our audiences
  • The harp in the main lobby is a real instrument created by Bill Close who performed the lobby music for the Grand Premiere
  • Every seat in the Theatre has two speakers built into its headrest which allows sound effects to be targeted, manipulated and customized to any of 16 seating zones.

The music in KÀ is performed live – in a recording studio – and with a few live performers onstage, every night!  The conductor and musicians are in the lower levels of the theatre in soundproofed studio rooms, with percussion separated into their own quiet room:

This shot is one of my favorites – a view through the bags protecting the spiral lifts to the post and beams.  Amanda Lynne freaking rocks.

Lighting Production Shots!

Fox sent me the images below – I organized them into a gallery for you, and to make the page load faster!  These shots are rehearsal photos – check out the tech tables all over that place!

More facts (thanks, Fox!):

  • Seventy specialists worked more than 35,000 hours to produce the first full set of KÀ costumes at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal.
  • The stage can tilt through 100 degrees and rotate a continuous 360 degrees while artists are performing.
  • One Forest hat takes 40 hours to make.
  • Many artists glue Austrian crystals to their faces as part of their make-up.
  • During the pre-show, approximately 120 fireballs are discharged.
    These fireballs measure 30 feet in height and reach temperatures of 1200° Fahrenheit.
  • 119 pyrotechnic devices are fired throughout the show.
  • The Props and Puppet Department is responsible for more than 500 individual props, 10 larger-than-life puppets, 21 mini puppets, and six butterflies.
  • The Stick Bug puppet is over 16 feet long and is operated by two artists.
  • The Snake is over 80 feet long.
  • An estimated 1,300 hours went into making one crab puppet.
  • Over 110 live arrows are shot through the air at each performance. The artists spent many hours in training to learn proper archery techniques.
  • There are more than 160 harnesses for the artists, comprised of 21 different types.
  • Each harness is hand-fitted to the individual artist and is inspected daily.
  • For the Wash-up on the Shore scene, the beach is created using 350 cubic feet of granular cork from Portugal.
  • Airbag training is held to teach artists the proper method to fall into air bags from different heights. Air bags (not visible to the audience) are used for falls over 20 feet.

A view of the flags from all nationalities working on KA, in their specially designed green room/dressing room/all kinds of other stuff building (that’s the technical term, you see):

All photos on this page, including the unmarked images owned by Cirque du Soleil, unless specifically noted otherwise, are protected under an Attribution-NonCommercial-No-Derivitives license.  You can repost the photos and content as long as you give attribution to  Photographer credit, unless otherwise noted, is Amanda Lynne Ballard.

Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ Melts’s Mind

When was the last time you were inspired?  When was the last time you had your artistic senses shaken?

I was lucky enough during LightFair 2010 to get an amazing opportunity – I got a backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil’s at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  It started out well enough – exciting information from ‘s technical director, Erik Walstad and day crew lighting technician David Fox (or just Fox, as we affectionately refer to him).  The tour then rounded an amazing corner and turned into an experience that will be impossible for me to forget, ever, as long as I have control of my mind.

Here’s the hard fact about :
If you’re a lighting designer, projection designer, scenic designer, engineer, actor, performer, gymnast, technical director, rigger, painter, electrician, student, teacher, mentor, artist, human being, or sentient non-human entity, you owe it to your soul to see .  Hands down, no bluffing, and no exaggeration.   changed my mind about what I do, and I’ve been a working lighting designer for 15 years.  I also have no one’s bread to butter up here with this post – I am writing from my heart, just like I do for every post that I publish for you all.  The truth is that my mind got a bit blown by this amazing experience.

David Fox ( day crew lighting technician), Jim Hutchison (JimOnLight), and Erik Walstad (KÀ Technical Director):

I was so grateful to be able to get a tour and information about a show I knew nothing about before I saw the evening performance – you would think that someone like myself, someone who has designed hundreds of shows and done tours across the globe would be at home in a venue of any kind.  When it comes to , you’d be so completely wrong about any pre-conceived notion you have about a performance.  Even though I saw a lot of the backstage aspect of the production (and Erik gave us the most friendly, personable, and informative backstage tour of my career), nothing he or Fox could have said would have prepared me for what I was going to experience at the show.

As we waited for Erik in the lobby with Fox, the experience started for me, and it started strong.  Amanda Lynne was getting amazing shots of the Lobby Harp (which you’ll see below in the post), and I was very much digging the vibe of the lobby itself.  When you queue up for the show, you stare at as massive wooden representation of what I could only tie with a section of a massive wooden ship’s hull.  The lighting designer in me was in awe of the combination of colors chosen to illuminate the lobby.  The foreshadowing of how open my mind was going to get blown during the show was ever present, and the attention to detail of the design, in all areas, was – well, it was just unbelievable.  Even walking into the venue for , you pass through a “curtain” of deep congo fiber-optic light that just washes you, cleaning your body and mind of all preconceived notions of what you might think you are going to experience.

Then, you walk into this:

Post and Beam, photo by Tomas Muscionico; Costume credit: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt

Yeah.  That’s kinda in your face.  When you get to your seat, hang on tight, because it blasts off into another galaxy.  Here’s the venue without the production lighting, just the works:

Before I get off too far on a waxing artistic mindset about the lighting in KÀ, let’s talk about the amazing technical achievements of the  team and production.  The technical aspects of the production and the attention to safety and continuity blew my mind as much as the artistic achievements did – and not because it surprises me that a production could be so in control of itself, because that’s how all of our work should be produced.  It was more along the lines of the production being so in touch with itself that it is a role model for achievement.

First and foremost, do you know what a gantry crane is?  Think of a harbor crane – the kind used to pick up containers and move them in a harbor onto and off of ships.  In , attached to a gantry crane turned on its side, is a show deck called the Sand Cliff Deck.  Immediately your mind should try to place a gantry crane on its side and rig a rotating platform that can go from flat to 110 degrees – and, you know, rotate continuously in either direction.  Check this out – this image below is the gantry crane, Tatami Deck, and Sand Cliff Deck, all deployed:

and another image of the decks deployed, looking into the house from the Tatami Deck:

Looming!  The largest “kitchen drawer” on earth, the Tatami Deck!

Five 250 horsepower pumps and a 3500 gallon oil reservoir power the gantry crane and Sand Cliff deck, and the crane is lifted by four 75 foot cylinders (which are among the largest ever manufactured).  This Sand Cliff Deck is no regular show deck by any means – first, it’s 80,000 pounds.  It rotates.  It’s 25 feet by 50 feet, 6 feet deep, attached to a crane on its side lifted by four of the largest cylinders on the planet.  What kind of show deck did you work on today?

The Sand Cliff Deck also happens to act as a sand covered beach/cliff/platform of hilarity and excitement several times during the show too.  The sand in the show is not sand, but cork!  One ton of cork is used on the Sand Cliff Deck for each performance.  This cork is recycled, but when I say recycled, I mean brought from a clean state through a performance and back to a completely clean and safe state.  It passes through magnets, filters, and maybe even little garden gnomes that drop kick any debris out of the cork for the safety of the performers.  It is amazing – I think I recall Erik saying it was the loudest process in the entire backstage area.

The gantry crane’s cylinder heads are actually hooked up into the roof of the KÀ Theatre.  Take a look at this Google Earth image of the top of the venue – notice the two “doghouses?”

The stage space itself is not like any stage you’ve ever seen.  It’s a big pit.  Really!  This “void” has several massive moving stage pieces that move through it, and it takes the audience to a level of imagination that is just interstellar.  Inside of this stage space is another show deck called the Tatami Deck, named for some Tatami mats that were originally on the deck.  (For those of you asking yourself well, what’s a Tatami Mat?, it’s a traditional Japanese floor mat, and Tatami means “folded and piled.”)  What makes this Tatami deck amazing is that it’s like a monster kitchen drawer – the deck is 75,000 pounds, 30 feet by 30 feet, and it extends to cantilever 46 feet over the open stage space.

also has five stage lifts that are organized into the show in various fashions, move props and performers, and have a long travel.  The crazy thing about the lifts is their speed.  The lifts are all spiral lifts, and four of them can travel four inches per second, with the last lift traveling at one foot per second.


This is still, and yes I saw a ton of lighting in .  What was absolutely stunning about the rig was its spread – a lot of instrumentation actually lives down in the pit, because there is so much that happens inside of the void.  The void is huge, you have to understand!  To give an idea of the amount of power in the show, has about 14,150 kVA available for its use, with 8 separate transformers fed direct from the utility feed, discretely.  All of the systems in are on a battery backup that will let them run for a minimum of 90 minutes.  This is all from UPS modules the size of copy machines.

Some lighting in the pit:
(and Jason Hamblen, member of the lighting crew, doing one of many, many daily inspections)

Something that actually shocked me about the lighting was the small number of automated fixtures in .  It is very well lit, appropriately, amazingly, and at times unbelievably, but without utilizing a lot of moving heads.   has 22 VL3000 Wash, 13 VL3000 Spots, 2 VL3500Q Profiles, and 14 Clay Paky Stage Profile Plus SV units (plus a few spares).  For a show this size, it’s beautiful to see that every fixture was designed into the system and not just added to have in the plot.

Please note: I didn’t even touch on the projections yet.  That’s for Part Deux of the article, which comes out later today.

Control systems for are also designed to be redundant and backed up, checked, double checked, and life safe.  Moving lights and conventionals both have their own discreet networks – I mean, there are over 3300 fixtures in , 24 Strand SLD96 dimmer racks for performance and one test rack, 2 CD80 packs in the Sand Cliff Deck, and 64 DMX nodes all over that venue.  It’s no small rig.  Wholehog II desks are used for moving lights, Strand 550i desks are used for conventional lighting, and Strand 520 desks control special effect cues.  Lighting in the architecture, all cue lights, and lobby lighting is run from a system of Strand 510 desks.  All of these systems are connected, controlled, watched over, and monitored so in the event of an issue of whatever size, problems can be tracked, traced, and solved.  Haze, fog, atmospherics, and the building’s HVAC are also controlled and monitored to produce the most optimal venue conditions for the performance.

has a lot of “specialty” lighting in the plot.  Some of the most excellent examples of this are in the form of modified wash fixtures, 9-Lite units, and the big mamas, two custom Mole-Mag panels with 192 PAR lamps, each.  In the scene which these bad puppies play, they just come down and microwave the action.  They are absolutely amazing, and provide such a look!  Check out this picture (c/o lighting department head Nils Becker) of the LPD’s, or “luminous panels of doom,” as they are lovingly called:

Here’s a good side view of the LPDs in action – MASSIVE!

They’re the two angled panels on either side of the wheel of death thing there.  192 PARs each.  Another modification of note are the moonbox-type lightboxes that reside up in the scenery of .  The best way to understand them is just to see them – you can see several circles of light in the image above, yes?  Here’s one of those lightboxes:

The lighting environment for is complex, and filled with little touches like this lightbox.  You have to just go see it.  It is very precise, very intense, and extremely moving.  Without giving plot and show secrets away, that’s really what I feel I can say about it!  I’ll be posting another set of photos of just the lighting during the initial tech rehearsal period.  Amazing looks!

Here’s a few shots of the tour with Erik Walstad and David Fox – one of several spotlight positions:

Doug Fleenor, loves you!

Erik Walstad talking about the safety nets and airbag systems:

Some of the 160 custom harnesses used in the show:

Rigging and safety are obviously a number one priority in .  For falls under 20 feet, performers fall into an acrobatic safety net which is checked, checked again, rechecked, and then double checked for accuracy and safety.  The same systems of checks goes into the performers’ harnesses.  For any falls over 20 feet, has a really unique system of collapsible airbags atop the fall nets that have the ability to deflate and re-inflate very rapidly – and that whole re-inflate system has its own battery backup for power failures, too.  A system of 18 winches controls the safety nets, which have several different configurations for the performers during the show.

Main fall net:

A view of the airbag system being checked, against a view of a crane cylinder:

It’s hard for me to explain what the show did for me – it inspired, it shocked, it awed, it just changed the way I see production.  My lighting designer brain was just left in disbelief so many times at the simple design solutions employed so many times in the show, and blown wide open by the complex looks created by Luc Lafortune and the Cirque team.  A good example of a simple design solution would be the two handfuls of PAR 64’s used to toplight a scene on the sand platform – elegant, true to feel and temperature, and just stunning.  Or maybe the intimate scene that took place on the lip of the stage deck with two performers, one light source carried on by those two performers, and a few minutes of unbelievably beautiful and complex shadow puppets.  A complex moment in the show with lighting?  How about discovering the magic forest, complete with sunlight coming through the trees and the male flying forest nymph?  What about all the sudden being in the middle of the briny deep?  I’ll leave that one to your experience, but let me tell you – if you’re not on the edge of your seat with amazement at the beauty of the work when you see it, you might need to go see your doctor because you aren’t experiencing life.

You just have to see it yourself.  There are so many places in the show I found myself clutching at my own body trying to find a place to hold on during the experience.  Can I be metaphoric for a moment?  Of course I can, it’s my blog.  Watching made me feel like I was watching the universe being born – or viewing the beginning of time – or some other unbelievable moment in time that I just couldn’t believe I was seeing.

Honestly, my mind is still blown.  I had nothing to say after the show.  Actually, I had a hard time finding words after my experience.  I hope that your night with Cirque du Solei’s  is as powerful and life-changing as mine was.  A major thank you, deep from inside my heart, to Erik Walstad, David Fox, and  publicist Jeff Lovari for the opportunity to see both inside and out of the amazing work of art that is .

I have so much more material to post about that I am going to be doing a second post with images and some other bits that the team has graciously shared with me.  Seriously, thanks a lot!

All photos on this page, including the unmarked images owned by Cirque du Soleil, unless specifically noted otherwise, are protected under an Attribution-NonCommercial-No-Derivitives license.  You can repost the photos and content as long as you give attribution to  Photographer credit, unless otherwise noted, is Amanda Lynne Ballard.