By Michael Raine
Photos Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil has been creating some of the world’s most awe-inspiring live shows for over three decades. Each production stunningly blends the best in music, lighting, and, of course, acrobatics and showmanship. Though continually evolving over its 34-year existence, Cirque has been able to consistently honour the circus traditions of the past century while also firmly bringing the entire concept of what a circus production is into the current world of live entertainment. There may be no better example of this than Corteo.
Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, who founded the Swiss clown troupe Teatro Sunil, Corteo is set in early 20th century Europe and tells the story of a clown imagining his own carnival-like funeral. The producers describe it well as “juxtaposing the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic, and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection. The show highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us. The music, by turns lyrical and playful, carries Corteo through a timeless celebration in which illusion teases reality.”
The show premiered under the Big Top in Montreal in 2005, where it was seen by more than 200,000 people before traveling the world for 10 years. The Grand Chapiteau tour took Corteo through 64 cities in 19 countries, spending one to three months in each location, and wrapped up in Ecuador in December, 2015.
“Since the creation of Corteo in all its life in the Big Top, everybody agreed that it was kind of a special show for Cirque du Soleil. A lot of people thought there was a soul to that show because there was a very defined spirit,” recalls Carl Thibaudeau. He was the production manager while the current Corteo arena tour was being developed and more recently was promoted to senior director of show technical equipment and projects for all of Cirque du Soleil’s touring productions. “One of the main challenges in the adaptation from Big Top to arena was to make sure we kept the soul of the production. Lighting was a very big part of that. The spirit of the show is a really old European circus show. It’s set in the beginning of the 20th century, so it’s that spirit that we brought. The scenography and the sound are obviously important, as well, but the lighting is very much wrapping all that up and making it feasible.”
Throughout the show, the aesthetic blends the sombre and playful, but given the early 20th century European setting, it’s also fairly simple, particularly the lighting. It’s that simple style – with the adjective “warm” being constantly used to describe the show in PL&P’s conversations – combined with the Italian, French, and Spanish music that gives the show the soul that Thibaudeau refers to.
“The idea behind Corteo is it’s the story of a clown, [Mauro], who is dying, so we see his memories. With all the lighting, really, the idea was that everything is as warm as possible, as tungsten as possible – like it was an old circus or an old souvenir,” explains Martin Labrecque, the lighting designer for both the Big Top and arena productions of Corteo. “So in the arena, it’s still like that. Every move is almost always the same base, which is a tungsten, warm look, and the kind of feeling that we have is an old circus from the ‘20s or ‘30s.”
Though the basic look of the two iterations stayed consistent, Labrecque says there was a “huge difference” in the technology. “One of the reasons is that the [Big Top] had only six moving lights and the rest was colour changers and it was a tungsten-based lighting plot. Now, it’s all moving lights – 120 moving lights and there is no tungsten at all. The reason for that is because they have to set up faster than in the Big Top, so no tungsten and no conventionals were allowed on this tour,” he explains. “Plus, the set changed constantly. They rebuilt the set and they rebuilt the tracks, the stage, and so I had different hanging points. The other thing is we have no mast, of course, and I’d say 65 per cent of my lighting was on those four masts in the [Big Top], so it’s a kind of different approach to this tour.”
There were a number of reasons to switch from all-conventional lighting in the Big Top to all-LED for the arena tour – not least of which is the obvious improvements in LED technology over the last 14 years, but there were others. One, as Labrecque mentioned, is time. For Cirque’s Big Top productions, because the show will be in one place for a month or more, they have the luxury of more load-in and set up time. On the arena tour, they are only in the venue for three to five days.
“There is no time to do focus and such, so we need to go with something we can program and just work with it,” says Thibaudeau. “The other adaptation we did, lighting-wise, from the Big Top to an arena is the followspots. We had four followspot operators with four followspots in cthe original show in the Big Top. The way it is, four operators for a show is a lot for us. What we do in the Big Top is we have two operators that are part of the Cirque du Soleil crew, and because the show is parked for five, six, seven weeks, we’re training two other local followspot operators. So that is easy to manage. In an arena, because we’re changing arenas every week and there is no way we can have four operators just to do followspots from Cirque du Soleil’s crew, we decided to go with an automated system from [Montreal-based] VYV on that show. So we have trackers installed on some of the performers and we used the automated light system in order to light them up.”
One of the special features of Corteo is that it employs a two-sided seating configuration. Most Big Top productions have a 270-degree configuration and, of course, arenas typically have either 180-, 270-, or 360-degree configurations. For Corteo, the elongated stage is set up at centre ice with the audience centred on either long side. The show begins with two elaborate painted scrims separating the two sides of the stage and audience, which rises after the opening act to reveal the two halves to each other. “For Corteo, this is part of the challenge. You have two sides, and you have two fronts of house and everything that comes with that,” says Thibaudeau.
For the arena tour, TAIT Towers built a completely new stage structure and automated systems, as well as the trussing and acrobatic structure that supports the lighting, set pieces, and the flying performers. Cirque du Soleil’s long-time partner Solotech supplied all the lighting equipment, whether that meant new fixtures or ones already in Cirque’s inventory that needed some refurbishing before going back out on the road.
For lights, the main tools in Labrecque’s design are an array of fixtures from Claypaky, Elation, and Robert Juliat. The LD says that for Corteo’s particular look, he was especially fond of Claypaky’s Scenius Profiles and Sharpy Wash 330s, of which 44 and 32 fixtures are used, respectively.
There are also custom elements, like chandeliers fitted with LED candles that move through the air as performers twist and turn under, around, and even through them.
“I didn’t want to get into LED super weirdo fixtures because we still wanted to keep the old theatre looks,” Labrecque explains with a little laugh. “So, I have a couple of [Claypaky] B-eye K10s but not much because they didn’t fit in the look. I wanted something more classic.”
About the Claypaky Sharpy Wash 330, Labrecque says there are two reasons he relied on them fairly heavily. “I wanted the classic wash fixture but I had a problem with the amount of weight because most of them are hanging on the grid. So that’s one of the reasons we went with those is because they’re really light – they’re so small. I did another show where I could achieve some really nice warm colour with them and that is one of the reasons why I chose them, and same thing for the Scenius Spot.”
By Cirque du Soleil’s standards, Labrecque says this is not a difficult show to control via the grandMA2 console at FOH. The colour scheme is quite simple with warm and rich reds, blues, and ambers being the dominant tones. “It’s not a flashy show and there are not many cues. It’s very subtle. And it was like that at [the Big Top]. We wanted something very classy, subtle, and we didn’t want to go into the classic circus of flashing colour. I think we have maybe seven to 10 different colours. That’s all, and I am playing through those colours – and I say colour, but sometimes it’s just a tint. It’s amber and darker amber, you know?” he laughs. “So it’s really only us who can see the difference, and it’s very, very subtle in that way.”
Throughout the show, the lighting tones complement the costumes, scenery, and other elements of Corteo’s 16 acts. For example, during the Acrobatic Ladder act, the lighting is a burnt orange that was chosen because it complements the colour of the ladder.
In an act involving two gangs battling it out on an acrobatic teeterboard, the setting is a park and Labrecque explains that the lighting is supposed to elicit the feeling of sunlight going through tree leaves. “The sun moves depending on which group is on the teeterboard, so it’s a lot of textures on the floor and on them. At the Big Top, it was a bit easier to achieve that look because the way the lights were hanging really gave the feeling of light going through tree leaves, but we managed a bit of that on the arena tour.”
As Labrecque thinks through his design for each of Corteo’s 16 acts, he repeats with each that the goal was to create a simple, old circus-type feel with rich, warm tones while the vibrancy of the light changes to match the mood of the act.
One of the unusual things for Labrecque was having the audience be the backdrop because of the two-sided configuration, especially in the arena shows.
“As a lighting designer, you don’t have a set. The set is all around the stage, but I don’t have a background. The background is the audience. So, it’s people wearing all kind of colours and it’s blue or grey seats or it’s pitch black because there is nobody there during rehearsals. So, I don’t have a set to light behind the artists. It was like that at [the Big Top] but it was different because it was not as high as in the arena. Now I have seats going super high – it’s like I have a wall of seats behind the performers. At the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so ugly.’ But it was Daniele, the director, who said, ‘Well, let’s light them sometimes. Let’s integrate them into the end looks.’ So we added a couple of cues and, I have to say, I wouldn’t have gone there had Daniele not pushed me in that direction. So sometimes during the act we light the audience behind [the artists] and it fills the space and removes that black space and you see people watching the show.”
An element that Labrecque misses from the Grand Chapiteau shows is the type of lamp they used on the two large barn door-type structures on either end of the stage. “I built two doors – one on stage left and one on stage right – where we integrated Svobodas inside. The door would close and it would make a wall of lights. They’re super high, very narrow European lamps,” he recalls. “But we could not have those on tour because they’re too heavy and take too much electricity, so we replaced them with LEDs, which of course is not the same at all. So now we have doors that roll up on stage a couple of times. But I would say that those two doors are one of the biggest differences from the Big Top show.”
Another unusual thing about lighting shows for Cirque du Soleil that the typical LD for a concert tour or other live event wouldn’t have to consider if the safety of the aerial acrobats. For example, at some points throughout the show, Labrecque needs to light a spot on the ceiling or
arena wall over the audience so that the acrobats have a point of reference
to orient themselves while spinning through the air.
“To be honest, it’s hard to integrate that into the look that you want structured and you’re making a real image and then the artist says, ‘Can you light the wall up there so I can have a reference point?’ So you try to fit that into the look,” he explains. “It’s always the same thing when we start a Cirque show. Between what I want for the look and what they need to perform and what the director wants for the act and the trainers, there are a lot of people involved.”
Related to this, there is a lengthy training process the acrobatic performers must go through when they join Cirque du Soleil because, often, they don’t come from a circus background and aren’t used to performing their acrobatic feats in show lighting.
“Often, they come from high level training for the Olympics, and so they always trained in a gym,” adds Labrecque. “So, it’s about training. What I’ll do is I’ll build a look without any cues, just one straight look. We’ll say to them, ‘Train in that and get used to it. If you have any problems with some angles or intensity or whatever, come to me and we’ll fix it.’ Once they’re feeling safe in their environment, then I’ll start making some changes and I’ll add some cues. Sometimes it’s not exactly the intensity or the look I want, but I’ll make sure they feel comfortable. Sometimes I’ll fight for it and say, ‘It really looks better that way,’ and the artist will say, ‘Ok, I’ll do it a couple of times and if in two or three shows I don’t feel safe, I’ll tell you.’ So, it goes both ways. Sometimes they’ll tell me, ‘I cannot jump in that’ or ‘I cannot do my move in that light. It’s impossible.’ So then I’ll change it.”
As Corteo continues on its tour of North American arenas through the fall and winter, including stops in Toronto, Quebec City, and Montreal in December, Mauro the Clown’s fantastical memories of his life in the old world will continue to leave audiences transfixed. Though the lighting is simple, achieving the right blend of look, performance, and music to bring people into this world is a complex feat that only Cirque du Soleil could achieve.
Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of Professional Lighting & Production.