If Las Vegas is a place where we get to unleash our desires—at caviar-studded buffet tables, hypnotic slot machines, high-end shops and thrumming nightclubs—then Cirque du Soleil is where we allow ourselves to dream.
For 30 years, Cirque du Soleil has been dazzling audiences with beautifully choreographed shows that blend outrageous acrobatics, surrealistic costumes, live music and state-of-the-art technology. With its international headquarters located in Montreal, Cirque currently has 19 different shows in performance around the world. But it’s here, in Sin City, where the circus reigns supreme.
Las Vegas is home to eight resident Cirque du Soleil shows—more than any other city. It makes sense, really. As one of the planet’s showbiz capitals, a place that feeds and thrives on spectacle, Vegas is a perfect fit for Cirque’s over-the-top brand of productions.
Cirque du Soleil’s “O”
“Here you go, sir,” says the usher who has guided me to my seat inside the Bellagio’s theatre, home to Cirque’s famous aquatics show, “O.” Once I’ve settled in, I take in the stage—a massive pool with a cavernous black backdrop—and feel as though I’ve been transported to some secret place deep inside the earth.
For the next 90 minutes, I’m enveloped in an intoxicating dreamscape where red-jacketed, white-haired men descend on carousel horses into the water, aerial artists share a single trapeze above, and synchronized swimmers, high-divers and clowns perform in billowing mists and bursts of underwater light.
Like the three other Cirque shows I’ve seen on this particular trip to Vegas—The Beatles LOVE, Zarkana and Michael Jackson ONE—“O” manages to make me feel like I’m part of the magic. And the next day, when Cirque insider Tom Otjes offers to take me behind the scenes and show me how some of that magic is made, I jump at the chance.
Behind the Scenes
Most people only dream of running away and joining the circus. Otjes actually did it. Eighteen years ago, he was working as an award-winning gymnastics coach and consultant in Calgary when Cirque reached out to hire him through a former colleague. Otjes packed up his car and headed to Montreal with his wife and two daughters.
It was supposed to be just a two-year adventure, he says, but working with top creative people and athletes proved irresistible. Otjes was in Montreal for six months before being sent to Las Vegas, where he is now Cirque’s senior head coach for resident shows, tasked with ensuring all of the Vegas shows’ coaches and performers meet rigorous safety and training standards.
At six-foot-two and 230 lb. (and wearing a Calgary Flames shirt and cap), Otjes is an imposing figure. He leads me backstage at “O” while afternoon training is just getting underway. In Las Vegas, Cirque coaches and performers usually work on skills and tweak aspects of the show every day, other than the two days each week that the shows go “dark.”
As I wander around with Otjes, I see the production unmasked in daytime. The lighting is stark, the backdrop’s dark walls no longer forbidding and the performers are in halters, sweat pants and water suits. I watch as they go about practicing, climbing wires that are otherwise hidden at night, swinging on contraptions, and catching one another in mid-flight.
In addition to 85 acrobats, swimmers and divers, “O” has approximately 100 hidden technicians responsible for rigging, equipment automation and myriad other duties (15 technicians work underwater during the show, manipulating props and helping artists).
Speaking of water, there are 1.5 million gallons of it in this show (and it is recycled through the Bellagio fountains once it is used from the pool). Hydraulics raise seven platforms up and down with pump motors designed for quiet operation so the audience won’t hear them. Each day, the pool is cleaned twice, and 60 loads of laundry are washed and dried. A separate room was built with timed heaters, just to air-dry the costumes.
The grand, sweeping magic of “O”, it soon becomes clear, is conjured step by painstaking step.
After a while, Otjes and I take a seat near the front of the theatre. On the stage, “O” head acrobatics coach Emmanuel Durand leans forward and picks up a resin bag, then gets a grip on a safety line called a longe. It’s connected to an aerialist who is dangling high above and, if Durand pulls on it, he can prevent the performer from falling.
“Okay, let’s go!” shouts Durand. As the woman begins to fly from one end of the set to the other, Durand pulls hard and suddenly lifts off the stage, acting as a dangling counterweight. He thought she wasn’t going to have enough rotation in the air to make a flip, so he acted fast, just in case.
Watching as Durand gently gets his footing back on stage, Otjes chuckles. “I did that for 12 years as the head coach of this show,” he says. “But I didn’t go that high. I’ve got a little more of what you might call, uh, ballast.”
Otjes then introduces me to 41-year-old Craig Paul Smith, a British acrobat who’s been with the show since it started 15 years ago. He doesn’t look near his age—a common trait of the performers here. It’s as if they’re all in Neverland.
So what is it about the circus that keeps him going?
“The audience and the live performance,” says Smith. “If I’m tired, they give me energy. There’s nothing like it.”
Most of us can’t run away and join the circus like Smith and Otjes did. But a trip to Vegas can make us feel like we’re part of it. With “Cirque Insider Access” packages for The Beatles LOVE and “O” that include VIP seating and a 45-minute backstage tour, you can even slip behind to the other side of the curtain and, taking a bow when no one’s looking, almost hear the applause.
Getting There: WestJet flies to Las Vegas 11 times a day from 10 Canadian cities.