Las Vegas Back of House Tour: KA

KA is Cirque du Soleil's biggest and most expensive standing Las Vegas show.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

We got a chance to see the Las Vegas that hides from tourists – the great machine behind the 24/7 show that keeps the visitors entertained and hundreds of thousands of men and women employed in that entertainment.

The Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority – in conjunction with the area’s major resorts and attractions – invited a select group of reporters to the Entertainment Capital of the World for the 2012 Back of House Tour – a look behind the scenes at the city.

Any tour like that has to include Cirque du Soleil. The Canadian entertainment powerhouse is now synonymous with Vegas entertainment as it already has seven standing shows in town – with an eighth inbound (thanks to an upcoming Michael Jackson-themed production).

For Cirque’s entry into the BAck of House romp, I had the chance to look behind the curtain at KA, the massive adventure performed 10 times per week at the MGM Grand.

KA is the most expensive and technologically advanced stage show in history, with a $220 million construction project building the show’s stage and 1,950-seat theater. KA opened in February 2005 — four months behind schedule as Cirque du Soleil worked through the obstacles of designing and producing the most complex show in the troupe’s history.

To offer a sense of the show’s scale, envision the following: The stage is 120 feet across. From the high grid rigging at the ceiling to the pit (the lowest floor level), it’s 149 feet (about 15 stories). It’s 98 feet from the stage level to that high grid. And it’s 120 feet from the stage level to the pit.

Filling those dimensions is an elaborate set of mobile stages. Five stage lifts moving 25 feet up and down transport props and performers during the show. The rear stage segment (the Tatami Deck) slides forward 50 feet and weighs more than 37 tons. Finally, the Sand Cliff Deck (a 25-foot by 50-foot platform that weighs 40 tons) is controlled by a vertical gantry crane and a robotic arm attached to four 75-foot-long hydraulic cylinders running along two support columns.

The Sand Cliff Deck plays host to a mix of computer-generated effects and human input as the stage transforms into a cinema screen. To create and perfect the interactive projections that follow an artist’s actions, an infrared-sensitive camera above the stage tracks all movements.

The gantry crane can lift the Sand Cliff Deck 72 feet, rotate 360 degrees and tilt from flat to 110 degrees — all at the same time. The deck is powered by five 250-horsepower pumps and a 4,000-gallon oil reservoir.

When dealing with dimensions like that, the wellbeing of the artists is always the primary concern. And one of the production’s recent improvements forced the entire cast and crew to devote even more attention to safety.

When the crane moved during the show, it made its fair share of hissing and humming. For some time, the production sought a design to eliminate that sound. Once a groundbreaking hydraulic improvement finally eliminated the fuss, the crew envisioned a potential problem for the cast and took special care to preempt it.

The performers could hear those sounds night after night. They were basing cues and movements off of them. So, once engineers eliminated the noise, the crew had to call the 80-member cast together and work through the cues to make it clear that the environment changed.

While the performers are doing their aerial stunts or wire acts, legions of stage crew workers rearrange nets and airbags beneath the stage to provide security should an accident occur.