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October 23, 2017

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‘Zarkana’ technical director Dave Churchill hopes the show will last ‘forever’ at Aria


Tom Donoghue/

The red carpet grand opening of Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” at Aria on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012.

An Up-Close Look at 'Zarkana' at Aria

An up-close look at Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

Cirque du Soleil production personnel have engineered the technical aspects of the new show “Zarkana” so that it can remain at MGM’s Aria Theater in CityCenter for at least 10 years -- with an additional 5-year buffer. But David Churchill, the production technical director who orchestrated the move from New York’s Radio City Music Hall to the Strip, hopes it will be a lot longer.

“We always kind of embark on a 10-year goal when we design the systems for the show. We specify everything that it is to last for 15 years because we always do a 10-year and then a 5-year buffer. But then you have ‘Mystere,’ which is on year 19 now and ‘O’ not too far behind that. Forever would be just fine.”

I asked David if the move from Manhattan to Las Vegas was fraught with problems. “There are always hiccups, but I expected a lot more than there were, so this was a very smooth move for us. We have had the benefit of this being a touring show. We moved it into New York twice; we were in Moscow, we were in Madrid. We also ‘teched’ it fully in an arena in Orlando, so we have had a lot of opportunities to set it up and take it down and work out the kinks.

“We had a couple of breakdowns. You are always missing hardware. There was a box of bolts that was shipped and put somewhere safe, and then it’s not there when you need it. It was like case No. 1,000,006, or something like that! We did find it. It is always the most crucial, the one you can’t find … the thing that you need most. It was lost for hours before we tracked it down.”

How much of a test of skills and endurance was the move West? Dave explained: “Here it was a challenge logistically because the theater is built in such a way that all the stage lifts are your only source of freight access. The loading door is in the basement, and you bring all the trucks in through there. It was a lot easier than Midtown Manhattan until we reached the point where you have to finish putting down the stage. Our stage covers the stage lifts, so we have to lock them off, and you can’t use them anymore.

“The stage is immensely wider, but the proscenium is a little smaller here than it was at Radio City, so what we did was trim away the building to turn an 80-foot opening into an 87-foot opening. We took that all the way up floor to ceiling 105 feet. That was the main remodel to allow our scenery to be better seen.

'Zarkana': Red Carpet and Show at Aria

Cirque du Soleil's Launch slideshow »

“Everything actually went like clockwork. The crew here did a fantastic job of getting ‘Viva Elvis’ to leave the building while we were in New York loading out ‘Zarkana.’ By the time we got here, the building was in really good shape. We had a week of pre-rigging and getting our stuff ready to go, and then the first real loads of stuff starting arriving Sept 24. The technical grid went up, and by Oct. 1, we were on to the floor and stage machinery. We did the acrobatic tuning Oct. 8, and we had artists onstage on Oct. 15. It went very, very smoothly.”

Once “Zarkana” was installed at Aria, it was no longer deemed a temporary show, and Clark County officials insisted on tougher codes. “Add to the fact that here we are in a hotel, so the criteria was different, but New York and Las Vegas are tough. We are now also considered a permanent show; everywhere else we have been, as a touring show, we have been temporary.

“We could prove that all of materials and the construction of the scenery are nonflammable and all fire retardant treated. Come into Clark County, and anything that is stationary for more than 90 days is considered a permanent installation. So that turned into sprinklers under the show deck, then sprinklers in our grid, so the demands were more complicated here.

“This is the first Cirque show put in Las Vegas that was built for somewhere else. … We built a show to fill Radio City Music Hall and transported it here. There were some surprises, just in terms of codes we weren’t expecting. It was fine, and we had a really fantastic team on our side.

'Zarkana': Parties at Gold Lounge and Haze

Siegfried Fischbacher, Dot Jones and Roy Horn attend the premiere of Cirque du Solei's Launch slideshow »

“In Las Vegas, it hasn’t been the jurisdictional departments in Clark County; it has been more as responsible people at Cirque du Soleil who want to make sure that the artists live to do another performance, that we put safety measures in place. Whether it is a harness, air bag, crash mat or safety bag, there is typically something. … It doesn’t diminish what the artists are doing because it is very rare that they make use of a crash mat or an air bag.

“Every once in a while, one of the trapeze guys will miss a trick, and you go back and repeat it; that is all normal for any of them. It’s always the computers in automation that cause us the occasional problem, not the performers.

“There are added pressures because of the first night. Up to now through previews, we were forgiven for anything that went wrong. That forgiveness is now at an end, so we are expected to be perfect. The pressure here for opening night in Las Vegas is much bigger than anything we’ve done before. Everybody wants it to last forever here, and we knew, because of ‘Elvis’ coming and going, everybody felt that.

“There is always that excitement in the air at an opening and probably a little more than even normal with this for ‘Zarkana.’ We all want it to last here forever.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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