Peep Show: Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity


Seductive and sensual, Zumanity brings “another side of Cirque du Soleil” to the famed Vegas Strip. The company's third permanent production in Las Vegas, Zumanity opened officially in September 2003 at New York-New York Hotel and Casino. Written and directed by Dominic Champagne and René Richard Cyr, this show is for adults 18 and over (it's not for your kids, or your parents, for that matter). With a 50-member cast, or human zoo, Cirque's latest is a zesty look at love, human sexuality, the nature of beauty, and acceptance of bodies in all shapes and sizes.

Zumanity is nestled in a 1,295-seat theatre completely custom-rebuilt to house the show. Auerbach Pollack Friedlander served as theatre consultants, working with Pelton Marsh Kinsella acousticians, JR Clancy for the stage machinery, and scenic designer Stéphane Roy to create an intimate, cabaret-style venue. “Everything was destroyed,” says Roy, referring to the previous theatre on the site. “Not even the ceiling remained.”

This is not an ordinary theatre in any sense. The lobby undulates in waves of red and gold, with a carpet pattern of rippling muscles, one wall suggesting laced bodices (from svelte to zaftig), and another of tufted red velvet with some of the buttons replaced by glowing peepholes. When you peep, you see sensual images and hear a sexy soundtrack via small American Technology Corporation HSS loudspeakers that have just one degree of dispersion (listen carefully in the restrooms as well).

In what Roy calls “the Amsterdam window, like in a red-light district,” performers welcome guests seductively. A bathtub of popcorn and a bed are tucked in dark corners. Chandeliers look like glowing ovaries or perhaps breasts. “These are provocative flashes in the lobby. They prepare you for the language of the show,” he says.

Inside, the theatre is “like a living room,” Roy adds. “There is more interaction with the actors and amongst the audience members. The main thing is that you feel like you are in a womb. This is a custom-made theatre for just this one show about sensuality. Not a theatre for any other show.”

An intimate space, not a single seat is further than 66' from the long thrust stage that penetrates the audience. The carpet is based on a painting of nudes, and the seating includes love seats for two and solo cabaret stools as well as traditional theatre seats, all upholstered in warm shades of red, gold, burgundy, and rust. “Everything makes a statement,” says Roy, pointing out that the curves of the balcony fronts, the colors in the room, the curving stairs, and the shape of the proscenium are meant to be fallopian, rather than phallic, emphasizing the power of women.

A large stage turntable has a central pod, or small round platform, in the center that lowers 12' or raises to 8' above the stage. A main trap is used for such items as a baby grand piano and a large fish bowl where two exotic creatures perform a water ballet. “You can pre-set items on the traps when they are lowered, and a cover slides over to fill in the stage,” Roy points out.

JR Clancy built and installed the traps and turntable, and installed the motorized spot lines for rigging that were built by Stage Technologies. Additional acrobatic rigging was designed and implemented by Cirque du Soleil's in-house crew, under the direction of Jacque Paquin. Two smaller lifts, called the “chick” lifts, are located stage right and stage left in front of the proscenium. The musicians perch on a curved bridge that sits above the proscenium and adds to the art nouveau look of the theatre. “The bridge lowers to bring the musicians closer to the audience during a few numbers,” says Roy.


The principal scenic elements, The Waves, are two motorized pairs of Lexan panels that move via a system of pins traveling in a track. “The Waves can rotate in both directions to create all kinds of configurations,” says Roy, who created one space that changes throughout the evening. “You can change the geography of the space, from wide open to a narrow little corridor where the audience is the voyeur looking into a window or through a facade.”

To create a frosted, art nouveau quality of milk glass, the Lexan was sand blasted and varnished. “Light and projections look great on the panels, but they still have a translucent quality so you can see the artists behind them,” says Roy. The patina can be removed if Roy decides to create a window, or a peek into a shower.

A curtain 150' long × 44' high was made by taking old fashioned lace and expanding the pattern into multiple panels. Roy notes, “a combination of contemporary automation and an old Italian Baroque technique of counterweights is used to make the lace opening in various ways, including moving like fingers pulling up a skirt or opening like a flower.” Behind the lace is a mirror made of 4' × 4' panels of Lexan with 65% semi-translucent film. “It can be a perfect mirror, or you can use light to see through it and play at voyeurism,” notes Roy. Metallic laser projection material creates a smaller drop hung at the center of the stage. “This absorbs light beautifully,” says Roy. “All the colors of the spectrum.”

Natacha Merritt, photographer and author of the erotic website and book Digital Diaries, created the projections on the waves (and in the lobby peepholes). “She did photo shoots during the rehearsals, and her images are like a microscope zooming in on the performers. You might see a nose, or an arm, or just a body as the background. It's subliminal,” says Roy. “They are an artistic way to see the body, sometimes in color or black and white, which can be more realistic than color.” Projectors are by Digital Projection.


Lighting designer Luc Lafortune, who designed the lighting for such Cirque du Soleil shows as Mystère, O, and La Nouba, added to the Paris cabaret feel of the room by using 90 Mole Richardson Molerama fixtures on curved catwalks (these “found” lighting instruments were recycled from EFX! at the MGM Grand). Solotech in Montreal provided the majority of the fixture inventory. Nol van Genuchten and Alexandre Tougas were assistant LDs, Janene Steele, head of lighting, and Hubert Tardif, moving lights programmer.

“The notion is like an unpublished underground event, something you'd hear about by word of mouth,” says Lafortune. “Someplace you can go and live out your fantasies. It's not the kind of theatre where you would hide the lighting fixtures.” He also placed Strand Fresnels in the wings, glowing softly, so as not to see the black velour masking behind them.

“Cirque du Soleil creates a total environment, so you are not working from a script,” says Lafortune. “The final lighting choices were made rather late in the game. It's a titillating show so you can't give it away too soon. You have to tease, reveal shapes and contours but not the entire body right away.” The nature of the show gave Lafortune almost carte blanche in terms of lighting styles. “I had the freedom to change from one act to another, moving from grand operatic lighting to visibly flashing moving lights and strobes to trash it out” he notes. “These genres might not normally go together in a book show.”

Lafortune's rig includes almost 300 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of various sizes as well as 12 Source Four Zooms and 75 Source Four PARs, 12 Source Four PARnels, 50 Altman PAR64s, 24 James Thomas PAR46s, 12 James Thomas PAR36s, 38 Strand 2kW Fresnels, 12 Strand 5kW Fresnels, one Arri 6kW Fresnel, L&E MR16 strip-lights, 12 Altman single cell far cyc lights, eight Mole Richardson 5kW Skylights, and six Strand Beamlights.

The automated fixtures include eight Clay Paky Stage Profile Plus SV units and 12 Vari*Lite VL2000 wash units. Followspots and HMIs are by Robert Juliat: four Ivanhoe 2,500W HMI followspots; plus five Juliat D'Artagnan 2,500W HMI Profiles. Other gear includes eight Martin Professional Atomic 3000 strobes, 12 Rosco Image Pros, four Lightning Strikes units, and over 75 Wybron Coloram II scrollers.

The control system and network includes two Strand Lighting 550i consoles (one as a backup or to make changes and not disturb the show), a Strand 520 for special effects, and two Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II for the moving lights. Ten Strand SLD dimmer racks are located on the grid and in the basement. The Strand ShowNet systems includes 60 Ethernet nodes. “There are also four touchscreens,” says Michael Lay, Strand's project manager. “These provide cue sheet data from the console for the stage manager. The screens interface with the 510i show controller.


Sound designer Jonathan Deans, veteran of numerous Cirque du Soleil productions, notes, “Zumanity is louder than their other shows. We wanted to create a rave, a nightclub, and a disco, like you are sitting in the experience. It moves from a cabaret sound to high-energy, in-your-face with a lot of low end. The atmosphere is very different from that of a Broadway musical.”

Deans opted for Meyer Sound self-powered speakers (six CQ1 and two CQ2) with four Turbosound 21" sub woofers for “a lot of kick. They push extra air into the room,” he says. A dbx® Sub-harmonic Synthesizer is used to drop any signal an entire octave, and as Deans says, “give the bass sound an extra oomph. It creates a physical feeling without deafening everyone.”

A Variable Room Acoustics System (VRAS) from Level Control Systems (LCS) makes the venue adjustable down to an acoustic piano. “Since there are so many sound levels in the show, and for certain numbers we wanted the audience to hear themselves applaud and laugh, we couldn't set a constant decay time,” says Deans. VRAS offers the options of a small, medium, and large hall sound. There are also a variety of 29 microphones placed around the room, primarily from Sennheiser and Shure.

Sixty Nexo PS-8 loudspeakers (powered by QSC amplifiers) are placed around the walls and on balcony fronts to provide surround sound and delay. Additional PS-8 boxes add extra high-end for the rear of the balcony, and 14 more are built into the edge of the stage.

The audio control system features the new LCS Cue-Console II with new Cue-Station multi-platform software. The musicians wear Shure PSM700 in-ear monitors with belt packs. Processing equipment by TC Electronics includes Fireworx, Vocalworx, an M2000S effects processor, and an M4000 processor for streamlined reverb. There is also a backup signal system by Sierra Automation, which allows control of the show in real time in case of a glitch to the main system.

“With ten shows a week, over the next ten years, there is bound to be a glitch, a brown-out, or a flash flood,” says Deans. “The Sierra Automation cross-switcher is totally transparent to the audience. A Yamaha console then runs the show on a basic left/right mix. You go from a 497-channel mix to a two-channel mix, but it saves the show.”

Digital Clear-Com stations are linked via Cat5 cable and Ethernet nodes. The Ethernet system also allowed the sound team (Peter Hylenski was assistant sound designer) to work wireless throughout the venue via laptops that could plug in virtually anywhere. And in keeping with the theme of the show even some of the hand-held microphones are decorated as whips or ponytails.


Provocative French fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who was originally a dancer, made his Cirque du Soleil debut as costume designer for Zumanity. His costumes are evocative, from sexy black dresses and bodices for the cross-dressing mistress of seduction, Joey Arias, to topless dancers, bondage gear, bejeweled jockstraps, fur, and feathers. Even the ushers are in suggestive Mugler originals (washboard abs on t-shirts for the men and bikini tops and bottoms on dresses for the women). Stephano Canulli, Eleni Uranis, Francine Desrosiers, and Guy Brassard worked as assistants to Mugler.

“The costumes were all made at Cirque du Soleil's ateliers in Montreal,” explains Jack Ricks, head of wardrobe for Zumanity. “We had very detailed sketches and worked very closely with Thierry to recreate his exact designs to fabric.” In fact, they scoured the world for the best possible materials, from silk and lace in Paris to gloves in Portugal. “There is a real sense of luxury to the show,” says Ricks. “There is no full nudity but many of the women are topless.”

One of the more flamboyant characters is Jacobo, described as an androgynous spirit of sensuality. “He is a cross between a man and a woman, and wears everything from an enormous black silk cape to a large stole of black and purple roses (made of velvet and nylon), and a Greek-style wig of molded silicon. “He is a character of temptation who appears with a live snake and wears silver nipple covers,” adds Ricks.

Other artists wear prosthetic body parts, including brow pieces, chins, ears, even colored contact lenses, to enhance their appearance. A former Miss France, for instance, performs a bondage ballet on a swing with black fabric encircled her wrists and ankles. “She is a gorgeous person whose form has been enhanced with corsets, prosthetics, and flesh-colored fabrics” Ricks notes. “She looks nude under the lights. With a wig of flowing red hair and a lace mask she is a fantasy figure come to life.”

Cuban-born dancer Alex Castro wears a white leather jacket lined in fur, then embroidered and hand-painted with roses, the theme of his performance number. He also wears break-away blue jeans and a jeweled g-string. Other characters are bedecked in everything form seductive layers of lingerie to two huge feathered headpieces that were made by Chris Mark in New York City (in one of the first times Cirque du Soleil has gone outside its own shops for specialty items).

“There is great detail in all of the costumes,” says Ricks. “In executing Thierry's costumes, we realized his dreams for the show.” The costumes add to the overall fantasy world created in Zumanity, a new avenue of exploration for Cirque du Soleil.