Hidden from small

Making the Music Soar--Behind the Scenes with Cirque de la Symphonie

December 31, 2014

“How do they do that?!?!” It’s a question sure to be on the lips of everyone fortunate enough to be in Verizon Hall on Saturday and Sunday, when Cirque de la Symphonie makes a triumphal return engagement with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Under the direction of Conductor-in-Residence Cristian Măcelaru, the Fabulous Philadelphians will provide a dazzling musical soundscape in perfect harmony with the acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, contortionists, and strongmen of Cirque de la Symphonie as they defy belief (and gravity!) with their astounding skills, honed in some of the finest circus troupes around the globe.

One answer to that “how” question applies equally to both Orchestra and Cirque: practice, practice, practice! But there’s a whole other cast of performers working behind the scenes to make the magic happen.

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Cirque de la Symphonie in Verizon Hall in January 2014. Photo by Pete Checchia

How do those brilliant red silk cords get the aerialists where they need to go? Say hello to the pullers, the people who man the ropes attached to the silk, and actually launch the daredevil Cirque performers high into the air, help them fly all around the auditorium, and bring them safely back to earth! Contributing Technical Director Richard Moyer says the pullers are very much in the moment, heaving on the ropes according to cues from Cirque technicians, and of course in response to the dazzling aerialists who are (almost!) literally hanging by a thread.

Cirque pullers during their appearance with the Orchestra in 2012 at the Bravo! Vail festival.

And what keeps all this afloat? As Moyer explains, getting the aerialists to fly over the heads of audience and musicians alike requires a specially-designed structure called a truss, a massive support system that keeps them aloft, safely and securely. Moyer emphasizes this isn’t something simple like an extra bank of stage lights. It has to be absolutely rock steady, despite being subjected to forces trying to pull it in every direction by the daredevil acrobats.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that Verizon is a concert hall, not a theater. That means the normal attachment points for that critical support system just aren’t there. The solution: Secure the truss to the steel framework of the Kimmel Center itself. For last January’s Kimmel debut for Cirque, it took a month of meetings, phone calls, and e-mails before the Center’s engineer signed off on the plan, which involves removing the doors of several access panels (and not poking holes in the gorgeous hall!) The set-up passed with flying colors, making preparations for the upcoming shows much simpler. Still, Moyer says it takes a crew of 10 roughly a whole day to rig the auditorium.

Summing up the performance, Moyers says: “It’s one of those unseen situations where there is a lot of attention to detail, a lot of people working very hard to make it look as if it’s very easy to do … and believe me it’s not.”

Sounds a lot like The Philadelphia Orchestra … reaching new heights with Cirque de la Symphonie!