Cirque du Soleil is synonymous with big, jaw-dropping stunts performed at insane heights and mesmerizing shows.
But at the O Theater in Las Vegas, the theater company is doing something that it has never done before -- studying “your brain on Cirque.”
The company asked a team of scientists to attach electrodes to audience members’ heads and monitor their brain waves as they watch the performances.
“We're going to be looking at how the different parts of the brain change in their response and also the connections between those areas,” neuroscientist Beau Lotto said. “It could help Cirque du Soleil create new shows. ... So, we can see which performances create awe more likely than others.”
The goal is to find out how the brain reacts to the show’s most extreme stunts.
“We have to constantly challenge ourselves and what we think this information will do is give us the foundation to continue to test and evolve,” said Kristina Henry, Cirque du Soleil’s chief marketing and experience officer.
In a world of entertainment increasingly defined by showmanship, the bar on what’s humanly possible is constantly being pushed and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to better understand what audiences crave.
“Audiences are changing. We can do so much more than we could when we started over 30 years ago,” said Diane Quinn, Cirque du Soleil’s chief creative officer. “If we had that ‘oh my God’ moment then we know that our audience by and large is also going to come on that journey with us.”
But the challenge is how far to push the limits, when one mistake can mean the difference between life and death.
“It's a constant period of refinement and iteration,” Quinn said. “The most important thing that we do is the health and the safety and the welfare of everybody. ... But if there is something that needs to be refined, of course, we take that into consideration.”
And while mistakes do happen, the idea behind the company's massive performances is to defy death while trying to minimize the risk.
“If you look very carefully at some of the acts, you can see the safety lines,” Quinn said. “What we do is play with the lights, play with the emotions through the music, play with the setting and the costumes, of course, and if we keep layering and layering and layering in a particular act, everybody will be surprised and we can still keep everybody safe.”
All of those layers eventually formulate into a show, and “Nightline” got an exclusive look inside a creation meeting at Cirque’s international headquarters in Montreal, where the team was developing the next big performance.
“Our process is two, three years long,” said Michel Laprise, the writer and director of “Kurios” by Cirque du Soleil. “So at the beginning you have to find a subject, something you want to talk about, that's so exciting that it will nurture the team.”
The creation team puts together a script for performers that is then tested and rehearsed.
“[It] takes time,” Quinn said. “We're training acrobats. We're teaching people new numbers. We're trying out clown acts that have never been done before.”
At Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters hosts practice arenas on site for performers to train and practice for their shows. The high-wire performances that are conceived are performed all over the world, including "La Nouba," a show once based in Disney Springs for Disney, the parent company of ABC News.
“We often start with something called an 'acrobatic skeleton,'" Quinn said. “So we would define, let's say, 10 or 12 or 13 acts, and say, 'OK, how does our concept work into that? How do we, how do we weave the story around some of those amazing acts.'”
From the sets to the costumes, including engineering the fabrics to embroidering intricate designs, everything for Cirque du Soleil is handmade and no detail is overlooked.
James Lavoie, one of Cirque's costume designers, said the performers’ outfits need to be visually stunning but also functional.
“You have to make something beautiful that really works in tandem with an artist's body and with their performance,” he said. “It's not just about creating something beautiful but it's about that kind of marriage between the artist and their costume.”
Performers include acrobats, aerialists and trampoline experts. Bernard Petiot, Cirque’s vice president of casting and performance, said there are a variety of factors that go into choosing new performers to join its shows, but it requires a “certain degree of proven ability” to perform.
“We’re looking for someone with maybe five, six, seven, 10 years of performance,” Petiot said. “Obviously, we’re looking for someone who has already reached a level of excellence.”