Working Under Pressure: "O" Aquatics Team

Perpetuating the illusion

When one thinks of Las Vegas, scenes of the Bellagio fountain flood the mind. But there is another show of the aquatic nature at the Bellagio; a show complete with acrobats, contortionists, clowns and synchronized swimmers who seem to disappear into the water, never to resurface. Beneath the watery set, divers choreograph and perpetuate the mysterious illusion that is Cirque du Soleil's "O."

The divers of the aquatics team play an integral role in the show. Their timing and placement must be impeccable to reach the performers with lifelines of air and place them at their mark, where the actors rise from the water on mechanized platforms to dazzle a packed theater. The divers are part of the underwater stage crew, shrouded from view beneath the stage, ensuring the safety of the performers and helping the technicians move larger props into place. Cue tracks, a detailed list of placements and actions, guide the team; the diver follows the routine to make sure he is at each specified location at the right moment, ready to hand performers a regulator or escort them to their next position. Divers must repeatedly rehearse the tracks and be certified on them before they are allowed to run the routine solo.

"The biggest challenge is maintaining a level of consistency and keeping the standard high," said Barry Farley, head of aquatics at "O." "And if you ask anyone on my team, my standards are pretty high."

Farley's dive team is comprised of 14 divers, including him. The aquatics team divers are typically divemasters, though many are instructors. Every member completes the DAN Oxygen First Aid for Scuba Diving Injuries course and is trained as a Red Cross emergency responder. The aquatics team is the first responder in the event a performer is injured in the water. To prepare for such an incident, they review rescue scenarios on a monthly basis and often practice responses involving the entire theater. Sometimes they run a section of the show and stage an incident to practice the emergency response.

The level of trust between the aquatics team and the performers is extremely high. Performers must trust that the divers will be there when they enter the water, and the divers are receptive to the performers, working with each of them to adapt to their level of comfort in the water.

"When we are training with a new artist, there is a choreography that has to be learned on both parts," Farley said. "Within that there are subtle personal variations; you might move an artist from point A to point B in a different part of the show, but you may know that this artist does not like to open her eyes underwater, so you have to guide her a little more, or this one is completely comfortable underwater, and he can handle anything that may happen. It's the human element, and it's where my department really shines." Any artist that must breathe using a regulator during the show goes through entry-level training courses in the "O" pool.

On the day of a show, there is a theater-wide meeting at 4 p.m. to regroup and discuss any updates. Then each department completes their show presets. In the aquatics department, this involves laying a hookah system needed for one of the show's opening scenes. The team checks all of their gear and sets pony bottles in place. After the presets are done, there is an aquatics team meeting to discuss the lineup for the night's first show. The team will meet again after the first show to discuss the specific lineup for the second performance, keeping everyone focused on the task at hand.

As the show unfolds, the crowd never sees the divers working diligently beneath the surface. It is not until near the end of the show that some of the illusion is revealed; the platforms raise and beached divers squirm about on stage, seen for the first time by the audience, many of whom only then realize just how the performers were able to disappear beneath the surface. And as quickly as they come, the lifts dip back down below the surface and the divers resume their duties beneath the scenes. According to Farley, the first time that happened, it was an accident; the lifts had come out of the water and the divers were revealed. The creator, however, loved the idea and incorporated it into the show.

After the show ends with a grand finale, the theater is abuzz with excited exclamations, wondering just how some of the acts were performed, trying to peer through some of the illusion that was masterfully woven before their eyes.

"When you get to hear somebody talk about the show who had never seen it before, they are so excited and so clearly moved by it," Farley said. "It's a great reminder of what we do."
Did You Know?
The French word for water is "eau," pronounced "O."

When the "O" pool is drained, the Bellagio lake rises one inch.

The "O" shaped pool is:
  • 15,000 square feet
  • 25 feet deep
  • 1.5 million gallons
  • 87.4°F
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© Alert Diver — Winter 2011