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The Courier Post Reports: Massive Undertaking for Cirque du Soleil's set-up in Camden

05/29/2013 - 8:33am

CAMDEN — Cirque du Soleil shows awe audiences, but smoothly moving 1,200 tons of its equipment from city to city is in some ways more of a marvel than the show.

 
“TOTEM’’ premieres Thursday and runs for a month, a first for the Camden Waterfront. More than a decade of planning by Cirque led to Camden’s selection.
 
“It is so well-oiled, it is unbelievable,” TOTEM’s company manager Jeff Lund said as he watched the most visible portion of the performance village — the big top — rise last Monday.
 
And big it is: The canvas for the central circus tent weighs 11,524 pounds, stands 66 feet high and has a diameter of 167 feet — enough to hold 2,640 spectators.
 
That’s not all that is big about Cirque.
 
The Montreal-based company has 5,000 employees from dozens of countries who represent more than 100 disciplines. Cirque generates more than $850 million in annual revenue and has 19 shows performing worldwide.
 
“TOTEM,’’ just one of the company’s 10 touring shows, has 120 performers. With technicians, support staff, cooks and spouses, the traveling show consists of about 190 people.
 
Begun by a fire eater and a band of street performers, Cirque has honed the process of efficient set-up and break-down during 28 years of on-the-road experience. The key is long-range planning, exacting organization and precision.
 
But most of all, people, said Lund.
 
“With the people, all those elements fall together. The people make it the machine that it is,” added Lund, an aeronautical engineer and licensed pilot who decided he wanted a career in entertainment. He began at Cirque by selling tickets, working his way through the ranks.
 
Long road to Camden
While Cirque’s people make its shows work, planning underpins how things get done.
 
Camden had been considered as a site for more than 13 years before Jean-Marc Barbera, “TOTEM’s’’ site construction supervisor, first stepped on the 10-acre parking lot along the waterfront to begin construction.
 
That’s according to Jim Campbell, a Philadelphia-based architect who works for Cirque. He scouts sites and researches transportation, accessibility and infrastructure, then secures permits once sites are selected.
The default site for shows in the region had been Broad Street and Washington Avenue in Philadelphia. But when it became unavailable for 2013, attention shifted to Camden. Campbell reached out to Cooper’s Ferry, a non-profit that assists the city in development, particularly along the waterfront.
 
Campbell says Cooper’s Ferry made a strong pitch and the Camden proposal was quietly approved. Plans for the show became public last December.
 
From ground up
Here’s how construction of “TOTEM’s’’ village shaped up, transforming a parking lot to a venue in just a few weeks.
 
Monday, May 6:
Barbera reviews the site for the first time with Campbell. Plans are spread out on a Mini-Cooper that serves as a field desk. A cool moist wind whips the blueprints.
 
This is the first time the site supervisor has seen the location, though he’s reviewed lots of information before. A survey team came to Camden, took pictures and made measurements months ago.
 
The pictures were used when a committee chose where “TOTEM’’ should go in the Philadelphia area. Barbera says locations are selected on the basis on marketing, economics, topography and transportation.
 
Barbera likes what he sees in Camden.
 
“It’s a nice site, open, clean, safe and it has a great view of Philadelphia,” says the civil engineer. The site is mostly level, with good drainage.
 
Barbera’s sole job is to oversee the set-ups for tented shows, then do remediation after tear-down.,
 
Campbell wears a Battleship New Jersey cap and a Cirque denim jacket and Barbera a mountaineering jacket as they check underground utility mark-outs and compare them against blueprints. Meanwhile, a survey team with a laser-equipped and GPS-enabled chronometer takes measurements and sets pins in the asphalt. The pins determine precise locations for all the show’s elements.
 
Between 2,000 to 3,000 pins mark the 48,500 square feet of asphalt.
 
Once that is done, the layout of the village is painted on, a different color for each element. The big top is always at the center. There’s also a VIP tent, an artistic tent where performers prepare for the show, a commissary and an on-site school.
Before the tents go up, light poles must come down. A sub-contractor for PSE&G earlier had wrongly tried to take out lights while Rutgers University students were still parking on the lot. A call to Cooper’s Ferry got the work stopped. Student parking has since been relocated.
 
Barbera’s main concern, though, is the placement of a temporary fence to secure the site. The contractor is late.
 
Barbera is not happy.
 
Wednesday, March 8
By the next morning, the temporary fence is up. Light poles are down.
 
Pins are everywhere, placed with exact locations noted on small tags attached. The footprint of the operation is spray-painted on the lot
 
Using the pins and mark-outs as guides, workers place heavy metal plates throughout the site. They will serve as secure anchors for the tents.
 
May 8-10
With the fence up, a crew begins pounding stakes deep into the ground to anchor the plates. The noise is deafening. Ear protection is mandatory.
 
A sewage holding tank, expected May 8, arrives a day late. The tank serves as a backup in case rain overwhelms the sewer hookup, ensuring sewage doesn’t wash into the river.
 
May 12
“TOTEM’’ closes its run in Queens.
 
As performers come off the stage, props are loaded into traveling cases. The cases are stowed in truck trailers, one of the ways Cirque assures a quick turnaround from breaking down to setting up.
 
May 13
The site is quiet. Barbera’s team has left.
 
Portable potties are lined up. A temporary natural gas line is in place. The sewage overflow tank is connected to the sewer main.
 
The crew awaits the first Cirque trucks from Queens.
 
May 14
Overnight, 17 trailers appear in a staging area.
 
More arrive throughout the day, semis dropping their trailers in a predetermined order in the staging area. It takes 67 trailers to carry all of the show’s gear.
 
Bottled water has arrived. Propane bottles, used to power forklifts, are racked.
 
May 15-17
Francis Jalbert, the show’s traveling publicist, is in town. Jalbert dresses like an urban hipster.
 
He says there are 26 technicians and a fly-in team of 30 from Montreal setting up, along with 200 laborers hired locally. The equipment they need comes cased and labeled and is placed all around the site. Electric cables are laid out. Smaller tents go up.
“Everything goes up at the same time. It is like a dance,” says Jalbert, speaking English with a distinctly French accent. He and the rest of the Cirque’s employees are aware of Camden’s reputation as a poor and violent city.
 
“For sure we had to think about it, but it is not a concern. This is the safest area in the city. Our headquarters are located in one of the poorest areas of Montreal.
 
“We think it is important to give back to the street, because that’s where we come from,” Jalbert says, tugging on his sunglasses as a shield against the bright and beautiful day.
 
May 20
Today is a huge photo op – the raising of the big top.
 
In many ways though, it is anticlimactic, considering the amount of work that has already taken place. The tent is largely in place even before a handful of local dignitaries, looking slightly undignified in hard hats and orange safety vests, shows up.
 
One, though, carries his own personal hardhat. Looking as though he fits in, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) has left his suit coat behind on this muggy day.
 
“This is the same circus I left in Trenton, except this is better organized,” he quips. “They get things done.”
 
The actual hoisting of the poles raising the tent is completed in minutes. The speeches of the dignitaries and a photo op take longer.
 
May 21
The sidewalls are up on the big top as the internal infrastructure — lights, projection, bleachers and stage — are put in place. Jalbert says the stage is specially designed without a single bolt. Instead, it snaps together, making it simpler to install.
 
May 22-23
Finishing touches are put in place.
 
May 24
A big day: Everything is where it should be.
 
“It’s a relaxed and livable site,” says Lund, the company director.
 
The performers arrive in Camden, most for the first time. Some have been home, visiting Russia and other homelands. Others have taken vacations.
 
Some have spent their hiatus time in Miami, where Cirque maintains living space for many of them. They meet with the artistic director. Soon they are checking out the installation of equipment, making sure everything is safe.
 
They begin filling the performer’s tent with the makeup and props and the school arrives. Classes resume May 28.
 
May 25
Training and rehearsals begin in earnest.
 
The Chinese unicyclists, who balance baskets on their heads, have practiced every day since the show broke in Queens. Most of the other performers have followed a relaxed routine for the past weeks. Now it is back to serious weight training and cardio every day.
 
May 26-27
The show is dark. The performers, quartered in two sites across the river in Philadelphia, enjoy a short break before more than a month of non-stop rehearsals or performances.
 
Today
There’s a technical run-through to check out lighting, projection and riggings. A dress-rehearsal is planned for the next day.
 
On Thursday, “TOTEM’’ will premiere on the Camden Waterfront.
 
“You’ll be taken into a journey,” says Jalbert. “Because it is in the round, the artists will be all around the audience.
 
 
“Expect to be blown away and taken to it — uplifted.”CAMDEN — Cirque du Soleil shows awe audiences, but smoothly moving 1,200 tons of its equipment from city to city is in some ways more of a marvel than the show.
 
“TOTEM’’ premieres Thursday and runs for a month, a first for the Camden Waterfront. More than a decade of planning by Cirque led to Camden’s selection.
 
“It is so well-oiled, it is unbelievable,” TOTEM’s company manager Jeff Lund said as he watched the most visible portion of the performance village — the big top — rise last Monday.
 
And big it is: The canvas for the central circus tent weighs 11,524 pounds, stands 66 feet high and has a diameter of 167 feet — enough to hold 2,640 spectators.
 
That’s not all that is big about Cirque.
 
The Montreal-based company has 5,000 employees from dozens of countries who represent more than 100 disciplines. Cirque generates more than $850 million in annual revenue and has 19 shows performing worldwide.
 
“TOTEM,’’ just one of the company’s 10 touring shows, has 120 performers. With technicians, support staff, cooks and spouses, the traveling show consists of about 190 people.
 
Begun by a fire eater and a band of street performers, Cirque has honed the process of efficient set-up and break-down during 28 years of on-the-road experience. The key is long-range planning, exacting organization and precision.
 
But most of all, people, said Lund.
 
“With the people, all those elements fall together. The people make it the machine that it is,” added Lund, an aeronautical engineer and licensed pilot who decided he wanted a career in entertainment. He began at Cirque by selling tickets, working his way through the ranks.
 
Long road to Camden
While Cirque’s people make its shows work, planning underpins how things get done.
 
Camden had been considered as a site for more than 13 years before Jean-Marc Barbera, “TOTEM’s’’ site construction supervisor, first stepped on the 10-acre parking lot along the waterfront to begin construction.
 
That’s according to Jim Campbell, a Philadelphia-based architect who works for Cirque. He scouts sites and researches transportation, accessibility and infrastructure, then secures permits once sites are selected.
The default site for shows in the region had been Broad Street and Washington Avenue in Philadelphia. But when it became unavailable for 2013, attention shifted to Camden. Campbell reached out to Cooper’s Ferry, a non-profit that assists the city in development, particularly along the waterfront.
 
Campbell says Cooper’s Ferry made a strong pitch and the Camden proposal was quietly approved. Plans for the show became public last December.
 
From ground up
Here’s how construction of “TOTEM’s’’ village shaped up, transforming a parking lot to a venue in just a few weeks.
 
Monday, May 6:
Barbera reviews the site for the first time with Campbell. Plans are spread out on a Mini-Cooper that serves as a field desk. A cool moist wind whips the blueprints.
 
This is the first time the site supervisor has seen the location, though he’s reviewed lots of information before. A survey team came to Camden, took pictures and made measurements months ago.
 
The pictures were used when a committee chose where “TOTEM’’ should go in the Philadelphia area. Barbera says locations are selected on the basis on marketing, economics, topography and transportation.
 
Barbera likes what he sees in Camden.
 
“It’s a nice site, open, clean, safe and it has a great view of Philadelphia,” says the civil engineer. The site is mostly level, with good drainage.
 
Barbera’s sole job is to oversee the set-ups for tented shows, then do remediation after tear-down.,
 
Campbell wears a Battleship New Jersey cap and a Cirque denim jacket and Barbera a mountaineering jacket as they check underground utility mark-outs and compare them against blueprints. Meanwhile, a survey team with a laser-equipped and GPS-enabled chronometer takes measurements and sets pins in the asphalt. The pins determine precise locations for all the show’s elements.
 
Between 2,000 to 3,000 pins mark the 48,500 square feet of asphalt.
 
Once that is done, the layout of the village is painted on, a different color for each element. The big top is always at the center. There’s also a VIP tent, an artistic tent where performers prepare for the show, a commissary and an on-site school.
Before the tents go up, light poles must come down. A sub-contractor for PSE&G earlier had wrongly tried to take out lights while Rutgers University students were still parking on the lot. A call to Cooper’s Ferry got the work stopped. Student parking has since been relocated.
 
Barbera’s main concern, though, is the placement of a temporary fence to secure the site. The contractor is late.
 
Barbera is not happy.
 
Wednesday, March 8
By the next morning, the temporary fence is up. Light poles are down.
 
Pins are everywhere, placed with exact locations noted on small tags attached. The footprint of the operation is spray-painted on the lot
 
Using the pins and mark-outs as guides, workers place heavy metal plates throughout the site. They will serve as secure anchors for the tents.
 
May 8-10
With the fence up, a crew begins pounding stakes deep into the ground to anchor the plates. The noise is deafening. Ear protection is mandatory.
 
A sewage holding tank, expected May 8, arrives a day late. The tank serves as a backup in case rain overwhelms the sewer hookup, ensuring sewage doesn’t wash into the river.
 
May 12
“TOTEM’’ closes its run in Queens.
 
As performers come off the stage, props are loaded into traveling cases. The cases are stowed in truck trailers, one of the ways Cirque assures a quick turnaround from breaking down to setting up.
 
May 13
The site is quiet. Barbera’s team has left.
 
Portable potties are lined up. A temporary natural gas line is in place. The sewage overflow tank is connected to the sewer main.
 
The crew awaits the first Cirque trucks from Queens.
 
May 14
Overnight, 17 trailers appear in a staging area.
 
More arrive throughout the day, semis dropping their trailers in a predetermined order in the staging area. It takes 67 trailers to carry all of the show’s gear.
 
Bottled water has arrived. Propane bottles, used to power forklifts, are racked.
 
May 15-17
Francis Jalbert, the show’s traveling publicist, is in town. Jalbert dresses like an urban hipster.
 
He says there are 26 technicians and a fly-in team of 30 from Montreal setting up, along with 200 laborers hired locally. The equipment they need comes cased and labeled and is placed all around the site. Electric cables are laid out. Smaller tents go up.
“Everything goes up at the same time. It is like a dance,” says Jalbert, speaking English with a distinctly French accent. He and the rest of the Cirque’s employees are aware of Camden’s reputation as a poor and violent city.
 
“For sure we had to think about it, but it is not a concern. This is the safest area in the city. Our headquarters are located in one of the poorest areas of Montreal.
 
“We think it is important to give back to the street, because that’s where we come from,” Jalbert says, tugging on his sunglasses as a shield against the bright and beautiful day.
 
May 20
Today is a huge photo op – the raising of the big top.
 
In many ways though, it is anticlimactic, considering the amount of work that has already taken place. The tent is largely in place even before a handful of local dignitaries, looking slightly undignified in hard hats and orange safety vests, shows up.
 
One, though, carries his own personal hardhat. Looking as though he fits in, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) has left his suit coat behind on this muggy day.
 
“This is the same circus I left in Trenton, except this is better organized,” he quips. “They get things done.”
 
The actual hoisting of the poles raising the tent is completed in minutes. The speeches of the dignitaries and a photo op take longer.
 
May 21
The sidewalls are up on the big top as the internal infrastructure — lights, projection, bleachers and stage — are put in place. Jalbert says the stage is specially designed without a single bolt. Instead, it snaps together, making it simpler to install.
 
May 22-23
Finishing touches are put in place.
 
May 24
A big day: Everything is where it should be.
 
“It’s a relaxed and livable site,” says Lund, the company director.
 
The performers arrive in Camden, most for the first time. Some have been home, visiting Russia and other homelands. Others have taken vacations.
 
Some have spent their hiatus time in Miami, where Cirque maintains living space for many of them. They meet with the artistic director. Soon they are checking out the installation of equipment, making sure everything is safe.
 
They begin filling the performer’s tent with the makeup and props and the school arrives. Classes resume May 28.
 
May 25
Training and rehearsals begin in earnest.
 
The Chinese unicyclists, who balance baskets on their heads, have practiced every day since the show broke in Queens. Most of the other performers have followed a relaxed routine for the past weeks. Now it is back to serious weight training and cardio every day.
 
May 26-27
The show is dark. The performers, quartered in two sites across the river in Philadelphia, enjoy a short break before more than a month of non-stop rehearsals or performances.
 
Today
There’s a technical run-through to check out lighting, projection and riggings. A dress-rehearsal is planned for the next day.
 
On Thursday, “TOTEM’’ will premiere on the Camden Waterfront.
 
“You’ll be taken into a journey,” says Jalbert. “Because it is in the round, the artists will be all around the audience.
 
“Expect to be blown away and taken to it — uplifted.”
sun

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