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Anatomy: What Happens When the Circus Comes to Town?

An inside look at the eight days it’ll take to raise Cirque du Soleil’s tent at National Harbor.

Illustrations by Chris Philpot.

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem comes to National Harbor August 15 through September 16. Before the show—billed as a “journey into the evolution of mankind”—can go on, Cirque’s crew has to raise its blue-and-yellow tent and assemble an elaborate set. Here’s how.

Day 1: Sixty-five trucks arrive with 235,000 pounds of equipment. The team installs eight generators (which produce enough electricity for about 2,000 homes), assembles work spaces and backstage tents, and raises the big top’s four 80-foot masts.

Day 2: The big top goes up. Workers install one of the set’s key pieces, the moving “scorpion bridge”—it uses eight hydraulic motors and weighs 10,000 pounds. Technicians also install a trampoline-like floor under the stage for the acrobats.

Day 3: The crew builds the rest of the stage and installs 86 speakers and nearly 500 lights. The musicians’ platform is constructed, and winches—cranks to raise and lower the ropes—are set up for the artists.

Day 4: The set’s centerpiece—a turtle shell weighing 2,700 pounds—is built. Ropes are reeved onto the winches, the audience bleachers are built, and lighting and sound consoles are set up. The show uses more than 15 miles of electric cable.

Day 5: Chairs are installed on the bleachers. The winches and rigging are tested, and the lighting is focused. The show’s internal-communication system and video monitors are installed.

Day 6: The crew continues to adjust the set until the artists arrive at 11 am. The band does a sound check, and the moving lights are preset. The crew works with the artists to make sure everything works properly.

Day 7: More technical adjustments are made.

Day 8: The show premieres.

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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