SANTA MONICA PIER — A team of over 60 men and women gathered at the Cirque du Soleil’s blue and yellow striped tent Tuesday afternoon, splitting into groups of two’s and three’s to push over 100 steel poles into position and raise the Grand Chapiteau (big top).
Winches clicked like the shutter of a paparazzo’s camera as they locked the poles into place in six stages around the circle. Their work complete without incident, the team clapped, cheered and whistled.
In doing so, they joined a time-honored tradition and gave a physical declaration to the Santa Monica community of a fact trumpeted in advertisements and pole banners for weeks: the circus has come to town.
Rob Naumann, the company manager for Cirque’s “Ovo” show, still marvels at the process, and the juxtaposition it poses with the slick shows that he and the 50-member permanent team put on.
“Cirque shows are exciting, fascinating and technologically advanced,” Naumann said. “What you just saw was muscle. The tent’s design, structure and way to raise it is the same as 100 years ago.”
According to Circopedia.org, an online history of circuses curated by scholars in the field, the traveling circus with the canvas tent debuted in America in the early 19th century because few cities had large enough populations to sustain a permanent show.
By the late 1870s, traveling circuses transported their materials by rail across the country.
Today, Cirque uses airplanes, but the thought is the same, Naumann said.
Cirque began standardizing the tents for flexibility’s sake, allowing each to house shows seen across the world.
The big top sitting on the Santa Monica Pier’s north parking lot has traveled from Australia where performers brought the “Varekai” show to life, and then to Europe and Montreal, where it stayed for three years.
Each tent, which consists of six to 18 layers of canvas, has a 15-year life span, Naumann said.
The Big Top stands 66 feet high and is 167 feet in diameter covering 4,800 square feet of asphalt.
Approximately 2,500 people will sit on bleachers no more than 60 feet from the stage, welcoming the audience into a vivid exploration of the insect world brought to life by artists and athletes when it opens Jan. 20.
In some larger venues, you can feel a mile away from the stage.
“In the tent, you can see the expression on the performers’ faces. You feel more part of the show,” Naumann said.
The stage, complete with climbing wall will be erected Wednesday, with full assembly by the end of the week.
Santa Monica provides easy access to basics like water and electricity needed to keep the show — and the performers and crew who live next to it — going for its roughly nine-week run, but other communities have more challenges, Naumann said.
For a particularly rough spot, the company brings in bulldozers to level the ground and then paves over the area with asphalt to create a perfectly flat surface for its set up.
Where no water exists, they lay pipes. If there’s no electricity, they find the wiring.
Setting up in a park? Build your own asphalt surface on top of the grass.
“Once we leave, we take it all out,” Naumann said. The troupe tries to leave no trace, bringing in teams to fill holes in the asphalt and remove installations.
Even Santa Monica’s space will need a little patch job, Naumann said, as jackhammers pounded in the background.
“Ovo” will stay in Santa Monica until March 27 with performances Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8 p.m. and two shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Next, it travels to Portland, and then a year run in Australia.