Water encircles us on this odd, hydraulically powered little island on which we could be instantly submerged, then shot up again into breathable air like some hapless schnook in a carnival dunk tank.
Logically, that makes this one of three possible locales: Atlantis at low tide. The set of a Waterworld prequel (heaven forbid). Or—ding! ding! ding!—the stage of Le Rêve.
Atop this aquatic, pop-up/drop-down carousel—surrounded beyond the water line by 1,606 seats on terra firma, arching upward into the rear of a theater in the round at Wynn Las Vegas—this interviewer chats with key members of the everybody-in-the-pool production.
“You’re not really part of the family until you’ve fallen into the pool,” says Louanne Madorma, the show’s director of casting and artistic implementation.
Having neglected to wear his Speedo, the interviewer is content to remain merely a friend of the family, landlubber-style, and admire from a dry distance a watery spectacle that will reach the milestone of 4,000 performances on January 31.
Launched this month in tandem with the splashy celebration, Le Rêve tours are available to showgoers. Revealing the mechanics of the Le Rêve pool set—which plunges 27 feet down in the middle in 1.1 million gallons of water—they also provide peeks into the precise backstage ballet of diving, automation, rigging and lighting that keeps the show going swimmingly.
“Some nights it’s Dorothy meets Oz, some nights it’s Alice meets Wonderland,” says Colby Lemmo, one of five women who portray The Dreamer in a show that’s essentially a dream from which you have to towel off.
… Well, not you, just them—a cast of 93 dancers, swimmers, clowns and “generalists” from 17 countries, diving to the depths and soaring again toward a ceiling dome on harnesses—using about 1,000 towels per night, which must put a mighty strain on the laundry-service folks. (Ninety-five loads nightly, by the hotel’s estimate.)
Debuting in 2005, Le Rêve—“The Dream” in French, named after a 1932 Picasso painting—is the non-Cirque du Soleil creation of Franco Dragone, Cirque’s onetime creative director. Crafted as a wordless, abstract pinwheel of aquatic acrobatics and sumptuous but head-scratching tableaus, it initially left patrons and critics adrift in a sea of confusion. Inviting unflattering comparisons to Dragone’s own O at Bellagio, which beat it to the Strip seven years earlier, it earned dismissive snorts, including the label “Cirque du Cliché” from the Los Angeles Times.
“It did have a rocky beginning, like every huge show like this,” says Madorma of the production that reportedly carried a sticker-shock price tag of $35 million for the show and $75 million for the custom theater. Designed so no seat is more than 42 feet from the stage, the venue is intended to create a quasi-immersive experience. (Yes, you might get damp if seated in the “splash zone,” i.e. rows A and B.)
“Some people thought it was too dark in the beginning because sometimes dreams are terrifying,” Madorma says about the early version. Peppered with vampires and nightmare creatures, among other elements, it centered on a series of dreams by men and women in a barely-there plot, collectively and cryptically described as “a small collection of imperfect dreams.”
Fixes were made to individual segments and the overall tone—particularly when the show went dark from March to June of 2007—to lighten the mood, after Steve Wynn assumed creative control. Scenes, including one in which pregnant women take a plunge into the pool from a dizzying height, were deleted or rethought. Sunny gardens and playful creatures materialized, fantastical moments were inspired by the Sistine Chapel and the Garden of Eden, and a theater redesign pared it down from 2,087 seats to its current, more intimate configuration.
Now, Le Rêve is freshened every six months. “We’ve cut numbers and added numbers,” says dance director Danita Salamida-Eldridge, who is heading into her eighth year on the job. Le Rêve’s original choreography was created by Giuliano Peparini.
“There hasn’t been a huge change in the choreography, but we’ve changed the intention in some of them, giving it more of a through-line. ‘Eden,’ where we have these beautiful fountains and couples and The Dreamer enters and there are supposed to be reflections of her and she walks around the couples. We’ve added more of a connection and humor in the characters.”
Reworking the storyline was also essential. While the show title means “the dream” and most of us can’t unscramble the disjointed meanings of our nocturnal wanderings, theatergoers are wide awake and in search of a semblance of a narrative through-line.
“As the show has taken on its life, The Dreamer story has become much more prevalent,” Madorma says. “When that started, we started to find moments, and they were received so well that we built on those. There are dark moments in the show, but it’s more balanced now and you have a real arc in the story.”
In sharpening the structure, the focus shifted to one female dreamer who has both a real-world lover and a dream paramour, and learns the difference between them. “It’s her journey of finding herself, she starts as a girl and ends as a woman,” says Lemmo.
“Her dream lover is what she envisions as the perfect man—statuesque, gorgeous, gentle and kind. The number ‘Splash’ is the turning point. Every time you’ve seen him, he was suspended in a harness. You’re enthralled, you get to touch him. Then the first thing he does is throw you on the ground. You’re like, what just happened? The whole number is that, I want him, he doesn’t want me, and at the end, you think, ‘He’s not the person I thought he was and it isn’t what I want at all.’ Then she accepts the proposal from the man she wasn’t sure was the one in the beginning.”
Assuming the role in March 2011, Lemmo found the key to expressing that life lesson in advice from Salamida-Eldridge. “She told me to think of my ex,” says Lemmo about the dream lover who turns out less than dreamy, giggling at the memory. “We had recently broken up. And I was like, ‘Ah, I get it.’”
Emphasizing dance and romance—including ballroom dancing vignettes created in 2007 by Maksim Chmerkovskiy of Dancing With the Stars—also helped to tonally turn the tide from downbeat to uplifting. Unlike Lemmo, who has a dance background, many of the performers don’t come by their moves naturally.
“There’s 93 people in the cast, and 88 of them are from high-level sports, they’re Olympians and gymnasts,” Madorma says. “Danita has been able to teach them how to dance and project emotion, and that is no small feat.” Arriving at Le Rêve from the New York theater scene, Salamida-Eldridge was impressed by their artistic evolution.
“It’s pretty cool, seeing the growth,” she says. “I know very few dancers who could pass the strength tests for this show. But to see these big, brawly men moving so gracefully and portraying this emotion, it’s overwhelming and inspiring.”
Not that it’s simple to earn the chance to even attempt it. Auditions prove grueling to most candidates. Recalling her own in February 2011, Lemmo ticks off the challenges: swim tests, requiring several laps to the bottom of the pool; treading water for 10 minutes with ears above water; dropping 15 feet from a trapeze—all after nearly four hours of dancing. Not enough?
“Then they strength-test you. I thought, ‘Seriously? We’re not done yet?’” Lemmo says. “Then you go through the rope climb and the pull-ups and push-ups, a long jump, head springs—I’m like, ‘What’s a head spring?’”
One more thing, actually. “We push them to where they’re really tired to see if we can put them in a place that’s uncomfortable and see if they can do a little acting,” Madorma says. “Who is going to retract into themselves and who is going to be an extrovert and try?”
Beyond all the above-the-water exertions, performers must acclimate themselves to the production complexities beneath them. Discreetly out of sight, 16 divers assist performers and shift props and other show elements, and 12 infrared cameras monitor the action for safety. Each cast member is required to earn scuba certification. Divers provide breathing regulators to submerged performers and swim with them through a tunnel to return backstage.
“[Divers] are choreographed like the artists are choreographed and they have hundreds of duties during the show, it’s crazy,” Madorma says, noting that performers must execute their moves with absolute precision. “Artists are catapulting 18 feet off [the raised platform] and they have to land in 5 feet of water. They have to go in at an angle and do it in a scooping position. When I hire a kid out of the [NCAA], and they’re a competitive gymnast, they start to get anxiety but it’s second nature after awhile.”
Performers become keenly aware of the scuba challenges during their training, when they are required to run a half dozen or so laps around the stage and then jump in the water to approximate the feeling and timing of breathlessness, while waiting for a diver to arrive with a regulator.
“I had a lot of trust that when I was in the water, someone was going to find me, I would always have air when I needed it,” Lemmo says. “I’ve had a couple of little mishaps under the water, and they tell you to just stay calm. If you panic is when you’ll get yourself into trouble. I dive in, my eyes are closed and when I don’t feel anything, I just go like this,” she says, wiggling her fingers and flapping her hands up and down in a motion somewhere between mild signaling and For Chrissakes, where the hell are you, gurgle, gurgle?
Concluding the interview and gazing over the lip of the carousel into the shimmering pool with the 360-degree vista, the interviewer realizes Lemmo’s advice is useful should someone christen him a “part of the family” with one impulsive shove.
Backpedaling from the edge, the interviewer instead heads toward the ramp that delivers him to terra firma.
Better safe than soggy.
7 and 9:30 p.m. Fri-Tue, Wynn Las Vegas, $105 and up, 770-9966, WynnLasVegas.com.
4-5 p.m. Sun-Mon through Feb. 16, Fri-Tue beginning Feb. 23, Wynn Las Vegas, $249 (includes preferred seating at a 7 p.m. performance, plus Le Rêve merchandise).