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In an imitation of life, ‘Ka’ performers execute a balancing act

The final battle scene in “Ka” made my heart pound, and I wasn’t the one walking on a perpendicular stage.

Or hanging upside down like a bat.

Or dropping 60 feet head first.

Or doing flips and twists.

Or leaping over my enemies.

I was just oohing and aahing from the audience at how effortless the 16 acrobats made it look.

A few weeks later, I asked “Ka” artist Alvin Tam: Doesn’t it make you feel queasy? He misunderstood me. He assumed I meant queasy from fear. “No, because you trust the technicians and the equipment,” he explained. (Actually, my concerns were more prosaic. I would worry about internal hurling.)

Tam is one of the taut and talented acrobats who make the battle scene so memorable. A Canadian, he’s been with “Ka” since its inception and graduated from the National Circus School in Montreal.

If you haven’t seen “Ka” since it opened in November 2004 at the MGM Grand Hotel, it’s the Cirque du Soleil production about twins and their adventures after they are separated. If you mention “Ka” to someone who has already seen it, the battle scene is usually their first memory.

The forces of good and evil face each other, but the orientation for both the audience and the performers is unsettling because the battle ground is a rectangular stage 50 feet high and 25 feet wide. Here’s the twist: The Sand Cliff Deck is upright at almost a 90-degree angle. From the audience’s perspective, you’re watching the battle from above, almost as if you were some sort of god or goddess.

The challenge for the 16 performers in this scene is to look as if they’re walking upright and striding forward on the Sand Cliff Deck when they are actually hooked on a line, and hanging parallel to the real world.

Tam said sometimes mistakes occur. Lines do tangle, and it’s not easy to untangle them because they’re hard to see in the lighting. Unless the tangle lasts more than 10 seconds, the audience rarely notices because the performers change the choreography to adapt. Disorientation, losing control and entanglement are Tam’s challenges. (Really, how different is that from the challenges the rest of us face in real life?)

At 32, Tam is one of the older performers; he didn’t begin acrobatic training until he was 19. Yet, even after the second show, he said his body feels “pretty normal. … It’s quite a manageable load.”

The first main challenge of the battle scene is physical. The core strength comes from the abdomen, the side muscles and mostly, the back, Tam explained to someone whose core strength is in her typing fingers.

The second challenge is the remote control in each costume, which the performers use to guide them up or down. When a performer hits the perpendicular stage and steps on a smart tile, it creates a video image of a muddy field. The performer controls the special video effects, not the other way around.

“A lot of the performers feel like this is the most fun scene because they feel like they’re part of a live video game,” said “Ka” publicist Merri Hagan as we watched a rehearsal Wednesday, while waiting to interview Tam. He usually is one of the good guys, second from the left coming from below, but he also substitutes sometimes for the hair-flipping bad guy, the Counselor’s Son, which places him at the top of the deck. From the top of the deck to the pit below the stage is a 90-foot drop.

“Flying down feels like a free fall,” he said. His leg strength gives him the power to kick out from the deck as much as 18 feet. One of his favorite moments is when he’s upside down facing outward and has a full view of the entire audience.

“Ka” is a technological wonder, with a sound system in each seat and this moveable deck weighing 80,000 pounds. The gee whiz numbers go on and on.

But the battle scene is driven by performers who must be sure they don’t get disoriented or lose control. The technology is there to support, but not dictate to the acrobats performing what Tam calls “the art of the impossible.”

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.

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