Case study: Cooling and hydrating Dubai's La Perle theatre
La Perle uses 2.7 million litres of water to create special effects such as rainfall and floods – but how is it managed?
Located in Al Habtoor City on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, the 1,300-seater, purpose-built, circular aqua theatre that was designed to house the city’s first permanent theatrical production, La Perle by director Franco Dragone, has a pool in centre stage that holds about two million litres of water. The performances revolve around the five-metre-deep pool, and the show features 65 performers from 23 countries, performing acrobatics, aerial feats, diving and even motorcycles stunts that defy gravity.
Architecture firm, Khatib and Alami (K&A), worked closely with Dragone Studios on the design of the theatre, as Construction Week’s sister title, MEP Middle East, discovered as it explored the moving parts behind the scenes.
One of the things likely to catch the attention of a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineer, is the how quickly water overflows from the pool up to certain level of 30cm, and then drains away just as rapidly. La Perle boasts a draining system that can transform the stage from wet to dry in a matter of seconds – just 90 seconds, to be precise.
Technical director of La Perle, Julian Zazzaretta, is keen to show off the four levels beneath the pool, as each level designed to serve a specific purpose. In the special-effects pump room are two 300- horsepower pumps, shifting 1,000 litres of water per minute, and four 600mm pipes that carry out the quick-drain operation from the main performance pool. There is also a tank where water is temporarily stored.
“Every technology we use is upscale, but it is nothing more special than a commercial swimming pool, just on a much bigger scale. The volume of water used is 2.7 million litres that is pumped at various locations in the theatre,” Zazzaretta says.
Commodore Contracting was responsible for MEP works at the theatre, with HLG Contracting (now renamed BIC Contracting) as the main contractor.
Since water is the main feature of the show, maintaining its quality is very important. The maintenance of pumps and water is done on a regular basis, as Zazzaretta explains. “We have daily, weekly, and monthly checks that are recommended by the manufacturers. It is very important to maintain the water quality. The performers enter through a tunnel, and appear on the stage. If we do not have good water quality, performers could get ear infections, [which result in] loss of balance – this is not ideal for acrobatic skills.”
There is a filter room, where different sand grades are used, and chlorine is also used to help keep the water clean. This is process is automatically monitored. “We have computers that show the chlorine and pH values, which gets checked twice a day to monitor any system malfunction,” Zazzaretta says.
In addition, the show features simulated rainfall, using water pumped directly from the pool. The floor around the pool is a sponge, with holes in it that allow the water to drain through. “We never waste the water. It is constantly treated,” he adds.
But is the pool ever drained completely? “Not really,” according to Zazzaretta. He adds that the pool is only drained fully when there is major maintenance work to be done. “Four weeks in a year, we do not have any shows. This is when bigger maintenance and inspections get done. We could drain the pool then.
“During that time, there is an in-depth inspection, where third-parties are brought in to stress-test and verify that the daily and weekly maintenance is done correctly.”
The air-conditioning temperature around the pool area is different from in the stalls. “The audience needs to have a temperature of around 21-24°C, while the performers [around the pool area] need to have the temperature maintained at around 30°C,” says Zazzaretta. “The water temperature is maintained at 31°C.”
The one-degree temperature difference between the temperature of the pool water and the outside pool area is to avoid condensation, he explains. “We want to minimise the temperature difference between the water and the room, as a huge temperature difference can result in condensation that creates humidity, which in turn rusts the equipment [used in the theatre] more quickly.”
Manipulating air-conditioning is very important in the theatre, as there is a lot of special-effect fog is created. “When we have fog effects, we do not want to have positive or negative drafts. We have different settings for the air-conditioning to manipulate the air flow,” Zazzaretta says. “The audience need to stay cool, and the performers – who come in and out of the water – need to stay warm.”
In addition to the fog effects, there are also fumes that need to be dispersed, as Zazzaretta explains. One of the scenes in the show features a giant metal ball, suspended on steel winches, inside of which artists ride motorcycles that create a g-force amounting to 20 tonnes of weight. “The motorbikes create gas fumes,” he says. “We have two extractors just for the motorbike fumes. They are centralised and they help extract the carbon monoxide emissions. We have big dehumidifiers, as well.”
In the aquatic show, sound plays a very important role. Sound designer and head of sound operations at La Perle, Sebastian Hammond, explains: “To synchronise something musically, we have got three musicians here. The band leader generates time codes that we can all follow to synchronise with our sound effects, video cues, laser effects, and lighting effects.”
The theatre has a total of 180 speakers that include delay and surround-sound speakers, the team reveals.
“The concept of these shows is so immersive [because] the sound system, lighting, and video effects are immersive. We can surround the audience with sound effects or music,” says Hammond.
But transmitting sound underwater is a challenge. Hammond says that there are four speakers underwater to help the show’s scuba divers to keep up with what is happening above the water. There are also four underwater cameras, helping to coordinate the divers. “An ‘aquatics caller’ and stage manager are basically coordinating the divers and translating any messages to the general stage manager, who is conducting the show. The scuba divers also have microphones in their masks to communicate back to the aquatics caller,” Hammond adds.
He adds that for the equipment that is submerged in water, regular maintenance is required. “Cables submerged in water could break down. This is something that needs to be inspected.”
Assistant technical director of La Perle, Anton Montaut, says that as an aqua show, La Perle presents some unusual challenges. “We have to use a lot of waterproof lights and architectural LED lights,” he explains. “We have several submersible lights, because electricity and water do not go well together.”
Of course, safety is paramount, and Zazzaretta says that the project’s safety standard is “double what is seen on a construction site”.
Montaut adds that any repairs that become necessary after an evening performance are carried out promptly by the carpentry team early the following morning. “They fix and upgrade things, and then from about 1pm onwards, they carry out testing on all the equipment to be used for the evening show.
“Things can just get loose, and we have our regular inspections so that nothing is out of place,” he says.
“On a construction site, everybody is wearing hard hats, steel-toe boots, and safety vests. We cannot ask the audience to wear those. We have third-party inspectors that come in to make sure that all our paperwork is in order. We do not want anything to go wrong during the show because that will bring bad reviews, and reviews are what this place is built on,” he continues.
“Word of mouth and reviews have made us the number one show in Dubai.”
Zazzaretta goes on to explain that every material used in the theatre is meets certain fire-safety ratings. “Curtains are impregnated with fire-retardant chemicals. They have to be re-certified every year,” he says. “And people in the team are trained in fire and safety.
“We do yearly inspections of electrical equipment, so that we do not encounter any electrical fires,” he adds. “We have fire effects in the show, so there are specialised teams that are standing by in case something goes wrong. We have fire extinguishers and fire blankets in place, and we have sprinklers. However, in theatres, water damage can be bigger than fire damage.”
Montaut adds: “In areas where there is expensive electrical equipment, we have carbon dioxide systems that will just fill the room with carbon dioxide gas. This will put out the fire without damaging any of the equipment. We also have a dedicated health and safety manager who ensures that everything is safe and all the permits are in order, and that Dubai Civil Defence is happy with what we do.”
Hammond concludes: “Everybody is constantly adapting to how the show is always changing. New acts are introduced periodically, to keep the show fresh. Franco [Dragone] often gives new direction and goals, so we are always busy.”