The technology that keeps Dubai's La Perle cool and hydrated

Dubai’s La Perle, an aqua theatre, uses 2.7 million litres of water to simulate effects such as rainfall and floods. Rajiv Pillai explores the moving parts behind the scenes.

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La Perle, by theatre director Franco Dragone, is a 1,300-seater purpose-built aqua theatre, which has a pool in the centre stage that holds about 2 million litres of water. The show features 65 performers from 23 countries performing acts such as acrobatics, flying, aerial feats, diving and even motorcycles stunts that defy gravity.   

The circular theatre, located in Al Habtoor City, resembles an opera house design, where all the performances revolve around the 5-metre deep pool. Architecture firm, Khatib and Alami (K&A), worked closely with Dragone Studios on the design of the theatre.

One of the things that you would notice is the how quickly the water overflows from the pool up to a certain level (30 cms) and drains at the same rate. La Perle boasts a draining system, which will transform the stage from wet to dry in a matter of seconds, 90 seconds to be precise. An MEP engineer would be naturally curious to know more.

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Julian Zazzaretta, technical director of La Perle, takes us beneath the pool. There are four levels underneath the pool, with each level designed to serve a
specific purpose.

There is an SFX (special effects) pump room that has two 300 HP pumps pumping 1,000 litres of water per minute. There are four big 600 mm pipes that carry out the quick drain operation from the main performer pool. “We have the ability to fill the pool 30 cms and drain the pool 30 cms.” There is also an in-between storage tank, where the water is temporarily stored.

Zazzaretta says, rather modeslty: “Every technology we use is upscale but it is nothing special than a commercial swimming pool, just a much bigger scale.

The volume of water used is 2.7 million litres that is pumped at various locations in the theatre.”
Commodore Contracting was responsible for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) works at the theatre, with HLG Contracting (now renamed as BIC Contracting) as the main contractor.

Water

The show has several performers appearing from the pool and disappearing into the pool during the course of the 90 minute act. The effects that create micro bubbles in the pool hide the performers from audiences’s view. Since water is the main feature at the show, maintaining its quality is very important.

The maintenance of pumps and water is done on a regular basis. Zazzaretta says: “We have daily, weekly, and monthly checks recommended by the manufacturers. It’s very important to maintain the water quality. The performers enter through a tunnel, and appear on the stage. If we don’t have good water quality, performers could have an ear infection. Ear infection brings loss of balance, which is not ideal for acrobatic skills.”


There is a filter room, where different sand grades are used. The water gets filtered by the use of chlorine. This is automatically monitored.
Zazzaretta adds: “We have computers that show the chlorine and pH values that gets checked twice a day to monitor any system malfunction.”

Additionally, the show simulates rainfall, which is pumped directly from the pool water. “We never waste the water. It is constantly treated,” says Zazzaretta. The floor around the pool is a sponge that has holes in it so that water can drain through.

But is the pool drained completely? “Not really,” says Zazzaretta. The pool is only drained fully when there is major maintenance work to be done. Zazzaretta explains: “Four weeks in a year, we don’t have any shows. This is where bigger maintenance and inspection is done. We could drain the pool then. During that time there is in-depth inspection, where third parties are brought in to stress test and verify if the daily and weekly maintenance are done correctly.”

Air

The air-conditioning temperature around the pool area is different from the audience-seated area. “The audience,” says Zazzaretta, “need to have a temperature of around 21 to 24 degree C, while the performers [around the pool area] are maintained at around 30 degree C; the water temperature is maintained at 31 degree C.”

The reason for the one degree temperature difference in the pool water and the pool area outside is to avoid condensation. Zazzaretta says: “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] faster.”

Manipulating air-conditioning is very important in the theatre as there is a lot of fog effect created. “When we have fog effects, we don’t want to have positive or negative drafts. We have different settings of air-conditioning to manipulate the air flow. The audience need to stay cool, and the performers, who come in and out of water, need to stay warm,” Zazzaretta says.

The theatre has huge extraction systems to absorb the fog. One of the acts features a huge metal giant ball suspended on steel winches. Inside the ball, there are artists riding motorcycles that create a g-force amounting to 20 tonnes of weight. Zazzaretta explains: “The motorbikes create gas fumes. We have two extractors just for the motorbike fumes. They are centralised and they help extract the CO emissions. We have big dehumidifiers as well.”

Sound

In aquatic shows, sound plays a very important role in adding to the whole audio-visual effect. Sebastian Hammond, sound designer and head of sound operations at La Perle, says that there are different ways in which sound is synchronised. “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 theatre and concept of these shows are so immersive that the sound system, lighting and video are also immersive. We can surround the audience in sound effects or music,” says Hammond.

But transmitting sound underwater is a different thing altogether. Hammond says that there are four speakers underwater. This helps the scuba divers to be up to speed on what’s happening above the water as well. There are also four cameras underwater, which help to coordinate the divers and relay the images that they are seeing to the aquatic caller. “An aquatics caller and stage manager are basically coordinating the divers and translating any messages to the general stage manager who’s conducting the show. The scuba divers also have a microphone in their face mask to communicate back to the aquatics caller,” Hammond says.

Regular maintenance is needed for equipment submerged in water. “Cables submerged in water could break down. This is something that needs to be inspected and kept an eye on,” says Hammond.  

Light and fire (and safety)

What so special about lighting at such shows? Anton Montaut, assistant technical director of La Perle, responds: “It’s a water show so we have to use a lot of water proof lights and architectural LED lights; we have several submersible lights because electricity and water doesn’t go well together. We got many covers called bubbles around the theatre that have air conditioning systems that will keep all the lights cool, whilst keeping them
water proof.” 

Safety is paramount in such aquatic shows. Zazzaretta says that the safety standard is double than what is seen in a construction site. Montaut adds that the carpentry team does all the repairs at 6 am in the morning from the night before. “They fix and upgrade things, and then from about 1 pm onwards they carry out testing 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. 

“In a construction site everybody is wearing hard hats, steel toe boots and safety vests. We can’t ask the audience [in an aquatic show] to wear those. We have third-party inspectors that come in to make sure that all our paperworks are in order. We have to be on top of such things. We don’t want anything wrong to happen during the show because that will bring in bad reviews and reviews are what this place is built on. Word of mouth and reviews have made us the number one show in Dubai.”

Talking a bit about fire and safety, Zazzaretta says that every materials are rated to a certain fire safety level. “Curtains are impregnated with fire retardant chemicals. They have to be re-certified every year. People in the team are trained in fire and safety. We do yearly inspections of electrical equipment so that we don’t encounter any electrical fires. We have fire effects in the show and so there are specialised teams that are standing by in case something would go wrong. We have fire extinguishers and fire blankets in place. We have sprinklers; however, in theatres, water damage can be bigger than fire damage.”


Montaut explains: “In areas where there are expensive electrical equipment, we have CO2 systems that will just fill the room with CO2 gas. This will put out the fire without damaging any of the equipment. Within some of the automation booths, there are oxygen supply for the operators, if they need to stay and lower any of the performers down. We also have a dedicated health and safety manager who ensures that everything is safe and all the permits are in order and the Civil Defense is happy with what we do.”

Hammond concludes: “Everybody is constantly adapting to how the show is changed as well. Some new acts are introduced periodically. We like to keep the show fresh. Franco gives new directions and goals. So we are always busy”.

La Perle was launched in September last year with shows twice a day, five days a week from Tuesday to Saturday, and it’s a grand spectacle to witness.

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