Some of the most impressive moments from Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta” came not from high-flying acrobatics or death-defying stunts but rather from the cast members’ mistakes.
There were a few mishaps throughout the night; when one group of performers was leaping from the ground through narrow hexagonal hoops stacked what may have been well over 10 feet in the air, the performers knocked the hoops to the ground twice. Quickly, the hoops were reset and, with the audience roaring encouragingly in the background, both stunts were repeated, demonstrating that the cast of “Volta” was as committed to defying our imaginations as its audience was to cheering the performers on.
The shape diving, mistakes and all, was among the most impressive act of the night, sharing in that rank with BMX stunts, unicycle shenanigans and other fresh takes on familiar street sports. “Volta” certainly exuded an energy more masculine than many of its other Cirque counterparts. This was a phenomenon that was most evident during the BMX act, with an ensemble of young men flexing after each victorious stunt, smoke machines blaring and a raging electric guitar playing them on.
The plot of “Volta” is not one of Cirque’s strongest, not that too many audience members are ever particularly invested in Cirque du Soleil for its storytelling prowess. In “Volta,” our protagonist, Waz, a young dancer with a penchant for impressive bicycle maneuvers, wins a talent competition and is launched into the public eye, but not before his greatest insecurity is revealed — a full head of blue-gray feathers rather than hair.
His own community is one that is portrayed as dull and unforgiving, glued to its phones in a social media haze, but he finds new companionship among a colorful crew of acrobats. In execution, intercut between the acrobats’ celebratory displays of technical dexterity and daredevil tendencies are snippets of Waz’s past (including a touching pas de deux with his mother, in which she performs an elegantly choreographed ballet routine while he performs complex flatland BMX, often termed “bicycle ballet”).
The vaguely existent plot is perforated by an audience-favorite solo performer, a clown-mime hybrid whose expressiveness, creativity and timing make for pure hilarity. Here, again, the power of good showmanship in the face of error was on display — when the clown-mime missed his toss of a laundry basket into a laundry machine, the second laundry basket was still launched from the other end of the stage, as choreographed.The performer quickly improvised and was able to capitalize on the moment, sheepishly kicking the basket offstage and shrugging knowingly to the audience.
While these solo acts were purely comedic endeavors, others were far more nail-biting. In one of the show’s most memorable moments, one performer is suspended by a cord affixed to her hair bun. Dressed in a nude bodysuit, exquisitely adorned with shimmering florals and designed by talented costume designer Zaldy Goco, she gracefully swings and spins as she is twirled by the cable, leaving audiences to stare agape with awe while simultaneously cringing at the thought of being raised by their hair several feet into the air.
It is that precise sensation — a mix of wonder and terror — that Cirque du Soleil consistently evokes in its productions. In some ways, Cirque’s role in the circus industry is analogous to that of Marvel’s role in the film industry; both appear to pump out content endlessly but are able to maintain a high standard of quality because they can attract top-tier talent and secure generous production budgets.
Unlike Marvel, however, which celebrates characters whose abilities are either entirely fictional or rely on tech gadgets, the superpowers of Cirque performers are very much real and draw from nothing other than the untapped potential of the human body.
Our fixation with Cirque du Soleil, and with “Volta” itself, will always be rooted in our fascination with this seemingly limitless display of human capability. It’s the same reason that errors can be just as thrilling as perfectly executed stunts — in these mistakes, we’re reminded of just how real each and every death-defying moment truly is.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].