VOLTA: The New Cirque Cycles Across the Generation Gap

Volta may not be a complete reinvention of the Cirque du Soleil, but it’s definitely not the same old Cirque.

Jean-François Bouchard, head of the creative department at the phenomenally popular Montreal-based circus arts company, hand-picked two Cirque staffers who were a bit younger than the usual creative directors and asked them to spice up the troupe’s approach.

“Our creative guide Jean-François Bouchard asked us to take him somewhere else in terms of esthetics and storytelling,” said Bastien Alexandre, 40, the writer and director of Volta.

“He gave us wide freedom to explore what might be meaningful to us or what might be meaningful today. We just dove inside our experiences as human beings and came up with the theme of finding your own genius, and being able to discover that and exploit that and not be afraid of who you are.”

Part of what’s meaningful to Alexandre and Jean Guibert, the director of creation for Volta, is BMX or bicycle motocross — racing on BMX bikes. So that’s in the new Cirque show, which opens Thursday under the Big Top at the Old Port. They’ve also included flatland, which is freestyle BMX action akin to the performer breakdancing on the bike.

The show also features parkour, which is basically running in urban environments, often on the top of buildings. Alexandre and Guibert also throw in some trial bike routines, built around mountain bikes going over difficult terrain, and rollerskating.

“BMX or flatland or parkour, that’s probably the last performances you would think of when doing a theatrical story,” said Guibert, 36. “You’d go naturally to dance or ballet.

“The challenge of exploring radically unexplored disciplines in the world of show business is something we’re really excited about. We see beauty in everything, and we see great theatrical beauty in these sports.”

But it’s still the Cirque.

“We want to integrate these performances in our story arc, and so they all mean something in terms of a storytelling vibration,” said Alexandre. “The flip side of that coin is that we’re still under the banner of the Cirque du Soleil. We’re still under the Big Top. It’s the same number of seats. It’s a similar configuration to the stage, though we made it deeper because of these sports. We still have to honour our heritage. So for us, the challenge was to bring things that felt new without breaking the spirit of what’s made the Cirque du Soleil great.”

This is the 41st Cirque show, and the brain trust that runs this gigantic entertainment enterprise is always trying to spice up the formula. But as Alexandre underlines, it’s a balancing act (play on words intended). Fans want freshness, but they also want big acrobatic acts, contortionists, avant-garde clowns and jaw-dropping high-wire acts. In short, they want the Cirque magic.

“You want to challenge people because they’re intelligent,” said Alexandre. “They see all kinds of entertainment these days, and the fact that we’re pretty young (compared to other Cirque creative directors), we bring our generational baggage along with us and there are things that inspire us, like choosing (Anthony Gonzalez from the French electronic band M83 to write the musical score).”

It seems pretty obvious that this is an attempt on the part of Bouchard and his colleagues to reach a younger generation, to renew the Cirque fan base.

“Clearly there is a desire to be relevant to a new generation, and the new generation is our generation,” said Guibert. “We wanted to have a show that was compelling to us and the world we grew up with. But at the same time, we’re not doing a show that’s exclusive. We’re doing a Cirque du Soleil show, and it’s a show that’s going to talk to every generation.”

“There’s a universal story in there for anyone who wants to partake in it,” said Alexandre.

At a recent media event previewing Volta, Bouchard called Alexandre and Guibert “deux jeunes du Cirque,” but they’re hardly kids and both have been at the Cirque for a long time. Alexandre has been on staff for 16 years, and Guibert for 11. Alexandre started there as a concept artist, creating concepts for Cirque events, films, video games and multimedia projects. Guibert was involved in branding and advertising before making the move into creation.

The way Guibert tells it, he kept popping into Bouchard’s office to offer unsolicited advice about the shows, and Bouchard finally said: Look, if you have so many ideas, why don’t you join the creative department? Guibert immediately accepted Bouchard’s offer.

Alexandre and Guibert first worked together directing the opening ceremonies of the Pan Am Games in Toronto in July 2015. Soon after, they began work on Volta.

While Alexandre and Guibert have different credits on the show, they say the collaboration was very organic. Both are thrilled by this story about a game-show host having an identity crisis.

“His story is a universal story,” said Alexandre. “He was born with blue feathers for hair, and that’s a placeholder for anything that makes you unique or different. Anything that might have you judged within a group. He was judged as a kid. That’s the backstory we told ourselves, and you see it a little bit in the show. And ever since, he chose to hide his difference.

“That led him on the wrong path for his existence, denying who he was, until he meets the free spirit Ela, who triggers in him the will to go back to who he could have been and gets him on that journey to change the outlook of his existence.”