Review: VOLTA Speeds Past Simplicity, Running on Adrenaline

The word Volta, the title of Cirque du Soleil’s latest show, can refer both to a sudden about-turn and a return to the past. Co-directors Jean Guibert and Bastien Alexandre draw on both these meanings to tell the story of a game-show host who turns his back on gold-plated super celebrity to search for inner meaning and authenticity. It could almost be a dream-yearning of Cirque du Soleil itself, which in its ever-evolving enlargement into a world-conquering behemoth has had to contend with sniffy remarks that its shows have tended toward the bloated, the overproduced, the soullessly corporate.

But you would hardly expect this gigantic revenue-generating machine to go back to its 1980s roots, which would mean Guy Laliberté and his fellow founder, Gilles Ste-Croix, passing around the hat to fickle street crowds. And so Volta achieves the nifty juggling act – maybe a contortionist’s feat would better describe it – of throwing out red-meat spectacle (towering hydraulic ramps, blazing LED light shows, giant videos, laser-emitting costumes), backed by a synthed-up stadium-rock soundtrack from French electronic outfit M83, all in the service of a narrative about shedding the outer trappings to find the simplicity within.

Despite the company’s valiant attempts to marry jaw-dropping skills to a meaningful narrative, the latter is definitely not Volta’s strongest suit. It concerns WAZ (Joey Arrigo), a blue-haired game-show host who, like the title character of the old Joseph Losey film, The Boy With Green Hair, grew up enduring ridicule from his peers (conjured up in an aural flashback of jeering kids). Childhood trauma notwithstanding, WAZ wallows in nostalgia for those simpler times, depicted on giant video screens, when he would cycle across sun-dappled fields in the company of his loving mother.

As WAZ mopes over his hard luck at finding himself with both fame and fortune – a bit like the self-pitying rock god in the recent Another Brick in the Wall opera – the stage is suddenly flooded with brightly coloured characters called Free Spirits. In contrast to the superficial, dead-eyed Greys (at least they’re not called squares), they know how to live life to the full.

It’s sheer hokum and is likely to secure rather than shed Cirque’s reputation for kitschy New Age storytelling. What it does quite successfully, though, is provide lots of pretexts for the customarily incredible displays of superhuman skills. The game show, which seems to be some kind of a cross between Canada’s Got Circus Skills and The Hunger Games, kicks off with some ultra-fast double dutch rope-skipping, the winner getting to graduate from dullard Grey to gilded Elite status.

Providing some much-needed comic relief from the ambient earnestness, WAZ is given a clownish co-host, played by Wayne Wilson, who gets to perform two skits. The first, involving some errant washing machines, strains for laughs, but the second, in which the munching of a hallucinatory flower transforms Wilson into a love god, is a more successful bout of absurdity. It also leads to a magical moment in which a meditating female sitting cross-legged suddenly levitates, suspended by her hair, and rises all the way up to perform a beautifully fluid aerial dance.

The Free Spirits express their spirit of freedom through an enthusiasm for extreme sports. And so we get some fantastically energetic parkour, some hoop-diving mixed with hip-hop moves and some heart-stopping, plummeting bungee rope tricks. These last are delivered during a pull-out-all-stops pre-intermission sequence as singers Camilla Bäckman and Darius Harper belt out an anthemic M83 number atop a moving bridge.

Other highlights include a unicyclist balancing his partner in impossible positions and a woman hurling and twirling a luminous baton 50 feet into the air with all the ease of a diner casually twiddling a toothpick.

WAZ’s Citizen Kane-like nostalgia for his childhood bike leads to a mesmerizing pas de deux involving a ballet dancer and a BMX rider who echoes her pirouettes. As astonishing as this scene is, it’s merely a taster for the climactic scene which sees the stage transformed into a BMX park in which four riders soar, somersault and spin their way, surely, into the ledger of Cirque du Soleil highlights from its 33-year history. It’s an exhilarating, adrenaline-flooding way to end the show – and whatever the show’s message about the importance of going back to basics, the gob-smacked audience rose to its feet, clearly happy to see it delivered with such big, brash, intoxicating panache.

{ SOURCE: Jim Burke, Montreal Gazette | }