“Vegetable Volta!”

By: Keith Johnson

This review was originally supposed to be about the entirety of The Volta Experience. The site, layout, merchandise, show, the whole enchilada. And if it wasn’t for our viewing being cancelled halfway through the first act, that’s what it would have been.

My wife and I were reflecting recently about how many Cirque du Soleil shows we’ve seen since we became fans. We estimated more than 60 – less than some fans, more than others. While we’ve experienced delays during shows (once at KA during its early days because of the big stage), we’ve NEVER been at a show that had to cancel, which speaks to Cirque’s consistency.Until now.

Cirque has maintained a fluid definition as to just what exactly constitutes a “performance” of a show. Since there are no “stars” an absence of an artist just means a substitution and the show goes on. Even whole “scenes” or “acts” (or pieces of technical wizardry) missing is no cause for refund; as far as Cirque is concerned you still got what they promised when you bought your ticket.

Part of this is the “show must go on” theatrical tradition – every effort must be made to make or continue the performance for the paying patrons. But this also means when you go to a Cirque show (or, really, any circus-arts show), what you might think you’re getting (based on, say, publicity, online reviews or summaries) may not be what you actually get. (So, don’t get your heart set on seeing X performer, or Y act.)

But a technical difficulty can throw a curve ball.

We chose to see VOLTA at MaryMoor Park in Redmond, WA (outside Seattle) on Friday, September 7, 2018 at 8pm. We also got seats for my wife’s boss and their mutual friend, both new to Cirque. The evening was passable, cool but not yet rainy (though it would rain later that night). It had been two years since we had last visited a Cirque tent show – Luzia – and we were interested in any changes to the touring site, as well as the show itself. (Some of what we note below as “changes” might have happened some time ago, but we are just noticing them.)

The first change came at the entrance to the site – a body wanding scan to start, then a bag check. This was new but handled professionally. There is the now-standard selfie spot in the center of the tent courtyard. And a new contraption, a set of percussion pads (with a pre-recorded backing track) that play sounds when struck – as well as cue various colored lights that play on the front of the tent surface.

There were also new portable bathrooms. The prior style was double sided, with two steps up to the four stalls on each side, with more traditional toilets and full-length doors. This newer style was a hybrid of a porta-potty design with a smaller interior footprint, more plastic throughout, and one flush button instead of two that started a water-vacuum disposal system like an airplane toilet. I can’t say this was a step up from the prior system, but it did increase the number of stalls on each side of the tent to 21 from 16. The hand washing stations were an improvement though, with more conventional sinks using non-drinkable water. (Spoiler alert: This will become important later.)

The tent (white with silver stripes, the newer type with all merchandise and concessions under one canvas roof, with a carpeted raised floor that was very nice to talk on) had some nice enhancements.Merchandise displays on the sides, food concessions (including a wine booth) in the center.But it is the merch we are always drawn to. A nice gold Cirque sun bracelet for $15.00. A striking blackshirt urging the wearer to do “wildly artistic / unordinary / audacious / outrageous things” and “go forth and Cirque” for $25.00. More emphasis on toys than we’ve seen previously – a Volta ramp playset, a featured section for the juggling balls, jump rope, and diabolos.

We also saw for the first time (though it came out in December 2014) a picture book by Veronique Vial, “Backstage Cirque du Soleil” (Assouline, 978-16142829676, 2014, $75.00). This is an updating and expansion (232 pages here, 151 pages previously) of her first book of Cirque backstage photographs, “Wings – Backstage With Cirque du Soleil” (Tondo, 978-1892041104, 1999). It will be fun to look through.

There was also a push for seat upgrades that begins immediately after you enter the tent. Right in front of each entrance were examples of two chairs – a blue plastic lightly padded “standard” seat next to a red thickly padded “premium” section 101-102 seat. There was a “Concierge” desk specifically dedicated to selling upgrade opportunities. You could upgrade your seat for as little as $10.00, depending on where your original seat was and where you wanted to sit. From what I could tell the upgrade price was cheaper in total than buying the seats new, but of course you are getting the seat selection available at the last minute. Another upgrade possibility was access to the VIP suite for $45.00 – which might be a value if you upgrade the minute the tent opens, not so much if it’s 20 minutes until the show starts.

(And this show needs the extra push for more revenue; we have been inundated with discount offers (usually of 35%) from Groupon, Goldstar, and even Cirque itself, most recently offering 40% off!)

Our seats (section 200, row M, the “plastic” variety) seemed a bit narrower than last time, as if they had shaved half an inch off the width of each seat to add more seats per row. (Or else, or more likely, we are getting bigger.) The sound booth, which has previously been a fixture in the middle of the 200 section, has been moved to the back of the tent next to lighting and automation, allowing for more seating. Not that they needed them – there were many empty seats on the sides, unusual for a Friday evening performance.

The first real indication that this show was going to be different was something that didn’t happen – no pre-show animation. We were expecting (as has been the case at all the other Cirque shows we’ve seen) some characters to come out and interact with the audience, but there was nothing. There was the usual pre-show safety announcement – bienvenue to Cirque du Soleil! Then the lights went down, and the show started. I’ve always looked forward to animation and was sad to see it missing. Another decline by degrees I suppose.

Now here is where I was going to go into our thoughts on the show. Volta has been going through a revamping of late, of which I wasn’t totally aware. The original concept of the blue-haired Waz being the MC of the show-within-a-show “Mr. Wow Show” has been abandoned. Now Waz is a contestant on that show, when his blue hair is discovered, and he is ostracized. I tend to think the idea of someone who had scaled the heights of stardom having insecurities and doubts (as represented by his blue feathered hair) had more gravitas as a dramatic device than some average Joe contestant that is discovered to be a freak. With this and some other rumored changed, we were looking forward to seeing how the show now stood as an artistic statement.

The first half of the first act proceeded without incident. The Jump rope act was cool. The Unicycle Duo that came afterwards, and an act with Waz hanging from an aerial strap “lamp” was OK as well.

It was at this point that one of the shows unique set pieces – three rectangular platforms – emerged from the floor.They each had a character on them;some unnamed “gray” characters on the (lowest height) stage right and (medium height) downstage platforms, and the female singer on the highest platform on stage left. Together the platforms created kind of a “U” shape. The dramatic lighting, eerie music and vocals, and most especially the fog blanketing the stage gave the moment impact.

When the stage left platform (the lowest in height of the three) came to a stop, a surge of – something – blasted from underneath the stage close to the arm that was supporting the platform.In addition, small fountains of fluiderupted to the left and right of the arm. But shooting powerfully out of the center toward the audience was a stream of some fluid. It arced over the people in Section 102, reaching about half as high as the bottom of the manually operated spotlights attached to the downstage masts.The tail didn’t become visible until the head of this liquid snake (which looked to be about two inches in diameter) was about three-quarters of the way over Section 102. It then started to arc down and began to disperse, reminding me of that moment in Star Wars: The Force Awakens where the blast from StarKiller Base separates to decimate its victim planets.

Slowly, gracefully, noiselessly, it descended onto the patrons sitting on the stage right side of the first half of Section 102.

At first, I thought it was the liquid form of the stage smoke that had escaped.There was no warning on the ticket of a “splash zone” so it couldn’t be that. I’ve seen technical errors before, but this was nothing like that; Cirque du Soleil doesn’t make those kind of mistakes, does it?

The reaction from the people who got doused was delayed but not happy. They looked at their clothes, each other. Some rubbed their eyes, liftedand shook their arms, stood up. Some headed for the exit.They looked wet! A few moments later, ushers came to the area to help people exit. Anywhere the fluid landed – chairs, aisles, the stage – glistened.

It wasn’t water. Or stage smoke fluid. It was vegetable-based hydraulic fluid!

(A bit of tech: Vegetable seed oil fluids can withstand higher temperatures, are bio-degradable and are non-toxic to fish, but it is more expensive than mineral-based fluid, though this was no consolation to the patrons who were doused.)

The music continued to play, the platforms (and the characters stuck on them) stayed in place.After about 90 seconds, a pre-recorded female voice announced that the show would be “temporarily delayed” and to stay in our seats. Then the house lights came up though the music continued. The thick industrial smell of the hydraulic fluid final made its way to our nostrils.

I was loving this. Even though I suspected it would be awhile, if ever, that the show would resume, it was thrilling to be there for an actual malfunction. This was REALLY COOL! The audience rustling and murmuring conversations raised the noise level.Members of the tech crew started coming to the stage with small flashlights. They were finding it hard to not slip; one tech moved to the front of the platform and had trouble keeping his foothold on the shiny fluid-covered surface.

A few minutes later the same pre-recorded female voice announced the show would be delayed “for an indeterminate length of time” and to move out of the tent into the concessions area. The music stopped, and they brought a tall orange ladder onto the stage. The characters, who up to this point had remained motionless, started to gingerly make their way off the platforms. People started moving out of the tent slowly, the same way they would at the end of the show.We lingered, wanting to stay in the environment as long as we could.

We finally joined the shuffling throng and began to leave the tent. The mash of the entirety of the Grand Chapiteau attendance milling about in the concession tent was tight; it was very hard to move around or see over anyone. I had a hard time finding the rest of my party, an experience I’m sure many others in the crowd had. People were noisy, restless, wondering.

The female voice floated over our heads again. It now announced the show had been – cancelled. The sound of 1,800 people jammed into the concessions tent being disappointed was memorable; a descending sigh accepting the expected.But Cirque was ready. All the concessions tent people started handing out flyers (in English and French, of course) apologizing for the cancellation and saying tickets would be refunded.While that would be the least Cirque could do, it didn’t sit well with me that I would have to start the ticket buying process over from scratch, after several months of sales had snapped up many of the best tickets, and at regular price to boot. Disappointed and wanting to make the evening last a little bit longer, we shopped a bit more and finally left.

As we were leaving, an ambulance and a fire truck arrived on the scene, no siren but with lights flashing; this was a chemical spill after all. They were let in through the service entrance. I did not hear if anyone was treated.

Outside the tent we talked to a couple who had been on the receiving end of the fluid.The man was still wearing his oil-stained shirt, the woman’s blouse had been soaked so badly it couldn’t be worn. She had to purchase a Cirque hoodie (costing $55 she paid herself, there was no offer of replacement clothing from Cirque – a promotional opportunity missed? To my understanding there has been no offer of reimbursement since.). After they realized it was oil they left the tent of their own accord, rushing to the hand washing area to try to clear the oil off their hair/face/hands. The woman (like several others) had gotten it in her eyes, so eye flushing was important. There not being a safety eye wash in the patron area, they had to use the hand washing station water, which it should be noted is marked as NOT drinkable.

It was lightly misty as we made our way to our car. People with pre-scheduled ride sharing reservations were stuck, they had to suddenly re-book or wait until their reserved car showed up some 90 minutes later. Several folks were nervously poking their phones hoping for a reservation – until one could arrive they were stuck outside the tent in the middle of a large suburban park in the rain. A few were asking about public bus transportation, available if you braved the quarter-mile either way walk out of the park, in the dark and the rain.

Later the next day we got a “special advisory” email from Cirque

Dear Cirque du Soleil Guest,

Following the incident that caused the cancellation of the 8:00pm performance of VOLTA in Redmond, Washington on Friday September 7th, Cirque du Soleil apologizes for the inconvenience and will automatically reimburse all guests who had purchased tickets for the cancelled show. Please allow up to 48 hours for the reimbursement.

Tickets purchased through the Cirque du Soleil website or call center will be automatically refunded on the credit card used for the original purchase. For tickets purchased through one of our partners, please contact the original point of sale for refund.

Guests who paid for on-site parking will be reimbursed upon proof of receipt and can be arranged by calling customer service at 1-877-924-7783.**

Those wishing to re-book tickets for all other Seattle performances of VOLTA through November 4 will be offered a 30% discount on their new purchase. They are invited to process a new booking on the Cirque du Soleil website using this link: Click here or by calling customer service at 1-877-924-7783.

Cirque du Soleil apologizes for this incident and any inconvenience this cancellation may have caused.

For all inquiries, the Cirque du Soleil customer service team is available to take your call at 1-877-924-7783.


Cirque du Soleil
Your VOLTA customer experience team

[**Marymoor Park charged $20.00 per vehicle, but fortunately provided a Volta-logo-d receipt. That and suppling your Volta ticket order (to reduce fraud) got patrons a refund.]