BWW Review: Cirque Du Soleil's VOLTA is Athletic But Not Particularly Moving
One of the constant pleasures of Cirque du Soleil is its celebration of the human form, highlighting its grace, celebrating its beauty, and showcasing its supple dexterity. This core vison and value has traversed from frame to glittering frame over thirty years in sometimes spectacularly whimsical, passionate, or imaginative productions... and sometimes not.
In Volta, here in San Francisco through February 3 before moving on to San Jose, we have a not. Or, at least a not quite.
The nineteenth Cirque to raise its tentpole here since 1988 (forgiving and forgetting the tentless Cow Palace presentation of Quidam in 2011), Volta promises "a captivating voyage of discovery that showcases never-before-seen under the Big Top acrobatics in a visually striking world." What it actually delivers, with one notable exception, is an array of talented athletes hitting very familiar marks on ropes and rings intersected with a poorly drawn allusion to a boy with greenish hair as a social outsider. (Dean Stockwell told that story better in 1948.)
The evening begins with an Idol-esque competition show featuring Mr. Wow - he doesn't - and a watered-down RuPaul-in-sorta-boy-clothes second banana introducing a series of hopeful contestants. Fourth in line, Waz (Joey Arrigo) takes the stage, dancing exuberantly and beautifully, clinching the title until - quelle horreur! - his hoodie flips back and reveals his icy seafoam coif. Suddenly, in this very freaky lamé and techno glitter world where Mr. Wow poses and preens like a Disney drag Conrad Birdie, Waz is made the outcast and must journey, ostensibly, on the aforementioned captivating voyage.
It's not what you'd call a strong open and the rest of the evening struggles to build momentum or coherence around this underdeveloped structure written and directed by Bastien Alexandre. It is not helped by alternately garish or ugly costumes by Zaldy Goco that in the latter suffer from a repetitive stringy-grungy patchwork approach, or by blandly utilitarian sets (Bruce Rodgers), by-the-numbers lighting (Martin Labrecque), and an unremarkable score by Anthony Gonzalez.
If you are sensing disappointment here, you are spot on.
A new Cirque title always holds the potential for being surprising, mystical, lush, inventive, heartwarming, sexy, or - particularly in their permanent Las Vegas installations like O and Kà - jaw-dropping. The recent Luzia did much of this very well. When, however, a Cirque evening barely touches these qualities, as is the case with Volta, long-time fans may leave somewhat empty-hearted.
There are, to be fair, some moments of magic, presenting style and substance, laced with humor, and based in craft, but not enough to sustain the night. Phillipe Bélanger flexes his perfectly sculpted torso with an amusing "Yeah, I know." bad-boy swagger while unicycling with a castmate perched hands-free on his head. Andrey Kistlitsin (Mr. Wow in the opening) redeems himself with a cleaner and far more engaging bit of clowning at an imaginary beach. A high-flying, wall-walking team of athletes makes the most of mirror-image choreography in their trampoline routines, and a nimble pair of climbers explore the outer contours of a hinged and ever-spinning, shifting ladder. Interspersed with these occasional standouts are a perfectly fine series of jugglers, rope-jumpers, dancers, fiddlers, roller skaters, Swiss ring and bungee flyers, shape divers (less exotic than it sounds), and BMXers (stunt bike riders).
Still, nothing feels particularly "never-before-seen" until well into the evening when the lights come up on Danila Bim sitting center stage in a meditative pose. Without a flicker, the diminutive Brazilian rises from the floor and floats in mid-air suspended by a cable attached only to her hair. They call it hair suspension and her routine of flying, twirling, landing and soaring again, tethered only by the top of her head was truly breathtaking. Soon after, identical twins Kevin and Andrew Atherton create another moment of frisson with their ethereal yet deeply sensual dance-flight, using aerial straps, that may have left some reaching for a virtual cigarette.
Those all too brief moments felt like Cirque du Soleil, that brilliantly inventive Canadian company that successfully merged circus and theatre with a generous dollop of European cabaret and created an intimate new art form with a wildly beating heart and an undeniable humanity under an out-sized grand chapiteau.
That was one Cirque. This is another. There are certainly those who will not only embrace but celebrate this more raucous, sinewy approach, with its sport-forward flexing and its aggressive stance. It is a Cirque demands attention where once it beguiled and seduced and in our attention-deprived, over-stimulated world that approach may now be necessary.
Volta runs in San Franciscothrough February 3, 2019.
It moves to San Jose on February 13 through March 24, 2019
TICKETS | Images: Matt Baerd, Costumes: Zaldy