High-voltage acts power Cirque’s new Volta

Volta 2
Volta is Cirque du Soleil’s 41st original production since 1984, and its 18th show presented under the Big Top. The San Francisco stop continues through Feb. 3. The San Jose stop runs Feb. 13 through March 10. Photo by Patrice Lamoureux. Photo below by Benoit Z. Leroux.

In the 30 years that Cirque du Soleil has been bringing shows to San Francisco, the animal-free, new-circus behemoth has been remarkably “on brand” as they say. The shows under the big-top tents are wildly colorful, packed with the best acts/stunts the circus world has to offer and spun through with that inscrutable Cirque style that looks fun and feels meaningful but is just so much pretty wrapping around the acts.

I’ve had the good fortune to see most of those shows over the last three decades, and I’ve whined about Cirque fatigue. But the truth is I always look forward to a new touring show because I’m hopeful that a) they’ll break the pattern and come up with something revolutionary and mind boggling b) I’ll recapture the absolute awe I felt when I saw my first Cirque show nearly 30 years ago. The closest I’ve come to either of those goals is in the Las Vegas Cirque shows O and Love (the Beatles show).

The company’s last touring show, 2016’s Luzia (read my review here), passed through my brain so quickly I could hardly remember it to write the review. I remember beauty and Mexico, and that’s about it.

The new touring spectacle, Volta, opened Thursday night under a gray-and-white-striped tent in the AT&T Park for a nearly three-month run before heading down to San Jose. It’s a high energy show with more sparkle and verve than the requisite Cirque pretension, and it was a welcome relief to the smoke-choked air that was strangling the world outside the tent.

That’s not to say the show is any more understandable than any other. Sure, Cirque is packed with great acts, but there’s also some sort of high-concept story that you have to go to the website and read about if you want to understand it. To save you the trouble, here’s what the website says Volta, written and directed by Bastien Alexandre, is about:

Waz, a gameshow contestant, that has lost touch with himself. He’s ashamed of who he is because of his difference. Follow him as he enters the show in search of fame, thinking that this will bring him love and acceptance from others. What he will find is something else. That fame is not the answer. If fame doesn’t provide freedom and acceptance, then what does? Will Waz reconnect with his true self – and stand up for all that makes him truly unique? Will he realize that his difference is what makes him extraordinary?

Watching the 2 1/2-hour show, I picked up on about 25% of that. I recognized the talent show (“The Mr. Wow Show”) and sort of got that Waz has faced difficulty in his life because he has spiky Jack Frost hair. Poor lamb. He wanders about, interacting with circus acts and ends up…in a circus? I don’t know.

The good news is that Waz is played by Joey Arrigo, who creates an endearing if inscrutable character, and all is right with the world when he dances – a thrilling, beautiful fusion of acrobatics and modern dance.

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The rest of the Waz business simply doesn’t matter. What counts are the bright, sparkly costumes by Zaldy Goco, the ’80s-movie-sounding score by Anthony Gonzalez (from the French electronica outfit M83) and the highly enjoyable parade of circus acts.

From double dutch jump ropers to unicyclists to a guy swinging on a lamp, it’s all exciting and with a dollop or two of beauty. The biggest surprise of the evening is Danila Bim’s act, which involves her swinging around the tent by her hair, which is pulled into a tight bun and affixed with a hook and a rope. It’s a lot lovelier than it may sound.

The most exciting act isn’t the raucous BMX frenzy that concludes the show (ramps, airborne bicycles, flipping bicycles, lots of renegade little boy energy) but rather the “trampowall” in the middle of the first act. Two trampolines are separated by a wall, which means the acrobats bounce from tramp to wall to tramp, flipping and flying like a human water fountain.

Another exciting act is low on tech but high on thrills: the shape divers jump through an increasingly challenging tower of hoops, and if, by chance, the knock the tower over, they put the thing back together and try again, accompanied by a “please succeed” vibe from emanating from the cheering audience.

My least favorite aspect of the Cirque oeuvre involves the clowns. Sometimes they’re brilliant, but more often than not they’re annoying. Andrey Kislitsin as Mr. Wow has two bits here, one with uncooperative washing machines (pretty good) and one with a visit to the beach (annoying).

The music in a Cirque show is often a weird fusion of New Age and electronica with singers spewing gibberish words. But the Gonzalez score for Volta is highly enjoyable, with its electric guitars and keyboard washes. Though the lyrics aren’t always intelligible (singers Camilla Bäckman and Darius Harper do their very best), it does seem that there’s actual English being employed this time around.

Even though this is a Cirque show, there’s something unfussy and straightforward about Volta that delivers on all the Cirque promises but cuts right to the heart of circus entertainment: dazzle and thrills. Can’t ask for much more than that.

And finally, just wondering: if you go see the show for a second time, are you in re-Volta?

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Cirque du Soleil’s Volta continues through Feb. 3 under the big top in the AT&T Park parking lot. Tickets start at $54. The San Jose stop runs Feb. 13 through March 10. Visit cirquedusoleil.com/volta or call 1-877-9CIRQUE (1-877-924-7783).

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