A talk with band leader Ben Todd. Video by Ryon Horne

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Volta’: behind-the-scenes of the Big Top in Atlanta

The first rule of Cirque du Soleil: Everything is clockwork.

The second rule: Don’t chew gum around the costumes.

It’s that initial directive that is on display on a recent Thursday inside the Big Top (aka the Grand Chapiteau) at Atlantic Station, where Cirque’s “Volta” is readying for a 4:30 p.m. performance.

“In an office, you can make a mistake, send an email and it’s fixed. Here, there are no mistakes,” says Steven Ross, the briskly professional and obliging senior publicist for the show as he lopes around the front of the circular stage that the “Volta” cast of 50 will soon take.

Just 10 minutes before the audience enters, ushers huddle near the blue plastic seats, chatting. A Cirque crowd entertainer — you know, the one you pray will keep walking past you as he scouts the aisles looking for a willing participant — hops around in striped knee socks, practicing wiggly moves.

A few hundred feet away, behind the stage in the Artistic Tent, one acrobat is flipping on a trampoline. Joey Arrigo, the performer who plays blue-haired protagonist Waz, is hugging his elbows in a stretch. Another cast member sits at a makeup table, applying thick, painted brows.

Artists get ready for Cirque du Soleil Volta under the big top tent at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. Behind-the-scenes of Cirque, with an emphasis on the musicians who are a visible part of the show. The storyline revolves around Waz, a young man in danger of becoming one of the Greys, a group of conforming city dwellers who are glued to their cellphones and locked into boring routines. In a bid for love and attention, Waz becomes enamored with celebrity culture and competes on the Mr. Wow Show. But things end badly when Waz is harshly judged for the thing that makes him special. Thanks to the Freespirits, escaped Greys who enjoy the freedom of being true to themselves, Waz learns to accept himself for who he is. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

More performers casually fall into splits and other unnatural poses atop gym mats that line the floor, always in motion.

They are oblivious to everyone and everything except, of course, the clock.

At exactly 4 p.m., the show ritual of “handing the house” takes place — when the artistic team radios the head usher that the show can now commence.

“Let’s open!” yells the head usher known as Vladi (short for Vladislava), and moments later, patrons swaddled in coats amble in clasping boxes of popcorn and “Volta” merchandise purchased in the lobby of the Big Top.

But let’s back up for a moment.

“‘Volta’ surprised us”

Ross is genuine when he explains that Atlanta has become one of the most fertile markets for Cirque du Soleil shows. “Volta,” which began in 2017, arrived at the Atlantic Station Big Top (constructed specifically for Cirque shows) Oct. 10. It will close in Atlanta on Jan. 5 and commandeer its next city — Los Angeles — on Jan. 18 before moving on to Costa Mesa, California; Denver and Portland, Oregon.

By November, the run in Atlanta of “Volta” was extended — a frequent occurrence for Cirque Big Top shows here, but not necessarily in other cities.

“To stay on for three months is really long,” Ross says. “The people of Atlanta welcome us with open arms. When you see the audiences, you see the difference by the way people react. We’re very humbled by it.”

Artists get ready for Cirque du Soleil Volta under the big top tent at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

When Cirque comes to town, it’s like operating a small city, evidenced by the rows of white trailers packed around the outside of the tents. There are 150 people on tour, and the show spends about $2 million on staff lodging and other life necessities. Ross says the typical economic impact for a city when a Cirque show sticks around for several months is about $18 million since people travel from throughout the state (and nearby ones), stay in hotels and eat in area restaurants.

Cirque also hires about 200 locals, many of whom work in the cast and crew kitchen.

The makeshift cafeteria — actually four trailers converted into a large room with tables — is headed by four full-time chefs who provide food every day starting at 8 a.m. and through intermission of the evening performance.

Catering to cultural tastes and dietary preferences is an understandable challenge with a cast featuring 25 nationalities who collectively speak 16 languages. The hot food options always include one lean meat, one vegetarian and one “comfort food.” Some of the choices on this day, scribbled on a white board, are vegan black bean stew and stuffed peppers with eggs. Most of the performers wait until the matinee intermission or the hour between shows on double-performance days to consume a main meal.

Drummer and band leader Ben Todd (left) gives a fist bump to guitarist Will Lawrence backstage before Cirque du Soleil Volta under the big top tent at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The heartbeat of “Volta”

The tagline for the show is “find your free,” and while that fits perfectly into the terminally vague descriptors of all Cirque productions, it makes sense for this particular show (though it’s also heavy on sports, with a dazzling BMX bike routine competing with an electrifying double-dutch jump rope sequence vying against a gasp-inducing multi-trampoline spectacle as the most memorable performance).

“It’s all about accepting yourself and being open to everyone. It’s a message anyone can relate to,” says Ben Todd, the band leader and drummer for the show.

It’s just after 3 p.m. that same afternoon and Todd, a Twizzler-thin Australian with an easy grin and kind eyes under facial makeup reminiscent of Tim Curry in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” cheerfully chats about his life in Cirque and the music that powers “Volta.” (He saw his first show, “Saltimbanco,” in Australia’s Adelaide when he was 11 and joined Cirque for “Corteo” when he was 19.)

Todd, 30, usually arrives about three hours before a show and returns by about 10:45 p.m. to his Midtown hotel, where he lives with his wife Amanda, a stage manager with “Volta,” whom he’s known since elementary school in Australia.

iolinist and vocalist Camilla Bäckman performs from Daydreaming during Cirque du Soleil Volta at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“Volta” is only dark on Mondays, so despite being in Atlanta for more than two months, free time is scarce — though the couple has enjoyed scouting out Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market.

“Like anything, the routine can get to you. But everyone here is constantly trying to better themselves,” Todd says.

A drummer since the age of 3 — his father is also a professional sticksman — Todd always wanted to be involved in the creation of the show.

Anthony Gonzalez of French-American electronic music project M83 is the composer and musical director of “Volta.”

But, says Todd, “We got to work closely with (Anthony). It’s his vision and his ideas. Anthony is writing more like pop songs. A lot of other Cirque shows are written in a more formula way. That’s what makes the show sound different.”

In the pocket

Two music pits flank the “Volta” stage, with Todd and guitarist/keyboardist William Lawrence in one and singer/violinist Camilla Bäckman, singer Eric DeShan and keyboardist Michael Gonzalez pressed into the other.

It’s one of the smallest bands for a Cirque production, and the music is about 40 percent live to 60 percent pre-recorded because of the layered demands of Gonzalez’s compositions.

Aerial straps from "Cause You're Still Here" during Cirque du Soleil Volta at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

With five minutes until show time, Todd settles into his drum nook, a Plexiglas border and brown door the only things separating him from Englishman Lawrence, who, unlike most musicians in Cirque shows, will make brief appearances on stage, first ripping out a guitar solo in a black and gold ensemble that looks like Broadway meshed with Prince’s closet, before scampering back into the pit.

Even though Todd is sequestered behind slats, he also must wear a costume — a loose-fitting grey patterned outfit and hat.

Both Todd and Lawrence have monitors to watch the show, laptops that run the music programs and, for Lawrence, a dim red light to illuminate his keyboards in the otherwise shadowy pit.

Neither reads music as “Volta” unfolds. As Todd points out, “After 900 shows, you pretty much have it committed (to memory).”

Asked if he ever gets to actually enjoy the production, Todd grins.

“Yeah. Sometimes.”

At 4:35 p.m., the houselights dim and the command comes through the musicians’ headphones: “Music – go!”

A click track — which many drummers use to keep time — tick tocks in the earphones. Todd’s eyes lock onto the monitor to watch the performers, and the first thumps of a drumbeat introduces the opening scene, the “Mr. Wow Show.”

Lawrence, back from his stage turn and now clad in a rainbow-colored outfit, taps his right foot and nods his head while playing his guitar as Todd slams through a drum solo during the vigorous trampoline number, “Rise & Shine.”

During the 25-minute intermission, Lawrence heads backstage and slowly rides an exercise bike to keep loose. Around him, some acrobats practice their routines and shirtless, muscled men engage in yet another workout as Migos’ “Walk It Talk It” blares through the Artistic Tent.

The second act is highlighted by the BMX routine accompanied by the adrenalized song, “Momentum.”

At 6:25 p.m., as the cast circles the stage to an audience ovation, Todd and Lawrence zip out of their musical cave to join them. Todd waves his drumsticks and Lawrence his guitar as the group takes a well-earned bow.

Just like clockwork.

Artists wave to fans during from Cirque du Soleil Volta at Atlantic Station on Thursday, December 12, 2019. Behind-the-scenes of Cirque, with an emphasis on the musicians who are a visible part of the show. The storyline revolves around Waz, a young man in danger of becoming one of the Greys, a group of conforming city dwellers who are glued to their cellphones and locked into boring routines. In a bid for love and attention, Waz becomes enamored with celebrity culture and competes on the Mr. Wow Show. But things end badly when Waz is harshly judged for the thing that makes him special. Thanks to the Freespirits, escaped Greys who enjoy the freedom of being true to themselves, Waz learns to accept himself for who he is. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

EVENT PREVIEW

Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta”

Times vary. Through Jan. 5. Tickets start at $55 (VIP packages and behind-the-scenes packages also available). 1-877-924-7783, cirquedusoleil.com.

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About the Author

Melissa Ruggieri
Melissa Ruggieri
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for the AJC. She remembers when MTV was awesome.  
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