Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top is back in town at Atlantic Station with “Volta.” Although the new show lacks the memorable color, visual impact and solid appeal of 2017’s “Luzia” or the surreal humor of 2016’s “Kurios,” there’s still enough here for most Cirque fans to come away very happy.
If anything, Cirque aims for a younger demographic this round, adding a couple acts with BMX bikes. The theme throughout is extreme and street sports, with trampolines, acrobatics, and jump roping taking center stage at different times during the show. The production has a brash and flashy opening concept of a futuristic “Hunger Games”-like reality game show.
The wickedly satirical vibe of the opening moments diminishes as we follow the more emotional and subdued story of a single character, game show contestant Waz, who feels ostracized due to his blue hair. The various acts are likewise meant to suggest characters and ideas Waz encounters on a personal journey. His memory of learning to ride a bike is enacted as a lovely athletic ballet between a BMX rider and a dancer, and a budding romance develops with a colorful, free-spirited girl on roller skates who stands out from the drearily monotonous residents of the futuristic world.
Theater and dance take a slightly more prominent place in the show than in other Cirque productions: there’s a central character and a central storyline, and the lead character’s dancing helps open and close the show. But as one would hope and expect, the acrobatic acts still take center stage. BMX bikes arc, turn and dive on ramps. Juggling bodies rebound on trampolines. Jump roping gets an especially trippy and successful look with lit ropes that emphasize the abstract, sine-wave geometry of the action and the flips and tumbles the astoundingly precise acrobats perform in the middle.
On opening night, a couple of performers encountered trouble tumbling and diving through small, spinning hexagons: several times, the little apparatus was knocked over. But in the end, this actually created one of the most delightful moments of the show. The difficulty of the act came across pretty emphatically, more powerfully than when things go smoothly, making the later success even more thrilling and impressive. One of the quietest, dreamiest acts is also one of the best: a dancing performer is suspended by her hair in a sensual and surreal segment of the show’s second act, truly invoking gasps of disbelief.
The two lead singers Darius Harper and Camilla Blackman are both appealing (Harper especially connects as a flashy, vaguely sinister, but ultimately sympathetic game show-like announcer), but their strong vocals are too often manipulated with effects which mediate the feeling of live performance, immediacy and intimacy, which are often the hallmarks of the most successful Cirque music.
The interstitial clowning segments will induce giggles or not: for me, the comedy of the clown wrestling with a washing machine didn’t click, and its relationship to the tone and feel of the central narrative seemed tenuous at best, even somewhat baffling.
“Volta” creators Bastien Alexandre and Jean Guibert open the show with a delightful and bizarre surprise, a satire of spectacle, setting a different tone for what follows, making this Cirque feel somewhat distinct. And the show memorably parodies the use of cell phones, as performers satirically take selfies between acrobatic acts, or appear as the residents of the show’s futuristic, dystopian urban world, reluctant to be drawn away from their handheld screens. It’s a jibe that resonates, especially as so many audience members vie to get great shots of the action with their own phones.
Audience members may or may not respond to the satire or the theatrical story, but the thrill of the acrobatic acts remains universal.
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