'Volta' Goes For Big Air, Comes Up Short

Cirque du Soleil taps extreme athletes in newest touring production
Though BMX makes sense with in the Cirque du Soleil universe, it's strange to see it now. Photo by Matt Beard

For those who grew up in a world where the police regularly chased skateboarders out of public squares, Cirque du Soleil's action sports-embracing Volta is a kind of bittersweet vindication.

The mainstream acceptance of all forms of extreme athleticism is nothing new. Gleaming the Cube hit movie theaters in 1989. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater debuted on the Playstation in 1999. And in October, Apple released a commercial for its latest iPhone X model that featured a gaggle of free runners cartwheeling down flights of stairs and vaulting over cars. Next summer, skateboarding is set to drop into the 2020 Olympic Games.

But it still feels good to see an all-ages crowd collectively recognize the beauty and grace of a flatland BMX performance and to gasp in unison as cyclists launch their pedal-powered machines into the air, spinning the handlebars as they tumble skyward. The French-Canadian troupe's newest big top tour is parked at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds through March 24. In addition to the extreme offerings, Volta features plenty of traditional circus acts. Indeed, one of the best performances came from the clown, Mr. Wow.

Played by Andrey Kislitsin, Mr. Wow appears in numerous routines, but shines most when he is on his own. In the second act, Kislitsin guides the audience through an entire day at the beach, miming interactions with a petulant child, his massive and protective father and a pesky beach ball.

It is a joy to watch Kislitsin create an entire world on an empty stage, using little more than his own spastic facial expressions, detailed gesticulation and the word "wow." It was both impressive and thought-provoking. One imagines that this kind of wordless storytelling predates human language. And yet, in a world so fully enveloped in the visual language of television, cinema and the internet—where emotions are often conveyed through close-ups of subtle facial expressions, meta allusions and dank memes—it was somehow comforting to see that vaudevillian physicality still has the power to draw big laughs.

The show's standout performance came in the form of Danila Bim, who held the audience in rapt attention while performing a masterful hair hanging routine, swinging around the circular center stage while suspended from her taut ponytail.

Bim, an aerialist, dancer and choreographer from Sao Paulo, Brazil, seems to defy the laws of physics and the limits of her own body in the performance, which takes the long-practiced art of hair hanging and adds elements of ballet and contortion.

The result is mesmerizing. Over the course of her performance, Bim appears to fly, float and swim through the air, twisting her body like a pretzel and spinning about like a top.

It is acts like these, which find interesting ways to reimagine the circus, that have set Cirque du Soleil apart over the years. The troupe's lavish and avant garde costume design has also helped keep them a step ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, with Volta, the company seems to be suffering from a lack of new ideas.

Though BMX and other forms of action sports certainly make sense in the Cirque du Soleil universe, it is odd that these elements would be brought onto the stage now. While Gen-Xers and older Millennials may remember a time when these activities felt alternative—even transgressive—they have long since been fully absorbed into the fold of corporate popular culture.

Volta's costume design and plot only serve to belabor this point. The main character Waz's blue shock of wild bird hair recalls the kind of messy-on-purpose 'do that hasn't been fashionable since sometime in the mid-2000s. And then there are Waz's feelings of alienation, which is made painfully obvious when he is laughed off of Mr. Wow's talent show at the start of Volta's first act.

From there Waz goes on a journey of self-discovery, ultimately coming to the conclusion that his quirks are a feature, not a bug. It's a fine narrative for a John Hughes film, but feels heavy-handed and unnecessary under the big top—where the audience has come for high-flying entertainment, not a meditation on teen angst.

Cirque du Soleil: Volta
Thru Mar 24, $54+
Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, San Jose

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