Each Cirque du Soleil is an enjoyable night out to be sure and each that I’ve experienced so far (6 or 7 by now) typically contains many essential cirque components. The parts that make up the whole include high-caliber, vivid visual storytelling through its technical components, creativity and diversity of the acts that make up the entire show, the unique, custom inventive sets/vehicles for the necessary equipment for the stunts, the individual skills and showmanship of the performers, the music, and the story itself. While each show has all of these, each tour has also typically REALLY excelled in one or two of these. The bar is high and the ticket price substantial so the expectation is always that you’ll see at least one thing you’ve never seen before, be awed by the sheer athleticism of the acts and be enchanted/moved by the cohesive, complex, whimsical, almost frenetic, avant-garde, nearly impossible standard of vision that Cirque has earned. Sadly, Volta felt off brand and came up short.
I try not to let the little things taint an overall experience, but from the get go the inner mechanics of a disorganized machine were exposed. We were entirely too close to the sausage making view if you will. Signage to the entrance was uniformly unhelpful, we were totally exposed to the elements as we waited at an unmarked locked chain link fence, the will call was INSIDE past the ticket scanning and security lines which seemed wholly illogical, and the doors were not open at 6:30 as we expected. It’s a big production with many moving parts even outside the tent, but the real magic and what Cirque usually does so well is hiding the how, obscuring the cogs and gears and making it special, seamless and look easy. A venue shouldn’t really pose that much of an issue if they’ve done their homework. The lesson here I think is a healthy reminder that there’s no autopilot for event planning, that mounting a tour still requires brilliance, proactive attention to detail and problem solving every step of the way. Just getting into the venue shouldn’t contribute to the overall sense of it being a chaotic “Circus” and not an intentional Cirque.
Once inside, we saddled up for a few more atypical surprises, and not in the good way. Some of the signature Cirque moments were missing and definitely missed this time around. The interaction with the audience during a traditional pre-show clowning was completely absent. For those not familiar with this component perhaps the void it left was not felt, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. It’s why we got there early to be completely frank. Sitting in anticipation (for NO clowning apparently), I also felt like the set was phoned in…it didn’t promise, explain or engage in anyway. It swayed in a nerve wracking way throughout in a shout out to the likely unintended theme of “unsupportive”…
The body is a well-tuned instrument and not unlike a musical instrument, I wonder if humidity and chill had any bearing on some of the acts being cut or not hitting their mark. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I should make excuses for a company that isn’t new to these types of tours and the challenges they present. I can’t recall seeing as many obvious blunders in any previous Cirque show. They were off and it got embarrassing in some places. Again, I don’t claim to think any of this isn’t extraordinary when it goes well, I just thought the successes would outshine any errors at the end of the night.
It really lost momentum after the first 30 minutes. For me the show was front loaded with 4 good acts and then a lot of not. The show overall felt noticeably skewed in the favor aerial acts and it felt repetitive, slow and unnecessary.
So what was good?
The Trampoline Act – This was the standout for me. It’s something Cirque has done in their shows before (Ovo I remember did a similar version) but this felt fresh, fun and the participants were clearly having a blast. Their joy was contagious and it was the act of the night that made me want to jump up on stage and give it a whirl! This is what the majority of Cirque SHOULD do throughout MOST of the show. At least that’s been my experience so far.
Unicycle – The chemistry of an unicyclist and his acrobatic counterpart was a genuine highlight and perhaps displayed the best storytelling of the night. They had the skill to back it up, but I was even more impressed by the emotion and non-verbal conversations occurring simultaneously.
Double Dutch – Pretty spectacular and rarely seen, this troupe brought energy and skill to the canopy stage and owned it. What’s more they didn’t even look out of breath at the end of it.
A roller skater who was not particularly advanced or even on stage that much also made the cut above the rest. I rather enjoyed the fluidity she embodied and her impish qualities. She glided about effortlessly and while her “story” seemed a tad forced I thought she mastered the space simply and effectively.
I enjoyed the score though it wasn’t consistent and the lighting was very well done. The costumes were interesting, but not up to the usual standard if I am honest.
The main character’s story arc seemed weak, confusing and incomplete. Maybe if the other components had supported it more it would have felt like less of a cop out. The final act, one that I was most looking forward to and one that may have helped give the story some more closure was cut. No trick bikes on ramps, regrettably. I’m not sure if that was intentional or due to an injury, malfunction or time challenge, but the end felt abrupt and awkward for sure.
As much as I hate to say it, I’m not a Volta fan. Others might enjoy it plenty, especially those that are new to the experience, but for me just 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a less than spectacular spectacle that didn’t measure up to the name or expectation. Volta plays at the Santa Clara County Fairground in San Jose through March 24th.