by Margret Echeverria

I was a little afraid to see a Cirque de Soleil show for the first time because of Cats.  When I saw Cats in 1989, after all the bloody hype, I hated it.  All it delivered was spectacle and just a whisper of story.  I also get really irritated by Ron Howard movies when the meaning of the film is repetitively pounded into my head like a man-splaining spike.  I prefer to be gently nudged and allowed to draw some of my own conclusions, make a few things up and just bathe in the unique atmosphere of the art before me.  Cirque du Soleil VOLTA Find Your Free now playing under a big top in East Rutherford’s Meadowlands is a perfect balance of story and pleasurable wash of performance art left up to individual interpretation.

VOLTA opens with a televised talent show hosted by Mr. Wow, a glitzy and narcissistic personality.  The Mr. Wow Show contestants include a double dutch rope skipping team who charge the air with super athleticism, sillyness and incredible precision.  It is thrilling to see them make impossible steps at hyper speeds through the ropes.  Mr. Wow gives them his full approval.  Then we meet contestant, WAZ, who has a technically difficult dance routine.  We think he has won the contest when Mr. Wow pulls off WAZ’s wig to reveal a mop of blue hair at which Mr. Wow scoffs and the world follows this lead turning off their awe and ripping away their short lived adoration for young WAZ.  Hiding his blue hair was a betrayal.

Man, have I been there.  Haven’t you?  We take a risk and express what we believe to be our best selves in the world, giving our judges what they want and, just when we think we are about to get the real recognition we deserve, we are suddenly exposed as frauds, vulnerable, human; not super human.  And we lose big.  We’re so embarrassed.  What usually follows is a self-examination and, if we are lucky, a re-finding of our true spirits.

WAZ leaves the television studio to walk through the outside world humiliated.  He is mobbed by a crowd of GREYS who want to take selfies with WAZ on their cell phones.  The GREYS animate when the opportunity to capture images of WAZ and themselves presents itself, but when the moment ends, they seem to fade into their cyber worlds and slump into the background.  Remind you of any street you have walked down lately?  WAZ takes us back through his memory to his childhood to a time when he was free to be exactly who he is.  We meet his mother who encouraged him to take risks on his first bicycle and tear up the terrain with increasingly fearless gravity defying tricks on two wheels.  Actually, I am making up that the ballet dancer who appears with boy WAZ and his bike is his mother.  She may not have been, but I felt totally free to interpret.  She was gorgeous and so lovingly maternal to him as the bicycle tricks got bigger and bigger and she joins him on the bike for a hug so sweet that we nearly forget the incomprehensible balance feat we are witnessing.

WAZ also gives us an aerial routine with a square ceiling lamp suspended from the grid.  I practically crawled into my companion’s lap to contain the thrill I felt inside me as the lamp rose, fell and spun about with WAZ adroitly floating up and over the apparatus in the air even holding his entire body sideways with the strength of a single arm on the lamp and cable suspension.  In my mind, this was the freedom WAZ felt as a child at the dinner table to express his own thoughts over meals with his family under that ceiling lamp.  And your translation will probably be different, I’m sure.  And that is totally okay.

For me, the most wild and breathtaking performance – I mean it; I lost my breath sitting still in my seat –  was the MIRAGE.  This performer reminded me of a Hindu goddess.  Her costume made her look as though she stood naked in a forest and the morning dew fell on her in jeweled random

VOLTA - Mirage. Photo by Benoit Z. Leroux.

VOLTA – Mirage. Photo by Benoit Z. Leroux.

patterns.  She had a large bun on the top of her head and in that bun was a large metal loop which was attached to a cable suspended all the way from the top grid.  She levitates suspended by her hair alone!!  And then she goes higher and higher swinging herself way above the stage in a huge circle about the perimeter – no hands; just her hair!  I wanted to cry with pleasure.  She was truly a FREE SPIRIT.  It was inspiration personified.

We also get to see Mr. Wow in his real life.  He does his laundry and it gets super complicated.  Ah, the judge is mortal and not immune to frustrations of daily life!  The machines at the laundry mat take him for quite a ride.  This segment requires a tight ensemble performance and the night I witnessed it there was a hilarious mishap with one of the props.  It’s live theatre, People!  Squeee!!  Mr. Wow handled it with total poise and a sense of humor that had the entire tent erupt with empathetic laughter and relief.  This cast is the cream of the crop in physicality, taking care of one another and pure artistic brilliance.

WAZ’s journey through his past, both real and imagined, eventually brings him to a breakthrough within himself.  He meets a colorful beauty on roller skates who only wants to be close to him when he is authentic; not when he is putting on airs.  I totally made her his girlfriend and his motivation to be the him that is really him that is really quite wonderful.  Eventually WAZ’s dance becomes more open, more joyful and completely free.  Self actualization maybe?

I had always thought that a Cirque du Soleil performance would be in a huge space in which the stage would be very far away and the faces of the performers would be tiny and expressionless while the emphasis would be on what their bodies were doing flying through the air and flipping off of trampolines.  VOLTA is not that at all.  While it is in a “big top,” the space is very intimate.  The performers’ faces are just as much a part of the show as are their incredible bodies.  They often look right at the audience, take us in and smile at us like we are welcome friends.  I was delighted by this interaction because it created deep respect in me for the human beings in front of me, each with their own unique stories, letting me see their true spirits there on the stage set free.  I was so grateful.  I highly recommend this show.

Cirque du Soleil VOLTA Find Your Free is now showing Under the Big Top, Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment East Rutherford, NJ through May 6, 2018.  Then, it comes to Uniondale, New York Under the Big Top, NYCB Live – Home of The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum May 17, 2018 – June 10, 2018