Cirque du Soleil is sometimes credited with bringing storytelling into circus, but the company wasn't the first to do that even in Montreal. In the late 18th century, John Bill Ricketts built a greystone circus theatre in the city, where he presented equestrian stunts and acrobatics along with pantomime versions of Robinson Crusoe and Harlequin in Montreal.
We can't know how good Ricketts's acrobats were, but his Robinson Crusoe at least had a good tale to work with. One can't say the same about Volta, the new Cirque production currently playing under a big top not far from where Ricketts's theatre once stood.
As always in a Cirque production, there are plenty of feats to amaze, and some that approach the outer edge of the possible. I had never before seen what acrobats call a "hair hang," which consists of doing difficult things while suspended by your hair. The finesse and control shown by Danila Bim while writhing, spinning and being hauled up by the hair to the tent's peak was perhaps equal to the horrified tension I felt watching her, fearing that her scalp might detach at any moment.
I had also not seen anyone do memorable things with a light fixture, but Pawel Walczewski's acrobatic number with a hanging lamp was smoother and more elegant than some ballet solos. He made it look easy and serene, even while he glided in a horizontal pose while gripping the swinging fixture by one hand behind his back.
Bicycles were among the stars of the show, including the unicyle that Philippe Bélanger pedalled while Marie-Lee Guibert did an athletic routine in his arms, finishing by standing upright on his head while he balanced on the wheel. The show closed with a spectacular BMX routine for five cyclists doing simultaneous stunts on transparent ramps.
Between these highs, however, there were numerous dull patches, most of them having to do with the story, written by director Bastien Alexandre. The hero, Waz (dancer Joey Arrigo), couldn't enjoy his prominence as the golden overlord of a TV talent show because people had mocked him when he was a kid. He pondered the hollowness of making entertainments for the Greys, who paraded their conformity by marching in step, eyes glued to cellphones and dressed in outfits that looked as though they were made from old newspapers.
Waz's sulking ended after he was taken up by a group of brightly costumed Free Spirits, who showed him that true happiness lies in excelling at street sports. Most of the Free Spirits were male, and they strutted and urged each other on in their stunts like the bros they were.
The pat resolution to Waz's distress was forecast within the first 20 minutes. But the real problem with building the story on him was that the character had almost nothing to do till his ah-ha moment, when he did a brief and vigorous contemporary dance routine. With that final narrative chore completed, the show moved quickly to the much more exciting BMX finale, which sent the crowd out buzzing.
Maybe narrative has become a crutch that Cirque du Soleil should think about discarding. It might not matter either way for this particular show, because Volta has enough stunts to please, and may make its biggest pitch not through story, but through nostalgia. I saw the show with a fan of the Netflix series Stranger Things, who remarked that Volta presses the same 1980s-nostalgia buttons as the series. Stranger Things is popular among millennials, a group that has money to spend and may not yet be as Cirque-aware as their parents. From that angle, Volta looks and sounds like a straight-up marketing pitch to a desired demographic.
Cirque should definitely reconsider its continuing flirtation with what could be called Red Indianism. Zaldy Goco's costumes for the Free Spirits sported a number of references to indigeneity that were pointed but tribally non-specific, including braids, face paint, fringes and even a headdress that wasn't made of feathers but might as well have been. Fie on all that.
Volta continues in the Old Port of Montreal through July 23, then runs in Gatineau from Aug. 3 to 27 and at Toronto's Port Lands from Sept. 7 to Oct. 29 (cirquedusoleil.com).