By Megan Anderson
Popcorn, cotton candy, and the frenzied waving of glow in the dark wands—it has all the makings of a familiar scene. It is nearing 8pm and the audience, a mixed bunch as diverse in age as they are in dress, are still shuffling into Le Grand Chapiteau to take their seats. Amidst the hubbub as they anxiously await the evening’s commencement, excitement seems to reflect off of the sequined performers roaming around the pavilion. In this moment, it is made clear that familiarity bears no weight here. The air itself simply feels special.
There is something undeniably unique about Cirque du Soleil that sets it apart from any other spectacle. Perhaps it is the fact that, having been born of a group of 20 rag-tag street performers in Canada, the troupe is now home to over 4,000 employees from close to 60 different countries. Perhaps it is the sheer prestige that enables them to have over 20 productions running simultaneously across the globe as Cirque du Soleil currently does. But perhaps what makes them most particularly interesting is the unorthodox relationships that they build with their audiences.
To attend a Cirque du Soleil show is not simply to sit and spectate, but rather to become a cog in the grand machine that works under their world famous “Big Top” tent. The acquisition of a ticket to a daring spectacle like VOLTA—Cirque du Soleil’s latest romp to come through Chicago—bares unspoken terms and conditions, an agreement between the audience and the performers. While this includes the ever-present threat that accidental eye contact will lead to the comical audience participation that Cirque du Soleil is known for, it also speaks to a much deeper form of reliance; the employment of faith.
You see it on stage between the acrobatic duo supporting each other as they deftly navigate a suspended ladder, between the couple using each other for support as they maneuver around a shared moving unicycle, between the daring BMX artists who must count on each other for smooth coordination during the grand finale so as to avoid collisions—but what is less obvious is the crucial abundance of trust that the audience must have in the real people who give meaning to the phrase “death defying.”
Under the glimmering lights in Le Grand Chapiteau, this trust is palpable. As the troupe hurtle through the air, be it attached to the trapeze or by the aid of a moving trampoline, the optimistic energy of the crowd propels them forward. With every correctly timed laugh, gasp, and cheer, the audience make their faith clear. They believe in the performance, and even more importantly, in those who are carrying it out.
When confronted by the chills and thrills of aerial acrobatics and mobile hoop jumping, it can be easy to fall into one of two passive categories. There is the detached spectator, who, bewildered by the inhuman displays of skill before them, is able to strip the performers of reality, simply expecting them to carry out the performance almost automatically. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the worrier, who is adamant that the night can only end in disaster and injury. This is where mindful and compassionate spectatorship comes into play, aided by VOLTA’s heartfelt orchestration. Through their meaningful interweaving of both excitement and real, human emotion, Cirque du Soleil ensures a thoughtful experience for all involved. In highlighting feelings that are both intense and relatable, the audience is made to recognize the reality of what they are witnessing: real people doing amazing things. In the face of the knowledge that these performers are human and therefore not entirely impermeable to error, the audience’s belief in their ability is of the utmost importance. The emotional connection that VOLTA’s heartwarming narration provides truly enhances this faith and enables the audience to find themselves deeply invested in the outcome of the tale.
VOLTA follows the story of Waz, a young contestant on the “Mr. Wow Show” who has lost his joie de vivre and feels as though he must conceal his true self in order to fit in with society. Just as his gameshow success seems to guarantee him the life of praise and appreciation he dreams of, his greatest insecurity is revealed, instantly making him both an outcast and a spectacle. What Waz truly needs is not prestige and acclaim, but rather a sense of belonging—a community to call home. In watching his journey to self-acceptance unfold in conjunction with a moving score arranged by Erik Arvinder, the audience is compelled to offer their faith and hearts to the young man, and ultimately become the community he needed all along.
VOLTA by Cirque du Soleil is at Soldier Field from May 18 th -July 6 th , 2019. Get your tickets today at https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta