Arts & Culture » Theater

Scenes from the Cirque

by Jim Gladstone

Twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton prepare to swirl through the air in hypnotic symmetry in Cirque du Soleil's "Volta." Photo: Steven Underhill
Twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton prepare to swirl through the air in hypnotic symmetry in Cirque du Soleil's "Volta." Photo: Steven Underhill  

Red noses over respirator masks. That was the unfortunate fashion trend at last Thursday night's opening of "Volta," the latest touring extravaganza from Cirque du Soleil.

The clown beaks were handed out by greeters at the Big Top next to AT&T Park, welcome gifts for guests, many of whom arrived with their faces already obscured in response to an air quality index close to 200, officially "very unhealthy."

"I can totally feel it," said panting, sweat-drenched dancer Joey Arrigo, taking a break from his workout in the adjacent performers' tent the prior afternoon. "Especially having just come from Seattle."

On Thursday, the city sky had further thickened with smoke from the Camp Fire upstate. San Francisco school closures were announced for Friday. But the show must go on: 26-year-old Arrigo and his fellow troupers would soon be leaping, swinging, jump-roping and diving through that toxic, tragic air.

That the evening's spectacle unfolded with no obvious signs of breathing strain is no doubt a tribute to the extraordinary physical conditioning of "Volta"'s corps de Cirque, which was otherwise deliciously obvious; for this particular outing, the beefcake bakery worked overtime.

Among the specialty acts, massive bare-chested unicyclist Phillippe Bélanger pedaled around the circular stage with acrobat Marie-Lee Guilbert first spinning on his shoulders, then standing on his head. Bélanger dismounted mid-routine for some distinctively bro'-ey flexing and flirting with audience members (male and female), egging the crowd into playful body worship. Call him Magic Bike.

Two more featured acts further upped the hunk factor: twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton swirling through the air in hypnotic symmetry with their strap routine, and a ferocious platoon of dudes putting their guns to good use in a frenzied gymnastic ring act. You could almost smell the perspiration.

Arrigo, who plays Woz, the protagonist in "Volta"'s ignorably sketchy plot, brought a sweeter sort of sexy to the proceedings in several ballet-inflected gymnastic dance routines, accompanied by some of the most beautifully bracing music in the sometimes McLachlan-mushy Cirque canon. The score by Anthony Gonzalez leans more toward rock and spotlights Jean-Luc Pontyesque electric violin solos by Camilla Bäckman.


Unicyclist Phillippe Bélanger with acrobat Marie-Lee Guilbert standing atop him in Cirque du Soleils Volta. Photo: Steven Underhill  

Gays du Soleil

Arrigo, 26, and vocalist Darius Harper, 32, are two of only a handful of queer stage performers in the show, but behind the scenes, said Arrigo, "the head of almost every production department is. I'm proud to say the gays are in charge!" Both on the road with "Volta" for over two years now, Arrigo and Harper readily admit that, even in cities where they have long stays (the show is in SF through early February), it can be difficult to build much of a social life outside of their work.

"As of two weeks ago, I am single, thank god!" laughed Arrigo. "I've had three different long-distance relationships over the past two years, and the distance just created problems. I'm ready to mingle, but I'm not going to stay with you, baby. I'll eat you up and spit you back out.

"In all honesty," he said, "the work is exhausting. I'm actually trying to find more time to just relax by myself. Trying to spend time outdoors on Mondays when we're dark. I usually stay in Air BnBs, and I've experimented staying in cool neighborhoods where I might want to hang out and meet people, but it's not worth the payout. To me, it's really important to live as close as possible to the show and stay focused."

"I think we're at different stages of life," said Harper, a Boston native. "I'm open and looking. In the beginning of my career, I think I was super-focused on my work. But I've had so many great experiences, and now I think maybe it would be nice to have someone to share this with.

"I'm staying in Balboa Park," Harper joked. "There seem to be lots of nubile college-age people around there."

Star turns

Among the Bay Area celebs spotted in the opening-night crowd were jazz chanteuse Paula West, novelist Amy Tan, and be still my heart, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, as thrilled with the show as the rest of us.

Hardly a surprise. Because there are some talents on display in "Volta" that are truly exceptional. Sure, those famous ladies can write and sing, but can any of them be lifted 20 feet in the air by their scalp? In one of the most mesmerizing/disturbing solo acts seen in a Cirque production, Brazilian performer Danila Bim opened her act sitting in a meditative pose on a large cushion, only to be craned skyward by a cable attached to the top-knot of hair on her otherwise shiny pate. Imagine a human carrot, uprooted. There was only the most minimal visible strain in her facial muscles as Bim swam vertically, treaded air and danced through the ether.

Throughout the evening, other quirky singular talents were on display, from close-to-the-ground juggling of 10 balls, to jumping rope while doing a handstand, to running up walls Donald O'Connor-style with the help of a vertical trampoline.

The final act in "Volta" is a daredevil BMX bicycling routine in which riders crisscross each other's paths mid-air. Clear Lucite ramps and platforms allow every jump, twist, and in-flight rotation to be viewed from all angles. It's a wince-inducing scene of flying bone and metal.

Still, under the Big Top, marginally protected from the city's ashy atmosphere, I was thrilled to the edge of fear, momentarily happy to feel breathless.

Cirque du Soleil, "Volta" at AT&T Park through Feb. 3. Tickets from $57. www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta


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