At this point, Cirque du Soleil has become just as synonymous with big top entertainment as anything that came before it. Founded in 1984, the Quebec-based contemporary circus has now staged productions in 450 cities on six continents and shows no signs of slowing down as it rapidly approaches its 35th anniversary.
Having personally seen eight different Cirque du Soleil performances in multiple locations, I was under the impression that I knew all there was to know. But after being invited for a behind-the-scenes look at VOLTA, the 17th Cirque show to hit San Diego and the company’s 41st original production, it was immediately obvious that I did not.
Like every Cirque show, what’s happening on stage during VOLTA (trampoline jumping, aerial acrobatics, hair suspension, BMX riding, etc.) is amazing. Yet what’s going on in the dark, backstage and behind the curtain, is even more impressive.
All attendees walk through the Merch Tent to find their seats under the Big Top, but on any given day, it’s the small village surrounding the third tent where most of the action takes place.
The area that includes storage, bathrooms, showers, an upscale commissary with four in-house chefs, and the all-important Artistic Tent is constantly bustling with the 150 employees (49 on-stage performers) of the show — and that doesn’t count any of the 200 local workers hired in every city stop.
Countless hours of preparation are spent in the Artistic Tent ahead of each two-and-a-half-hour performance. In the 30 minutes I spent there, many of the artists and athletes were lifting weights, stretching, jumping on trampolines, working out dance routines, practicing balancing acts, skipping rope, and doing a million other things to prepare.
Performers are required to put in a set amount of practice each week, most put in much more.
The area also includes a sizeable costume shop (VOLTA’s stunning garments were designed by Lady Gaga/Britney Spears/Michael Jackson designer Zaldy) and a fully functional BMX repair shop.
Above and beyond that, and before actually seeing the show, I also had a chance to sit down and talk to VOLTA bandleader Ben Todd. The veteran Cirque percussionist has toured with two other productions, Kooza and Corteo, but this was the Australian bandleader’s first time helping to create one.
And if that wasn’t enough, he got to do it with VOLTA composer and musical director Anthony Gonzalez of French synth-pop project M83.
“It’s a unique experience,” said Todd. “Taking the music Anthony wrote in a demo state through two years to where it is now — a piece of music that we can interchange sections, transition from one part to the next without it sounding disjointed or chopped — has been a huge challenge. But it’s also been such an amazing learning experience. You don’t really get to do that with any other kind of music.”
Todd heads a relatively small band by Cirque standards — guitar, keyboards, drums, and two singers, one of whom plays violin.
But the 5-piece crew is always prepared for on-the-fly moments and the constant adjustments that are needed for each show. The performers dictate the musical cues, not the other way around. So Todd and his crew are always at the ready.
“The music in the show can change in an instant,” he said.
“You always have to be engaged. And your brain is occupied with things like, ‘Is this going to come together?’ or ‘Is this guy going to nail this trick?’ It’s live. We have to react. But we live in those moments.”
And, amazingly, I got to see that first hand. Instead of heading out into the audience when the show started, I got the opportunity to sit onstage with Todd and English guitarist/backup bandleader Will Lawrence.
With headphones on, I was privy to hearing the metronome kick in before each musical number, the players being counted in, and the impromptu changes needed to create a seamless show.
In addition to what I’m guessing is regular nightly chatter like, “1,2,3, and,” “Nice one, guys,” and “lights are green for BMX,” Todd and his crew share a tradition of answering trivia questions during the non-musical sections of the show.
So not only did I get a great example of the timing, precision, and synergy it takes between crew, musicians, and performers, I got to hear some amazing discussions of questions like, “What happens if you put a raisin in a glass of champagne?,” “How many potatoes are needed for a 7 oz bag of chips?,” and “How far away from the toilet does a toothbrush have to be to ensure airborne particles won’t reach it?”
It was also quite the experience to watch what the audience is seeing from a video monitor, witnessing the show from behind the action, while also watching/hearing what Todd, Lawrence and the crew are doing simultaneously.
Most audiences never realize just how much is going on in those small onstage rooms filled with keyboards, guitars, and a full drum kit. And why should they? It’s not surprising that many people don’t even know there is a live band performing. There are just too many other things going on to hold their attention.
And VOLTA is no exception. Its potent mixture of storytelling, costumes, death-defying acts, and action sports is enough to make anyone forget all that has gone into it and what is going on behind the scenes.
But for me, after spending a night with Todd, Lawrence, and the rest of the VOLTA crew, it’s going to be impossible to watch a Cirque du Soleil performance the same way again.
P.S. In the event you’re wondering, the answers to those trivia questions are bounce up and down, approximately eight, and six feet, respectively.
When: Now through Sunday
Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Cost: Starting at $49