No matter what Cirque du Soleil show I see, it’s always the same: I am blown away by the acrobatics, dazzled by the visuals and only peripherally aware of the story being told.
That is the case with “Volta,” now in an eight-week run at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. This show mixes extreme sports such as BMX riding, bungee jumping and parkour into the usual milieu of work with trapeze, juggling, contortion, tumbling and Swiss rings.
It’s admirable that the creative team at Cirque du Soleil try to weave a tale into their human-circus shows, giving the entire franchise (22 shows currently up and running) a design theme and a signature theatrical topspin. They could just show up all shiny and glistening, with their bendy-stretchy bodies flying through the air and backflipping around the stage, and it would probably still be one hell of a performance.
Still, you might need to know going in that the production is centered on a character named Waz, a game-show host on the wildly popular “Quid Pro Quo” TV program. Off air and in private, Waz is haunted by his childhood, when he was taunted for having blue feathers instead of hair. The population of this fantasy world is divided into three classes. The Greys are the everyman , walking in formation and engrossed in their smartphones. The Greys live for Waz’s show, hoping for instant celebrity if they can win the talent contest. Those who triumph on the show are elevated to Elite class, and get to wear metallic, neo-Baroque costumes. On the fringes are the Free Spirits, a group of open-minded, life-loving travelers who give Waz the confidence to be his true self and to rock those turquoise tresses.
That’s on a lofty level. Here’s what really happened.
8:09 p.m. The television pre-show starts, where it is decided who will appear on tonight’s episode. A few Greys appeal to different sections of the audience to root for them as they compete doing a few flips and handstands. One poor contestant’s less-than-steller act gets a withering comment from the emcee, “It didn’t blow my mind, but it certainly blew.” The 6- and 5-year-olds sitting in front of me and my husband, Gary, seem to think this is the funniest line — ever! They are still giggling long after everyone else has moved on.
8:15-8:17 p.m. Waz is having a flashback, which is shown to us through video, of him cutting his blue feathers off his head as a child. The kids in front of us aren’t laughing anymore. Trauma trumps everything.
8:18 p.m “Quid Pro Quo” starts its broadcast with some choreography straight out of “Solid Gold.” I say as much to Gary, who replies, “No one here is old enough to remember ‘Solid Gold.’ ” He’s right. I no longer feel so bad about the translation of trauma a minute ago.
8:20 p.m. The first challenge on the TV show is rope skipping. And man, oh man, do they skip rope. The tricks get increasingly impressive from double dutch sequences (two ropes turning in opposite directions) to handstand hops.
8:23 p.m. The winner of the rope skipping gets to become an Elite, which means a glossy makeover. Then, there’s more jump roping, but this time with some breakdance moves thrown in.
8:26 p.m. Now, we seem to be in Waz’s dressing room. We can hear children’s laughter, so we know there’s more trauma coming. Sure enough, the video screens sputter to life, and we see Waz being teased over his blue hue hair.
8:27-8:30 p.m. The Greys execute some precision walking choreography and a woman comes out roller skating. A bald dude starts singing and sounds a lot like Sting (maybe from the “Brand New Day” period). A guy comes wheeling out on a unicycle. I’ve lost the story. I’m just trying to keep up at this point.
8:30-8:35 p.m. The unicycle man is balancing a woman on his head as he whirls around the circular stage. She is doing all kinds of splits and contortion moves in the air. Gary says, “You can really see the athleticism because everyone is so close to the stage.” He glances at my notepad, which is his way of saying, “Write that down. I’m giving you gold here about the intimacy of the performance space that seats 2,500 in the round.”
8:35 p.m. A guy who looks like Waz grabs hold of a lamp that descends from the catwalks above the stage and begins soaring through the air, high above our heads. At times, he’s only holding on with his feet. I think to myself, “This must be Waz’s spirit, finally free. Hey! I’m starting to get this.” But later, I read in a run-of-show that this is a “younger Waz using the light to metaphorically illuminate the journey ahead.” I guess I’m not getting it.
8:39 p.m. The twirling is over, and now a woman starts singing like Enya. The Grey are back and are engrossed in their cell phones, which are rimmed with a bright light. I realize, with a sudden pang of embarrassment that I really want one of those cell phones.
8:41 p.m. The stage begins to break apart as three hydraulic lifts raise up parts of the stage floor. The Free Spirits bound onstage and begin doing some free-running/parkour moves, crisscrossing one another in midair flips and jumps. Then, there’s a guy bouncing around on a high wire 30 feet above us with no safety net. Every time one of the Free Spirits lands a gymnastic trick, they thrust their chests out, splay their hands out from their hips “Gladiator” style, as if to say, “Are you not entertained?” Gary says, to no one in particular, “No body fat.”
8:47 p.m. There’s a clowning bit here in which a man, his character’s name is Shood Kood Wood, mimes doing his laundry with some tricky washing machines. Whichever one he attempts to use is out of order, right up until he puts the clothes in another machine. This goes on for seven minutes, and the kids in the audience lose their minds laughing. I’m still hurting from the “no body fat” observation, so the charms of the skit elude me.
8:54 p.m. Enya is back, and this time she has a violin, so you know whatever is about to happen is going to be melancholy as all hell. We’re back in Waz’s dressing room, which I’m beginning to think is his apartment, because he starts watching 8 mm movies (who has a home-video projector in their dressing room, aside from Matt Lauer?). A tiny bicycle goes around the rim of the stage, riderless. It’s surreal, but it brings me back into the story. According to the images in the video, Waz is reminiscing about his childhood and playing in the yard with his mother. In what becomes a beautifully realized, dreamlike segment, a BMX flatland rider performs a pas de deux with a ballet dancer. When she pirouettes, he spins on the bike’s back tire. When she tour jetes, he hops. The cyclist has mad skills, and the audience hoots and hollers approval.
8:56 p.m. The Free Spirits are back. I don’t know how they do it. They must be exhausted from so much “free spiriting,” which is always a hyper gymnastic thing when it comes to Cirque. This time, they twist, swivel and sway on Swiss rings. Out of nowhere, two of them drop from the catwalk high above cords and begin bouncing around between the men on the Swiss rings. “You can really see the abs,” Gary says. Somehow, I know he isn’t talking about me.
9:07 p.m. The “Quid Pro Quo” TV show starts again, but Waz is not there. “Sting” is singing up a storm.
9:10 p.m. Intermission.
9:40 p.m. The show resumes. Waz wonders around. Two articulated ladders appear (the scene transitions in “Volta” are seamless), and two of the performers climb up and begin executing acrobatic figures, showing incredible strength. I begin to wonder how these athletes discovered they could do these feats when the Free Spirits begin stacking octagonal hoops and jumping through them — sometimes headfirst, sometimes feet first — and tumbling around the stage. I have no idea what is going on storywise, but this part of the show feels a lot looser and more improvised than the other bits. When an athlete misses the target and knocks over one of the hoops, he shrugs, and they set it up again and start over. It is ab-tastic.
9:59 p.m. OK, this is the part where I felt like I was in a Fellini film. Shood Kood Wood returns to do a comedy bit where he’s in a jungle and comes upon a tropical plant. So, of course, he eats the plant and begins to — and mind you, he is acting this all out in mime — trip balls, rubbing his body in ecstasy. The kids in the audience seem totally hip to the humor. One of the hydraulic platforms rises from the stage, and Shood Kood Wood begins riding it like a surfboard and doing a sort of Maori haka war dance while wearing a loincloth. He flexes his buttocks and flashes the crowd (he’s wearing sequined and bugle-beaded underwear).
10:06 p.m. A woman sits cross-legged on a cushion. Her hair is attached to a cord stretching to the top of the tent. Gary leans over and whispers, “Talk about a topknot.” She is then levitated by the chord and begins swinging above us suspended by what appears to be her hair. The crowd goes bonkers.
10:12 p.m. There’s a tribal drum solo — don’t know what that’s about — but then there are four more drummers, and the unicycle couple is back. This time, they mean business. Waz appears (where was Waz?) as the unicycle duo conduct a hand-to-hand balancing act teetering around the stage.
10:17 p.m. A twirler shows up and begins doing her act with three batons that light up. I have no clue what any of this means, anymore. I’m just rolling with it, kind of like Shood Kood Wood did back in the jungle (Molly humor!). Waz throws the twirler a fourth baton. I wonder if this is symbolic in some way.
10:20 p.m. No kidding: There is an interpretive ballet dance.
10:22 p.m. Waz finds acceptance, blue feathers and all.
10:24 p.m. It’s the big BMX finale. Ramps are quickly assembled onstage (the transitions are truly impressive), and five riders begin executing bike tricks such as: the Superman (riders extend feet outward to resemble Superman in flight); Flair (a backflip with a 180-degree spin); Double Tail Whip (the rider throws the bike to one side, holding onto the handlebars and spins the bike’s frame 360 degrees twice before catching the frame and standing on the pedals; Flip Whip (like a Double Tail Whip, but with a backward flip thrown in); and 720 (the rider does two 360-degree spins in a single jump).
10:30 p.m. The crowd loses it. The cast and their abs take well-deserved bows.
Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta” runs through Feb. 4 at Hard Rock Stadium (in a big top across the street), 347 Don Shula Drive, in Miami Gardens. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 4:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; and 1:30 p.m. matinees Sundays. On Saturday, Dec. 30, there is only a 1 p.m. matinee. Tickets cost $40-$295 (a behind-the-scenes package on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29 costs $495). To order, call 877-924-7783 or go to CirqueDuSoleil.com/Volta.