Freedom Under The Big Top
Cirque du Soleil's Volta Celebrates the Acrobatics of Self-Discovery

By Lee Valentine Smith

The Cirque label is applied to a number of productions and events, but accept no substitutes, Cirque du Soleil is the real thing. The Montreal-based outfit is currently in town for an extended run of "Volta," a dynamic, urban-tinged journey of discovery. Combining contemporary themes of reality game shows and street sports with acrobatics and dance, Volta celebrates the freedom of self-acceptance.

Helmed by Artistic Director Ron Kellum, the show is Cirque du Soleil's 41st original production since 1984 and its 18th show presented in a Big Top venue. A veteran of live events, Broadway shows, televised sports and half-time celebrations, the actor-director-writer brings a definite theatrical flair to Volta. Recently, INsite spoke with Kellum by phone from under the big tent during a rehearsal break.

Historically, Atlanta has been a good market for the Cirque, no matter which production comes our way.

It is. I hadn't been here in years but it now just feels like the new hipster Hollywood because it's so vital and exciting. And to feel the love that we're getting here is especially exciting. The hardest part for me is working twelve hours a day and not being able to go out and enjoy it as much as I'd like.

Atlanta is the fifteenth stop on the tour; are you a bit jaded by all the cities at this point?

It's always exciting. I definitely think Atlanta is special and I'm not just saying that because we're here. It's one of the cities we will be visiting more frequently, as well. Typically, it's been every two years or so but now Atlanta is going to get a new Cirque du Soleil show every year because the audiences are so supportive of us. We couldn't be happier about it.

It's a good time for a live show with this message.

It really is. I was watching the show last night and it was really exciting to me. One, because of the incredible diversity here. But since I'm a baby of the theater - I've been in it my whole life - to see that live entertainment is still so relevant is very satisfying to me. We're staying across the street from the Fox and to see how packed it's been for Wicked every single night, it's like, 'Yeah, go Atlanta!'

Unlike a touring production like Wicked, a Cirque show isn't a standard stage show, it's actually more universal.

Right, it can be different things to different people. What I really love about Volta is it's very current. It's about the climate we're in right now. What we've done is like, 'Let's stop hiding behind the power of social media and trying to be an influencer. Start being an individual - just be you and you alone. Winning a competition doesn't give you the power to survive. What gives you the power is truly accepting who you are. Volta talks about the power of finding your free, finding your own certain special. Flowed or not, it's always good enough. That's really what the story is all about.

There's a current "reality TV" theme as part of the narrative framework as well.

It's a big challenge right now in that how many people are drawn to it and want to be a part of it. And I know because I did a reality show - The Great Race, a hundred years ago. That one wasn't about gaining fame, it was about an experience. But what we are realizing now is that those experiences can also be very harmful.

As you travel with Volta, can you see differences in reaction to certain portions of the show?

You really can. In Seattle, our BMX finale gets an incredible reaction because that's a huge BMX scene. It was the same in San Diego, too. It all just depends on the market which themes will resonate. In markets where we have an older demographic, the dance numbers really resonate. Then when you have the younger markets, and the high-energy sports numbers become the highlight. But that's what I love about this show, it appeals to the younger audience as well as the older veterans.

Obviously the whole street-sports theme is right up your alley.

Yeah, it's cool at my age to bring my background into the circus culture. From choregraphing half-time shows and working with big production numbers in film, it really is interesting. To take these high-level athletes who have no real show experience and to see them become real performers, it just blows me away. To take an athlete who does what they love and combine that with the appreciation from an audience, there's no greater gift! Without the expectation of the trophy, just the reward of an appreciative audience.

After wrangling the circus of half-time shows, working with the highly-disciplined Cirque troupe must seem easy at this point.

(Laughs) It's the best and most difficult moment of my career. Every single night, you're taking these high-level, adrenaline-driven artists who are fearless and managing a show that changes all the time.

It's very different from a set theater piece.

Exactly. The risks are so different. This is a place where almost anything can happen. Every safety measure is in place, but the artists do love to push themselves. Sometimes we have to pull them back and go, 'that's enough.' But it's a very different thrill from the controlled world of the theater and it really does change every single night.

As creative people, it must be invigorating for you and the entire troupe to know that the vibe can change from performance to performance.

Every single day. It keeps us on our toes. We go in and go, 'Well what do we have to do today?' As much as it might sound cliché, the show goes on. And that's what I love. It goes on because we know that people come for anniversaries or gifting. Families might spend a monthly income to be a part of this experience. What I love is we are committed to making sure we deliver the absolute best product for every single performance. Sitting in the audiences and watching people jump to their feet at the end, it makes the hard work worth every minute we put into it.

This is your second show with Cirque. How did you become a part of the family?

Cirque had started recruiting people from the theater and live world entertainment. They wanted to pull in more theatrical artistic directors and it was a nice courtship. It was good for me because I didn't really know much about the circus culture at that point. It was nice pairing to meld my TV and film and live experience with the while cirque experience. I had the challenge of taking a then-twelve-year-old show ("Kooza") and making it fresh for audiences who may have already seen it. The goal was to make it as if they'd never seen it before. That sort of challenge was right inside of my wheelhouse and truly a labor of love. Then they called me for Volta and now here we are.

You had to put your own stamp on it.

We did a lot of restructuring and reimagining, all while maintaining what the original visionaries wanted it to be. I think we've brought it to a special place.

For the uninitiated, take us through the process of mounting a show such as Volta.

It really starts with the curators. They come in with a vision and they hire the artists. Then everyone goes to [Cirque home base] Montreal for about six months. It's called 'creation.' It's a beautiful process because it's about throwing out themes - with the musicians, the technical team and the artists. It's like, 'Ok here's an idea, think of a flower blooming. Now everyone go and show me what that looks like in your world.' Then the visionaries, the conceptors, they bring all those ideas together and create the show.

That's quite a different process than standard theater or film projects.

So different. It takes a lot of time. It's a definitely a process we don't have in the Broadway world. Once the show opens, which is very different than the theater model, it continues to evolve. When it opens it's like, 'Well now how does the audience respond, how does it make them feel?' Then someone like myself comes in and takes the baby, nurtures it and we cultivate the ideas. It's a delicate process. But unlike the Broadway model, the show keeps growing. It can go on for several years. When I leave, someone else can come in and go, 'Ok, well where can it go now?' That's so beautiful to me. It can go on for as long as people want to do it. We're going to Royal Albert Hall in about a year and from there, who knows? That's what I love about Volta, it can go anywhere and be anything.

Cirque du Soleil's Volta runs now through January 5 under the Big Top at Atlantic Station. For tickets and showtimes, visit or call 1-877-9CIRQUE (1-877-924-7783).



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