Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Volta’ and Café Nordo’s ‘The Witching Hour:’ A Double Dose of Dazzlement

Two of this season’s stage spectacles take very different approaches to astonishing you
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Aerialist and hair-suspension artist Danila Bim performs in Cirque du Soleil's 'Volta'

The use of animal acts in circuses has become far less acceptable—and as a result, less prevalent—in recent years as animal-rights protesters have persuaded them to curtail the practice. Cirque du Soleil, in fact, pioneered this, staging animal-free shows since its 1984 founding. Its current show, however, does involve an animal—but don’t worry, it’s only metaphorical. It’s known as the Elephant in the Room, and it involves two news making mishaps that have beset the worldwide entertainment behemoth’s touring production of Volta, which opened Tuesday night in Redmond’s Marymoor Park.

If I didn’t mention them, you’d wonder why not, so: A fatality during an aerial act involving a seasoned Cirque performer, Yann Arnaud, froze a Tampa audience in shock in March; closer to home, earlier this month, a preview performance saw a fluke accident: a burst hydraulic line in a piece of stage machinery sprayed a section of the audience with a vegetable-based oil, forcing the cancellation of the performance. Blecch.

As always in a Cirque show, Volta wraps how-is-that-possible circus acrobatics in flamboyant costumes, lighting and stagecraft. Among the traditional acts—unicycle, trampoline, aerial in various iterations—this show adds stunts on BMX bikes certain to thrill your inner 9-year-old: twirling, flipping and a whizzing finale on giant ramps. The superhuman skill involved is near-miraculous, though an occasional flub is never a problem, since it demonstrates to the audience just how difficult a trick is, and then when you nail it on your second attempt, the applause is even louder than if you’d gotten it the first time. (It’s a classic ploy.) Overall, though, Volta will likely leave you stunned rather than entranced—with one exception, the Hair Suspension act: a truly beautiful aerial dance (Javanese-inspired, it looked to me, with body parts angular and articulated) performed by a woman swinging in stage-circling arcs from a rope attached to the top of her head by, yes, her hair.

As always with Cirque, Volta works better as an athletic exhibition than as theater. In this case the bike stunts are part of the coming-of-age tale of a character named Waz: an aspiring performer ridiculed for his blue hair and rejected by the dronelike Greys, marching in lockstep and coldly focused on their devices, but accepted by the colorfully clad Freespirits, who encourage him to be himself and follow his dream. The disingenuousness of this message—an attack on conformity embedded in a show engineered to within an inch of its life for the massest possible mass appeal—may get a few eyes rolling.

Meanwhile, over in Pioneer Square, an equally innovative theater troupe is opening its 10th season. This one’s strictly local, though, and the glamour and surprises are not in your face but on your plate. Many shows successfully provide food with your entertainment, but in a Cafe Nordo production the menu and the theater are conceived and designed together in one unified aesthetic experience; directors Erin Brindley and Terry Podgorski collaborate with food and wine producers just as they do with actors, musicians and costumiers. 

Written by Podgorski with original keyboard/horn/cello music by Annastasia Workman, The Witching Hour, which opens this Thursday, is occult-themed, mixing comedy and horror (21 and over only) as “the five Nocturnal Fears—Harm, Loneliness, Failure, Filth, and Chaos” are set free from sacred texts to wreak havoc. Brindley’s menu, too, is evocative of the dark side; for instance, an entree of braised goat (or Eye of the Goat beans for the vegan option) with earthy accompaniments of parsnip puree and chanterelles. As Podgorski puts it, “I think what makes Erin the unique chef she is is her desire to tell a story with her food. Her individual plates are often wonderful in and of themselves but it's the weaving of all the courses of the evening into a theme and motif that makes a diner approach his or her food differently that is her magic. She's a theater artist in chef's clothing.”

All Nordo’s show themes are prodigiously imaginative; coming next is their holiday mystery, Murder on the Mistletoe Express (Dec. 7–24), and later shows this season will be devoted to otherworldly male soprano Klaus Nomi, the history of champagne from a feminist perspective (the “Widow Clicquot” that Veuve Clicquot is named after was a real person), an adaptation of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume “causing past, present and future to collide at your table in a soaring ode to love eternal and the magical properties of beets,” and even WWII Japanese internment (in Sara Porkalob’s 7th & Jackson next July).

Volta. Through 11/4. Prices vary. Marymoor Park, Redmond, 6046 W Lake Sammamish Pkwy.; 888.929.7849; cirquedusoleil.com/volta

The Witching Hour. Through 11/18. $79. Nordo’s Culinarium, Pioneer Square, 109 S Main St.; 206.579.6215; cafenordo.com

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