The first BMX rider emerges from the depths of the Cirque du Soleil stage to the throaty thrum of an electric bass guitar. He spins his bike into a trippy aerial trick, landing satisfyingly in-sync to the chords of the backstage instrumentals.
Then comes another biker, then three more. The stage starts to rotate clockwise as the unfazed bikers continue their routine, accelerating and twisting into the air.
“Everything has to work: Jeffrey has to drop in at the right time before I drop in,” explains biker Victor Salazar, referring to fellow biker Jeffrey Whaley. “It requires more trust between us, I would say.”
Audience members come into every Cirque extravaganza expecting such risky feats. With this production of “Volta,” which follows a blue-haired misfit named Waz on his path of self-discovery, they are delighted by gravity-defying trampolinists, swift bungee gymnasts and even shocked by an aerialist suspended by her hair. Their appetite for spectacle is sated through heart-stopping acrobatics and, for Cirque’s first time ever, extreme street sports.
Roughly a year before he was scouted for Cirque, Salazar had seen a Las Vegas production of “Love,” which featured roller-bladers scaling tall, sharply curved ramps. “I was like, if they could make a half-pipe like this, they could definitely do something for BMX,” he says. And Cirque did. Set designers created a stage that is 99 feet deep for “Volta” — the production’s deepest ever — to accommodate the bikers.
The show’s writer, Bastien Alexandre, even integrated a bicycle into a flashback scene from Waz’s childhood in the first act. A Flatland BMX rider (who uses flat surfaces, not ramps) rides around the stage with a graceful ballet dancer for a set that represents the main character’s wish for his simple youth.
During the last act of the 135-minute show, the rambunctious bikers crisscross the stage, weaving up and around the transparent polycarbonate ramps. They are the last group of “Free Spirit” characters tasked with showing Waz (and the audience) the beauty of a nonconformist lifestyle. They punctuate the final eight-minute set with whoops and yells midair, their bikes hovering a few feet from the first row, which is separated from the performance area by a thin net for safety.
One recent Sunday, a young boy sat mesmerized in his VIP-row booster seat, forgetting to clap along to the beat of the deafening drum until his mother nudged his hands. Within the darkened tent, it’s easy to forget where you are — toddlers and adults alike — especially as the haunting electronic score crescendos at each performance’s peak.
The performers, especially the BMX bikers, don’t have this luxury. Onstage, they scale the ramps one after another in organized chaos. The five riders are constantly in communication, and their set is intensely choreographed so that it leaves little room for error, Whaley says. It’s a unique environment compared with what most bikers are accustomed to at stunt shows, which are typically set in spacious skate parks and parking lots.
Since joining “Volta” in the early stages of its production process in 2016, the bikers have had time to adjust and refine their routine. While on tour, they perform six days a week, and sometimes multiple shows in a day. It’s the nature of their craft, Whaley says, to adapt to whatever the shows require. Cirque, too, has sought to adapt over the years to keep its shows fresh. In recent years, urban acrobatics like BMX fell on Cirque’s radar as potential acts. With “Volta,” its score was more contemporary, with elements of electronic and trance.
The finale, featuring the freestyle BMX riders, is flashy and energetic, unlike the evocative flashback scene with the Flatland biker. The bikers accelerate faster and faster to the riff of the guitars, solidly landing to the crash of a cymbal or a resounding drumbeat.
“There’s a live band playing with us, so they’re adapting to our tricks and pulling out special notes to amplify what we’re doing onstage,” Whaley says. “It feels like we’re having a session in a skate park, really.”
Tysons II, 2001 International Dr., McLean. 877-924-7783 or cirquedusoleil.com/volta.
Dates: Through Sept. 29.