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Joy at the Heart of the Performance

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A double dutch team from Japan gives a jump-start to the newest Cirque du Soleil show.

The Otaku Double Dutchers – Jun Tanizawa, Ryota Mishima, Masakazu Hashimoto, (kneeling) Tomoko Yabiku and Tsugutaka Yabiku – are the Japanese jump rope team that gives a rousing start to Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta,” now under the big top at Dodger Stadium. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Shimpo Arts & Entertainment

Walking up the hill toward the big top in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on Tuesday, a woman said she would like to see a circus with elephants and tigers someday, but was look­ing forward to the evening’s show nonetheless.

Of course, Cirque du Soleil has never used animals in its productions – theatrics and humanity are the cornerstones of its concept of a nouveau cirque, a new, “proper” circus.

The latest touring show, “Volta,” now being performed nightly at Dodger Stadium, not only stays true to the creed of the Montreal-based company, it revels proudly in its hu­manistic touch, as much as any of the Cirque shows I’ve seen.

To be certain, the acrobatics are breathtaking and the staging imagina­tive, but commonplace humanity takes center stage here: birthday cakes and home movies, riding a bike, a day at the laundromat and the childhood joy of skipping rope.

Mind you, the jump rope exhibition here is a far cry from the neighborhood street corner or the schoolyard – this is, after all, Cirque du Soleil.

“Volta” – Italian for “Time” – gets a vaulting start from a team of world record-setting rope jumpers from Japan, who call themselves the Otaku Double Dutchers.

“Jumping rope is a kind of way to combine sports and entertainment,” said team member Tsugutaka Yabiku. (MATT BEARD/Cirque du Soleil)

“When I was in elementary school, I played baseball and soccer, but when I saw double dutch for the first time, I was fascinated by it,” said team member Tsugutaka Yabiku. “I became interested in performing to entertain people, and jumping rope is a kind of way to combine sports and entertainment.”

A native of Okinawa, Yabiku is joined at the ropes in “Volta” by his wife, Tomoko, Masakazu Hashimoto, Ryota Mishima and Jun Tanizawa. The group have been together for 15 years.

“I was a rhythm kid,” explained Yabiku, 34. “Some kids at school could throw far or run fast. I was inter­ested in rhythm and acrobatics.”

Speed skipping seems to be some­what of an obsession for teams in Asia, with crews constantly trying to best the current benchmark. Among the Guinness records set by the Otaku Double Dutchers is 215 skips without a miss in one minute. That record was subsequently broken in 2018 by a group of elementary students in Japan.

In “Volta,” their speed is on eye-popping display just the same. Using LED ropes that whirl into a vortex of light, the rapid footwork is a wonder to behold.

During a team workout last Thurs­day, Yabiku said the group focuses on the parts of their performance most likely to produce mistakes.

“I keep a record of how many shows we can get through error-free,” he said. “We sometimes worry about how the audience will react if we make a mistake, and what we can do at that point.”

Tanizawa lets his feet do the flying as the group practices the speed skipping
component of their act with LED-lit ropes. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Yabiku recalled one performance in which a BMX cycler in the show fell off his bike, yet injected humor into the moment by raising the bike over his head and tossing it to the floor in comedic disgust.

“Everyone here is working to give an excellent show, mistakes and all,” he said. “It’s simple to go out and per­form; the important thing is not just to be perfect, but to keep it enjoyable.

“We feel the hearts of the audi­ence, and that helps us within our own hearts.”

With artists and acrobats from around the world – Cirque du So­leil scans the globe for unusual and virtuosic performers – Yabiku said he initially thought communication would be an obstacle.

“What I first did was to remember each person’s name and cultivate good relationships,” he said. “We come from different parts of the world, but we all get along.”

The team took several moments during their workout to reflect and contemplate parts of their act. Tomoko Yabiku, who has an additional role as a dancer in “Volta,” reminded her teammates of the artistic details that set their rope-skipping a cut above.

And it is the artistry that is per­haps the most satisfying component of “Volta.” One segment brings a touching balletic duet between the protagonist boy and his mother, with the son spiraling and twirling on a BMX bike. Performed by Japanese cyclist Nao Yoshida and dancer Ro­sina, the sequence is as touching as it is athletically amazing.

Tsugutaka Yabiku said the level of accomplishment his team has reached is a source of great pride for himself, and he suspects other cast members feel as he does.

“I feel we have accomplished a lot, but we’re not as good as we can get,” he said. “We’re always looking to raise our level, to make our training and performance the best anywhere.”

“Volta” runs through March 8 at Dodger Stadium and March 18 to April 19 at OC Fair & Event Center. For more information, go to: https://cirk.me/EN-VOLTA

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