Joey Arrigo leads Cirque du Soleil’s VOLTA to Tampa

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Out aerialist, dancer and choreographer Joey Arrigo portrays the lead in VOLTA, Cirque du Soleil’s 41st original production, but his story with the largest theatrical producer in the world actually began at age 5 with a VHS tape.

He says he watched his parents’ VHS tape, which featured one of the company’s first shows, “so many times, not even really comprehending what it was and what it even took to get there.” More importantly, he asserts, it “sparked something in me.”

It’s that spark that he hopes to bring to VOLTA, written and directed by Bastien Alexandre, with Jean Guibert as the director of creation. With music by international electronic group M83, it tells the story of Arrigo’s character “Waz” in a tale about “being true to oneself, fulfilling one’s true potential, and the power of the group to make that possible.”

Watermark spoke with Arrigo ahead of VOLTA’s Feb. 14 Tampa Bay stop about the Toronto native’s love for dance, being out in the professional dancing world and living his dream as a performer for Cirque du Soleil.

WATERMARK: What led you to pursue a life in dance?

JOEY ARRIGO: Oh my goodness, well that takes us back about 25, 26 years. I popped out the womb and basically started dancing. I have an older sister, it’s the classic Chorus Line story of, y’know, my parents put my sister into dance and I was always accompanying my mother to pick her up and drop her off.

I was drawn to it naturally. There was another class going on in another room with the advanced dancers, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them. I was basically pressing my nose up against the door until somebody took the cue to put me in my own class, and literally the rest was history.

I got so involved with it so quickly at such a young age, and I never pictured myself doing anything else. And it wasn’t long after that, I was 5 years old when I saw my very first anything with Cirque de Soleil and somehow I just knew that was my goal and that’s where I needed to end up.

What was that first show you saw?

It was actually one of Cirque de Soleil’s first shows. My parents had it on VHS and I was watching it in my living room. I knew it was something super special and I watched it so many times, not even really comprehending what it was and what it even took to get there. It sparked something in me, and this company was always something that I held on a pedestal.

When I joined the company, coming up four years ago now, it really meant a lot to me. I was really excited to plant some roots here, because it was everything I imagined it to be and so many more things.

You’re also a teacher.

I started teaching at a pretty young age. I was about 15, 16 when I got my first jobs as a teacher. I’ve taught some master classes in Europe, Australia, and I’ve done a great deal of choreography in both Canada and the United States. Definitely something that really fuels me because teaching is in my blood: my dad is an instrumental music teacher and my grandfather on my mother’s side is a math teacher. It’s kind of just in my nature to take the skills I have and share them to help other dancers build their own skills.

Have you experienced any challenges or benefits to being openly gay in your line of work?

Definitely—I mean, I guess I could find benefits here and there. The cons stopped as soon as I became comfortable with myself. At the point where somebody really decides to accept themselves for who they are and really kind of march their own path, that’s when all of those other problems go away.

Any outside opinions or judgments on who you are and what you’re doing, that stuff goes away so quickly when you know who you are and you’re comfortable with your own self.

I do feel as though being a gay man working in an industry in dance where, especially in competitive dance studios where the majority of dancers are girls, it comes off less threatening. It comes off that I’m kind of on the same page as them, and I do find as though that my gayness comes out just a little bit stronger when I’m teaching because it’s less threatening.

What was it like to reach your goal of working for Cirque du Soleil?

When I first auditioned, I was super lucky because it was my 18th birthday and there was a dancer audition in Toronto, where I’m from, so I was like, “wow, I guess I have to go.”

I went, and right from there they saw my skills and put me into the database. They basically said “we’ll call ya if a job pops up.” No more than two months later they had offered me a job that was touring Japan for two years. Not only did I have other contracts that I was already assigned toward, I was already in talks of doing So You Think You Can Dance Canada that following year, so there wasn’t any way I could run off to Japan.

I also felt as though that this is a huge opportunity and this is everything I’ve ever wanted, and I didn’t feel that at 18 years old I was ready to fulfill this. I don’t think I would do it the way that I wanted to, so I respectfully declined and kicked myself for about three years because I threw away that job.

Oh wow. Where did you go from there?

I said, “if it’s meant to be it’ll come back around.” Cirque du Soleil wasn’t going anywhere, and I once again went to an audition and the casting directors all remembered me. I walked in the door and they greeted me by my name, so that was a great feeling. And they were like, “well, what are you doing here? You’re already on the database.” And I was like, “well, I don’t have a job yet – so, get goin’, kids!”

Once again we played the waiting game, and I continued to do odd jobs here and there. No more than nine months later they had contacted me about that exact same job that I had turned down in 2010, so I immediately said yes and ran away with the circus.

What draws you to your character of Waz?

He’s not only a relatable character to myself, but was built to be a relatable character to everyone who’s watching. Waz is a man who’s trying to find his way and place in this world, just like the rest of us. And Waz has the insecurity and the complex of [having] blue feathers [for] hair, and it’s something that he was always ridiculed for as a child.

This story is really about learning to love himself, despite those feathers, and really learning to love the person that he really is. Waz leaves the world that he’s currently in and he goes out to find the “free spirits” of the world, the people who know all about love, self-acceptance and accepting others for their differences and how beautiful that is.

When he learns that’s what we all strive for in life, that’s my favorite thing about this show. Everyone has their own metaphorical blue feathers that, in time, we all learn to overcome and become our own “free spirits.”

It seems like something that’ll resonate with the LGBTQ community.

Absolutely. Waz isn’t necessarily a gay character, but it’s anything, maybe your nose is too big, maybe you’ve gained a few extra pounds, maybe there’s things that you don’t like about yourself—and it may be that those things are somebody else’s favorite thing about you. And it’s what makes you different and distinct.

Why should first time and longtime fans of Cirque du Soleil see VOLTA?

Cirque du Soleil has taken a huge turn in the direction of what they’re doing with VOLTA. They’ve created a number of shows in the last 34 years, and many of those shows have been about taking our audience into a different world. We’ve been to all of those worlds and we’ve been to all of those magical places, and now we’re ready to talk about real life, and ready to bring a strong message about what our life is.

What I’ve learned through this process is that true acting is just being, and really tapping into true emotions that you’ve experienced in your own life to show what you’re wanting to show onstage. It’s really fun being able to play this character and learn not only new things about myself as an artist, but as a person as well.

Knowing that when I look out into a crowd and see faces light up that we’re on this journey together, and I’m doing something right.

VOLTA will be presented under the Big Top at the Tampa Greyhound Track starting Feb. 14, 2018. For more information about Cirque du Soleil or to buy tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

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