Acrobats bounce on trampolines. A man dangles from a lamp and a woman swings by her hair. BMX riders dazzle an audience. All of this is thanks to some behind-the-scenes magic from Sean Groves.
Groves, who grew up in Valencia, is the head of automation on “Volta.” From the Latin meaning “a sudden, quick change in emotion,” it is the 41st show and 18th big top by Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil.
The show, created in 2017, centers around a boy named Waz who attempts to find fame through a game show competition, but is mocked for his individuality and struggles to come to terms with his identity.
“We realized Cirque du Soleil has never done a show about action sports like BMX, Double Dutch and roller skating, so we threw them on stage and found a way to marry them with the circus,” said Steven Ross, senior publicist for “Volta.” “We realized that you can’t have these freestyle sports with classic circus music so this is the first circus show to have electronic music.”
Groves began his life in entertainment as a member of Valencia High School’s theater department. After graduation he worked in film production, as well as at the College of the Canyons theater, before moving to Pittsburgh to pursue a degree in technical direction from the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. There, Groves discovered the world of automation, which he describes as developing and controlling effects that include “anything that’s big and heavy moving or really fast flying around.”
“Being in a theater scene, I did a lot of improv performing, as well as some on-stage combat, so being involved in creating these spectacles has been a passion of mine,” Groves said. “I discovered I had that knack for the technical side of things, and that automation allows you to work with artists and acrobats while staying on the technical side to help create these large, exciting spectacles in a consistent, safe manner.”
Upon graduating college, Groves got a job with the “Marvel Universe Live!” arena show. After some successful networking, he was hired to work for the automation team on the “Curios” Cirque du Soleil show. While on that show, Groves helped create effects, including aerial winches, a net act and strap acts, which are aerial acts performed hanging from fabric or leather straps.
After working on “Curios” for about three years, Groves transferred to work as a technician on “Volta” because it offered him more opportunity to progress for career advancement and quickly advanced to become the show’s head of automation. Groves said “Volta” is unique in that while other Cirque shows usually only rely on automation for aerial acts, every act in “Volta” requires some sort of automation.
“I have a great strong relationship with all the artists. We’re able to work together very smoothly, cohesively,” he said. “Everyone speaks a different language, and trying to translate that to automation is pretty difficult but I find I do my best to find the easiest way to convey the information I need, which quickly led to me stepping up into the head position.”
Andrew Barrus, technical director on “Volta,” said that while circus acts were traditionally done manually with people behind the scenes using ropes and pulleys, the industry as a whole has progressed toward automating tricks, making them safer and more consistent for the acrobats. Even with the added security of technological advantages, Barrus said that, like any technology, there are still occasional issues.
“We’ve had a few technical issues on the show this year, but one of Sean’s greatest strengths is troubleshooting and the dogged tenacity to overcome challenges,” Barrus said. “It also takes a certain kind of person to confidently hold someone on the end of a wire and move them up and down, and there are a lot of people within the automation field that lack Sean’s ability to do that. There has to be a level of trust with the artistic team because of how dangerous this is, and Sean has a gift of cultivating that relationship.”
Though Groves was not on the “Volta” team when it was created, he has still had opportunities to put his own mark on the show. According to Groves, tricks and acts are changed or added all the time throughout a tour as the acrobats try out new things to keep shows fresh for performers and audiences alike.
Any act requires about six months of preparation before it is incorporated into the show. On top of the three months of training that the acrobats must do with an act before it is considered, Groves and his team must also test that the equipment is capable of withstanding the type of movement and speed the acrobat wants before designing the act.
“One of my favorite things about Cirque shows is that they’re always changing and never getting dull because the acrobats themselves can get bored just like in a day job and are always finding ways to one-up themselves,” Groves said. “I’ve had it where we’re making changes twice a week to our acrolamp act and we’re making changes on our ladders act so we’re working on that once a week.”
“I’ve never particularly enjoyed being in the spotlight, and I’ve always preferred helping someone else work really cool in some way,” he said. “If you told me 10 years ago that I’d be working with Cirque du Soleil, I would have said you were crazy. I knew I wanted to explore the world, so being with Cirque in the big-top show really allows you to see what it’s like to be a local in a town, since we’re there for two months. I don’t know how long I’ll be on ‘Volta,’ but the nice part about Cirque is that you can bounce around to different shows. It’s all about the growth you want.”
Cirque du Soleil’s “Volta” is playing at Dodger Stadium until March 8 and then moves to the OC Fair & Event and Event Center in Costa Mesa from March 18 to Apr. 19. To purchase tickets visit cirquedusoleil.com/volta.