The Birth of Ovo

Witnessing the birth of a brand-new Cirque du Soleil touring show is a must-see event that every fan of the Cirque should attempt at least once in their lifetimes. Taking the show in with the hometown crowd is a singular experience not to be missed – the abundance of excitement, that electric spark of energy, and unfettered restlessness over the anticipation of reveal is both fascinating and intoxicating. A pure, raw, energy invades the Grand Chapiteau here unlike anywhere else in the world. And when you share the experience with friends the experience can be most enlightening.

Going to Montreal to see a premiere is a particular thrill I have been privileged to experience, beginning with Varekai (2002), and continuing with Corteo (2005), Koozå (2007) and now with Ovo (2009). Each time the experience is different, as shows are opened at various stages of development and different stages of presentation. Corteo and Koozå had some minor work ahead of it before reaching its full potential, while Varekai needed a complete act shuffle before coming to its final form. From these examples we find that some concepts are further along than others, but generally all turn out a well-satisfied crowd.

But with Ovo, the spell seems to be broken.

Perhaps this one should have gestated a little longer.

Or perhaps the expectations were set just a wee bit high.

The Big Apple

Prior to hitting the beautiful cobblestone streets of the Vieux Port of Montreal, I spent two days in New York City taking in the sights and sounds of the Big Apple. There’s something about New York City that invigorates me, although I don’t know why since exploring it saps all my energy! Be that as it may, New York City has a number of Class-A attractions and neighborhoods that simply cannot be ignored. There’s Uptown, Downtown, Theater District, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Park, and more. Each one is an amazing cultural province all its own. And each time I visit the big city I learn more about its identity.

For example, I discovered where the term “The Big Apple” originated: It seems that in 1920, John J. Fitzgerald – a local horseracing sports writer – heard a New Orleans stable-hand refer to New York by that name. Shortly thereafter, he recycled the term in his newspaper column whereby other reporters began picking up on it. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell used it to identify New York’s entertainment district in 1927 – and by the 1950s, it had become a common way to refer to the city, since New York represented opportunity for many people.

New York presented us an amazing opportunity to have fun over the few days we were in town. We had Dim Sum in China Town, Chocolate Canole’s and Cappuccinos in Little Italy, hearty soups in Grand Central Station, and bar-b-que in Times Square. Outside of the theater district we visited two of the city’s famed museums: MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and Metropolitan Museum of Art. MOMA has an eclectic array of modern art in its collection from sculpture, painting, furniture, architecture and more. Included as part of its gallery are many world-famous paintings, such as: “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso, “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, and “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet. And while each one of these was a treat to see, it seems Modern Art isn’t my thing. Some of it is just too abstract for my tastes.

Down the road at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found things more to my liking. Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time to explore this enormous museum; however, we were able to examine the Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese collections, pass through the Greek and Roman statuary, and float through the classical European paintings on the second floor. As such we got to see a print of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, the first in Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji (including other fine examples). In the European painting section many fine examples rested, including Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with a Straw Hat” and Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates”.

Outside of the arts we took in two shows: Lion King on Broadway and Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå on Randal’s Island. While Koozå is always great fun – my sixth overall viewing and I’ve enjoyed it each and every time (this one no different even though the Juggler was sitting out our performance) – our presentation of the Lion King at Minskoff Theater was even more exhilarating. I’ve seen Lion King at least four other times: twice on the US National Tour (both the Gazelle and Cheetah companies), once on the West End in London, and again most recently in Tokyo, but never in the location the show first opened: on Broadway. It took a little more than 10 years but the dream finally came true – and with front-row tickets no less! Experiencing the show from the front row, while a little difficult due to the height of the stage, cannot be equaled anywhere else. From this vantage you become part of each scene, rather than watching it from afar. It is truly an emotional experience to be caught up in Mufasa’s death, the mourning Lionesses, and many other facets that make up Simba’s life story.

Meeting Nala after the show for a photo opportunity (thanks to a donation to charity) was also a major highlight. It was simply a treat I will never forget.

But of course, the reason for the journey was Ovo – Cirque du Soleil’s newest touring production.

A Teeming World…

OVO (pronounced oh-voh) takes its name from the Portuguese word for Egg, an animal reproductive body consisting of an ovum together with its nutritive and protective envelope. “When a mysterious egg appears in the insect’s midst,” the press release suggests, “they are awestruck and intensely curious about this iconic object;” a timeless symbolic representation of birth. The enigma and its importance to the insectoid microcosm embodies the underlying thread of the show, which is also communicated graphically as OVO hides an insect in its name: The two letter “Os” represent the eyes while the letter “V” forms the nose.

“OVO is overflowing with contrasts. The hidden, secret world at our feet is revealed as tender and torrid, noisy and quiet, peaceful and chaotic. And as the sun rises on a bright new day the vibrant cycle of insect life begins anew.”

Entering the Grand Chapiteau is always a treat; when you step foot inside the big top for a brand new show expectations run rampant, which only serves to heighten the excitement even more. When the flimsy doors of Ovo’s big top parted, my nostrils instantly filled not with the strange but intoxicating, cinnamon-like scent that wafted through the air at Varekai, but rather with a peaty, earthy kind of smell. A hint toward the show’s universal theme of biodiversity.

As with most Cirque du Soleil productions (all in recent memory), Ovo begins with a pre-show animation sequence that puts the unsuspecting audience face-to-face with Cirque performers. Here the theme of an insect world is expounded upon by a small assortment of insect characters (namely the grasshoppers) milling about the seating area with an entourage of human scientists dressed in full-protective garb carrying around catcher’s nets and magnifying glasses, inspecting the audience, capturing them with their nets and otherwise causing muted chaos.

As the lights dim, our attention is then directed upon the trio of stalks neatly distributed within this microcosmic arena, and to the rather large and inescapable egg-shaped object situated in its center. While we in the audience can only begin to wonder about the impending reveal of the egg and its meaning, a small insect contingent converges upon the stage, ascending the stalks (themselves reminiscent of dandelion stems) to flit about. Once the spectator do’s and dont’s are understood, the creatures come to life by crying, buzzing, trilling and chirping the show’s namesake – OVO.

A rainbow of light washes over the (28ft wide by 22ft tall) egg, bathing it in reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigos and violets – swirling about in a Technicolor rainbow, projections reminiscent of Delirium. Strobes flash and thunder for fleeting seconds, momentarily blinding, raising the level of tension. But if you’re waiting for a dramatic reveal a la Saltimbanco, “O” or ZED, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The world goes pitch black and the egg simply deflates, its collapsed hulk simply drug offstage left.

When the lights arise – the insects swarm. There are nine (9) different performances (acts) by this multi-cultural cast of 53, each a new and exciting peek into this creepy-crawly world that Deborah Colker, a renowned choreographer, has created for us, a headlong-rush into this teeming buggy ecosystem. Theirs is perhaps a right of passage dance, itching and scratching their way across the stage to showcase their world to us, to welcome us and to invite us.

OVO: The Show

They part to reveal a lone dragonfly, performed by Vladimir Hrynchenko. He floats about the stage and glides along on an intricately conceived set piece that, upon second glance, is abalancing cane twisted in a spiral to elevate him above the stage in a very elaborate manner. (This apparatus is a perfect example of the show’s particular style: an organic inspiration whereby there are almost no straight lines to be found). At the top rests a normal balancing block, which he puts to great use in his handbalancing act, but he also uses the curvature of the apparatus to slip, slide and flit about in a very calm, soothing manner.

As the dragonfly slowly flutters off stage, a strange and alluring character begins to traverse the pathways of the Grand Chapiteu, carrying an ovo of immense size securely upon his back. He is the Foreigner, a fly in vintage suit who only reveals his true nature (a lone soul) when he falls for the ladybug. “OOOOHKAY!” – After coming in contact with the Ladybug, the Crickets steal off with his egg, leaving the Foreigner dazed and confused.

The ants, dressed in red, invade the macrocosm next, bringing with them their foraging spoils – little bites of food (Kiwi, Corn and Mushrooms)! Combining the ancient art of Chinese foot-juggling with the equally old art of Icarian Games, this sextet of Asian-girl cuteness (Han Jing, Kong Yufei, Pei Xin, Su Shan, Wang Shaohua, and Zhu TingTing) takes the stage by storm and do not disappoint. The ants work in tandem, flipping their food about with ease. And just when you think you’ve seen it all they flip themselves while also flipping their spoils! Easily it’s the most exciting aspect of the first half of the show.

A small cocoon ascends as the ants march off the stage, beautifully introducing the next performance. A performer in silk struggles to break free of her cocoon; spreading the silk threads after emergence to evoke the delicate wings of a butterfly. Her metamorphic birth then gives way to two other butterflies who soar into the sky on a strong forest vine. Maxim Kozlov and Inna Mayorova (from Russia) perform a slow, sensual dance of trust and love, wrapping themselves and each other in a single Spanish web rope. After their performance, we meet up with the Foreigner again as he continues his search for his Ovo. But his presence in this world isn’t liked by all and gets into a mock sword fight with Flipo, the male matriarch of this little insect community.

Slinky-dude comes forth to lighten the mood next. Performed by Lee Brearley, he is figuratively and literally a human slinky; twisting, twirling, lifting, and flopping about the stage in a multi-colored tubular (caterpillar-esque) costume. Unfortunately his presence on stage, while wonderfully appreciated, is short-lived.

And then… the scarabs take to the scene.

Volants is one of the more intriguing original creations from the Cirque; it combines the techniques and talents of flying trapeze, banquine, and Russian swing amongst a hand-full of other disciplines. Here a team of black-and-gold colored scarabs take to the skies and fly about the top of the grand chapiteau. On both ends exists a staging platform and two standard pendulum swings from which the trapeze flyers launch and the catchers catch, but in the middle, however, rests a second platform from which to catch and launch the flyers banquine style. It’s quite an amazing set-up that just doesn’t quite live up to the build-up. (However, we’ve heard that an injury during the lion’s den – a performance done for Guy Laliberté before the show can go on – resulted in an injury. That injury prevented most of the staging to go on as planned).


When we return to our seats and the house lights dim once again, the stage lights rise without fanfare to begin the second half of the show, almost as if we just pressed play after pausing a video presentation.

Hanging from all points of the insect’s stage is a spider’s web, spun about to set up the contortion act of a trio of deadly female black widow spiders. A relatively well done, typical contortion set performed by Svetlana Belova from Russia begins, perfectly framed as the ruler of her kingdom. As far as contortion acts go I will contend she was quite nervous in our showing so her performance may not have included more than just a typical set. Two other spiders (performed by Robyn Houpt, USA; and Marjorie Nantel, Canada) joined the fun, crawling about in the web and cavorting on stage to draw other non-suspecting insect-prey into their grasp.

The yellow and white costumed fleas jump on stage next for Acrosport, a cross between the adagio and banquine disciplines performed by Anna Gorbatenko, Natallia Kakhniuk, Khrystsina Maraziuk, Elena Nepytayeva, and Olga Varchuk from the Ukrane and Belarus. These costumed insects leap and bound through an act that, while impressive, sorely lacks any real choreography (and this from a director that specializes in choreography). As such we’re shown tricks rather than highly skilled techniques. Cirque du Soleil has featured banquine in three of its shows to date – Quidam, “O” and ZED – and at present I would have tolorate this performance similar to that featured in “O”. While this does not mean the presentation is overly ghastly, it does lack a certain
element, oomph if you will, that would bring this piece to that next level.

A black spider takes firm control of our world with this phenomenal number – slackwire. First strung loosely close to the stage’s floor, then raised 20 feet or more above the stage, Li Wei performs an amazing number of hand-balancing and coordinated techniques on this tension-less wire. One hand, two hand and no-hand (cane) balancing techniques are made without a fuss. He even makes riding a uni-cycle upside down powered only by his hands look easy. It was definitely the most exciting performance of OVO at this showing; quite a crowd

The last remaining scrim is then removed from the stage revealing an enormous wall and trampoline. The crickets, which we’ve seen hopping about at various times during the show, finally get to shine here, bouncing and tumbling about, while other insects take part by using the wall. The ants, for example, can be seen crawling along in a perfect line, just like typical ants. Unfortunately the wall is overused and the power track and trampoline completely underutilized. The entire act is performed with an enormous amount of (obviously) pent-up energy on the grasshopper’s parts; however, the techno-pop music and abhorrent staging deflate any excitement generated by this number’s reveal. Why go through all the trouble and expense of a trampoline and powertrack (similar to La Nouba’s) and not really flip down the track much? It is my sincere hope that since this number closes the show acrobatically its presentation and execution will be greatly tightened soon.

The insects once again swarm the stage in the show’s finale, a feast for a job well done. This closing dance number also acts as an act sign-off – characters from each of the performed numbers crawl across the banquet table giving the audience a moment to show their approval in claps and cheers. Unfortunately the presentation of this ending is somewhat confusing, as the traditional pause in music (usually announcing a curtain call) did not come; therefore, the audience was unsure whether this was just a dance or whether it was really the end. It was.

In Conclusion

All in all, while I think biodiversity is a grand theme to attempt, and I don’t mind the buggy world, I think its concept was taken a little too literally here, which appears quite heavily in the character’s costumes. They are ingenious and highly detailed, but appear more laughable in that pulp sci-fi kind of way. You know, cheesy. In other shows – Mystère for example – we have birds and lizards whose costumes evoke the sense of that creature, but do not literally cast the performer as that creature. It is my opinion that perhaps something similar should have occurred here – especially with the Ladybug.

What OVO lacks is a concrete choreography and wasted potential in the presentation of its acrobatic acts. The skill set is not showcased; the bar has not been raised from previous efforts. This can be seen time and time again with the Hand-balancing act, the contortion piece, the Acrosport, and the power track/wall performance. More time and effort appears to be spent on the visuals surrounding the performance (a.k.a. its framing) rather than on the physical performance itself. And if there’s little new technical merit what then is the point? It’s all very nice and colorful, but there’s no pop, no oomph, no chutzpah – which is also a problem with the show’s score. There’s a lack of depth, sophistication, and worldly vibe that we expect from Cirque du Soleil music. What we get instead are uses of Beethoven’s Fifth and a rather jazzy “La Cucaracha” and a number of choices that act more as a background tune than a supportive note.

The performances on the old quays of Montreal are by definition previews, and as such should only be taken as a peek into the final product. Of that I can only say this: with Varekai the entire audience was up on its feet during the final Russian Swing number, for Koozå a total of four standing ovations were given DURING the show, but for Ovo… timid applause. Does this mean the show is a dud? By no means. It just needs a little more work. And it will come. I can’t wait to see how this show evolves over the next few months!