Since it formed in 1984, the Canadian touring phenomenon Cirque du Soleil has based shows around dragons, multiculturalism, water, and even Elvis Presley. But for its newest show, Ovo, which opened yesterday at National Harbor, the company turns to the world of insects, and it’s led by the first female director in Cirque’s history, Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker. The result is a vibrant, colorful ecosystem, teeming with life, carnival rhythms, and engaging characters, as well as the group’s mind-boggling acrobatic feats.
Cirque founder Guy Laliberté first approached Colker about the idea of a show based on biodiversity at the company’s 25th birthday celebration. “I had this idea to talk about the insect world,” said Colker in a phone call from Brazil. “I wanted to do a show relating the insects to the acrobats, the way they move and dislocate, and he thought it was a great idea.” So Colker began to create a show based on a community of insects, looking at the way they fly, roll, and walk up walls, and then communicating this through Cirque’s acrobats. In one of Ovo’s most jaw-dropping scenes, a team of crickets uses trampolines and their own momentum to run up walls horizontally. “They asked me if I wanted to use dancers in the show, and I said no—I wanted to make these acrobats dance,” says Colker.
The show’s title, “ovo,” is Portuguese for egg—Colker says the egg is a metaphor for the “huge enigma of life.” Her Brazilian heritage comes across most strongly in Ovo’s music, but it also emerges in the show’s feeling of celebration (In one scene, insects use corn ears as bongos.) “There’s a lot of hot, Brazilian energy,” says cast member Marjorie Nantel, who plays the Red Spider. “The music is samba, and it’s very joyful.” Artistic director Marjon van Grunsven came to Ovo after working on another Cirque show, Delirium. “Delirium was poetic, mysterious, sometimes perhaps a little dark,” she says. “This show is all about light and happiness and festivities and food, with the fusion of Brazilian music and the Brazilian way of life.”
National Harbor’s blue-and-yellow striped Grand Chapiteau (Big Top in French) seems custom-designed for a circus show. Inside the tent, sounds of crickets and a wavy, undulating stage set the scene inside an insect kingdom. In planning the look of the insects, Ovo’s costume designer, Liz Vandal, managed to find exactly the right balance between gorgeous and slightly creepy—the spiders have extravagant makeup not unlike the band Kiss, the crickets have bulbous eyes and jagged limbs protruding from their costumes, and one bloated, Slinky-like creature defies description and comes up on just the right side of disgusting. The insects stick their tongues out, scratch, and make googly eyes at the audience. “Deborah [Colker] was the mother insect of the crew,” says Nantel. “She made us really believe that we were insects, in the way we walk, the way we smell.”
After touring for 11 months of the year, van Grunsven says the troupe feels like a big family. “You’re on the road all the time, so you become tighter and tighter as a group, although we don’t live in the same building, thank God. That would be too much.” Colker doesn’t tour with the show, although she’s coming to Washington in October with her own dance group, Companhia de Danza Deborah Colker. “My plane ticket was scheduled to arrive on October 25, but I knew that Ovo’s last performance was October 24, so I said, no, I want to see the last day of Ovo in Washington.” This is her fourth trip to the city. “I thought it was a city only for the White House,” she says. “But it was a big surprise to me because I could see so many things relating to art.”
Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo is at the Grand Chapiteau at National Harbor through October 24. Click here for tickets ($38.50 to $255), or check back at Washingtonian.com for an opportunity to win VIP passes to the show.