I love the Chapiteau. Ce n'est pas une surprise. Cirque Du Soleil's latest joyous creation, OVO, is now on in Toronto. Though I had seen Cirque before in large arenas, I hadn't experienced it in the "Grand Chapiteau." And so a friend (who had never seen a Cirque show) and I toodled off to the Eastern Portlands at Toronto's waterfront. It was an evening of enchantment, delight, and absolute, unabashed play.
Neither photos nor words really capture the magic of a Cirque show fully. Even though I'd been given the finger-wagging "No pictures, please!" notice from Chapiteau staff, I wanted to turn my camera not toward the performers, but onto my fellow attendees -eyes agog, mouths dropped open, in awe. Any way you cut it, the drama within a Cirque show is in-built by virtue of the fact that they are performing dangerous, heady feats and often rely on little to protect their falls. There is also a noticeably strong thread of community -family, really -between performers. One relies on the other, another on someone else, and so on -like a set of dominoes. Both in the limelight and behind-the-scenes, the Cirque is only as strong as its team.
There are a number of particularly affecting moments in OVO. I liked the couple doing the 'rope/cloth' (banquine) routine; they seem to share genuine chemistry, and the comparison I heard at intermission (to Zumanity, Cirque's sexy Vegas show) is entirely apt. The way they swung around the performance area, his arms wrapped around hers, both of them supported only by two pieces of luxurious cloth, was a deeply entrancing visual. Such moments aren't merely wondrous in a physical sense; they're meditative in a spiritual one. Equally, the gold-clad trapeze men, looking like airborne centurions –but, with the insect theme of OVO, they were probably bees or maybe wasps -provided the same mix of wonder at physicality and awe at the abilities of the physical and artistic worlds colliding to produce something inspired by... insects. Wow. The trapezists flew back and forth between stations, landing on one another' shoulders, and then disembarking and falling, arms aloft, into the netting below them, their swift graceful decent a sure dance with gravity, time and space. Breathtaking.
Equally affecting were the myriad of tumblers, who, dressed in ridged chartreuse costumes –again, looking like determined little bugs -bounced in a kind of organized chaos against a pseudo-rock-face, their timing at once rhythmic and chaotic. Brazilian director Deborah Colker smoothly blends these moments of inspired chaos with loud, pulsating electronica sounds, counterbalancing every frenetic routine with a slower, more contemplative one. The quiet poetry of a figure wrapped in a kind of nylon, placed vertically and stretching swaying and shimmying, before emerging from her cocoon to become a butterfly, was simple, classy, and deeply moving. OVO embraces the poetic marriage between the worlds of humans and insects, transferring the physical mechanics of each into a wider exploration about the nature of natural connection. Yes, there's a lot going on beneath the surface (just as there is in the world of insects), but without being too heady, I can also tell you: OVO is a boatload of fun.
Just as dramatic (and fun) to behold as the other bugged-out creatures was the Spider character, who re-defines the idea of 'high wire' entirely. With his Mad Max-esque costume and dramatic makeup recalling Japanese kabuki, he retained an air of theatricality even as he stepped, balanced, and carefully picked his way across a very small, very loose wire (called a "slack wire" in circus terms). During the performance, I actually heard him let out a howl of triumph as his eyes widened like saucers, and his chest came puffing out upon completing his ride across the wire on nary but a tiny unicycle (successfully). Hands clapped together and he glared out at the assembled crow triumphantly; it was so dramatic, I wanted to vault out of my seat then and there with applause. That's the fantastic thing about such acts within a Cirque show: performers don't just go through the motions, and then bow politely. No way. They inhabit their roles -and the physical movements that go with those roles -utterly, to the letter, or in OVO's case, antenna. Limbs, faces, heads, feet and fingers -all are stretched, leaning, flicking, swirling in accordance with the performers' buggy counterparts, elevating OVO to the realm of the theatrical. While audiences might be conscious of the show's pretend-factor, they're nevertheless moved by its execution.
But I have to say, on a personal note, I also loved -love -the clowning that happens in Cirque shows. OVO confirmed my adoration, using a cute story of thwarted-then-successful affection (Newcomer Boy Bug likes Neighbourhood Girl Bug; misunderstandings ensure before a happy communion). The clowns, as per the commedia dell'arte tradition that so influences Cirque's work, gently and amusingly interacted with one another before mining the audience for inspiration. This, in turn, lead to inspiring play within the audience itself. The OVO clowns reminded me, in their pratfalls, voiced effects (which took the place of dialogue) and grand gesturing, of the importance of embracing the playful side of life, that play doesn't just happen under the Grand Chapiteau.
And maybe that's the point of OVO, and on a larger scale, the mission of Cirque Du Soleil itself. It's as if the clowns, tumblers, and the entire cast are there to remind us, that for every piece of darkness we come across in life, there exists its equal, shining and rife with possibility –and it’s right inside us. We may not be able to do the tricks and tumbles of the performers, but we can allow ourselves to be transported to the world of OVO, and thus, engage our imaginations –and hearts –in the process. Outside the protective canvas walls of the Chapiteau, there's certainly misery aplenty; inside, however, there is simply... play. Insect play, human play, musical play, physical play. Play takes you out of yourself, and to quote an old song, “take the world in a love embrace.” Sure it’s corny –but it’s needed more than ever for what’s bugging us. Play is there -here -if you want it. Merci, Cirque.
Cirque Du Soleil photos by Benoit Fontaine.