Cirque du Soleil have brought another of their spectacular shows to the Royal Albert Hall as they do every January, and this one is going to extend their stay by touring to several venues around the UK as the year goes on. Great news for those who live too far to have seen the Canadian entertainment giants in London, but I do wish they’d picked a stronger show to share than Ovo.
Of course, the performers are all world class in their disciplines, bringing gasps and amazement even from the rows of circus teachers I sat amongst to watch the show. Of course, the costumes are gorgeous and quirky, converting the world of mini-beasts into lycra clad man-size wonders designed by Liz Vandal. Of course, the music is lively and brings a worldly flavour to the proceedings, composed for this show by Brazilian Berna Ceppas.
The concept of the production, however, seems to have something missing. Based around the daily life of an eclectic collection of insects, Ovo skips the scientific strangeness that keeps David Attenborough’s audiences fascinated, and gives us instead a basic ‘baby’s first insects’ picture book world. Whilst most of the CdS canon provides family entertainment for all ages, this show seems much more geared towards younger children, as there is little to engage adults beyond the circus skills when they appear. It feels like a waste.
Those skills though are impressive (whether they justify the £60+ ticket prices is another question). After we get over the initial rolling around on the floor that introduces the various colourful costumes to our eyes, a team of six red ants trot on bearing slices of kiwi fruit that turn out to be foot-juggling props. Against the back wall of the set is a projection of long grass on a lawn, the ants-eye-view, and a series of close-up habitats set the scene for acts throughout the show.
The team are synchronised and precise as we imagine the military insects to be. The juggled props give way for the passing of acrobats from base to base, tossed from one upturned pair of feet to the next and back again. Some nearby grasshoppers bring ears of corn to be juggled at the top of the now two-high ant towers. I’m unsure at first whether I am supposed to be marvelling at the real behaviour of the insects who’ve inspired the act, or at the cleverness of humans for performing it. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the performance has only very loosely been modelled on its insect muses. There is no real urgency, no fight for survival, no natural interactions in this show. Think more A Bugs Life ident than BBC documentary.
Ovo’s flimsy storyline revolves, as is often the case in CdS shows, around a newcomer. The blue fly (François-Guillaume Leblanc) appears with an egg (thieved from a bird for food perhaps? Or his own oddly avian-shaped offspring…? It’s never made clear). This is stolen from him by boss beetle Gerard Regitschnig while the fly is distracted, drooling over Neiva Nascimento’s ladybird charms. The trio are more mimes than clowns, although there is naturally some cross over, and several ripples of laughter run through the audience at their antics. Their accompanying sound effects from the live team of musicians are witty and well timed, even if the sexual politics are less so. The seven musicians are rarely apparent from my vantage point at the top of the Albert Hall’s four tiers of seating banks, but they do move in and out of the scenes on occasion, bringing earthy hued percussion and electric fiddle to the proceedings.
In terms of storyline, that’s kind of it. The fly wants the egg back, we gather through a couple of interludes. When he gets it at the end, however, it is unceremoniously abandoned onstage and we still never find out why it was so important to him. Seems he’s lost interest now in favour of his new ladybug girlfriend.
If, however, you’re here for the acrobatic skills rather than a theatrical event, you will be delighted with the individual numbers. Two separate handbalance-contortion acts showcase the individual styles of Kyle Cragle and Ariunsanaa Bataa: Cragle, as a dragonfly, perches atop a spiralled vine flitting his fingers, elbows, feet and knees before melting into the curves of his equipment; Bataa, as a teasing, backbending spiderwoman, tries to lure the watching crickets into a web of light painted across the floor, flanked by handmaidens Alanna Baker and Marjorie Nantel on vertical ropes. (Then they all make friends and dance together, but I think you’ve gathered by now, this show is not based on the real behaviours of its insectoid inspirations).
Aerial work is provided by Nantel in a cocoon of silks that opens to become mottled moth’s wings, and then metamorphoses into a pair of diaphanous straps artists (Catherine Audy and Alexis Trudel), expertly counterweighted by some invisible stagehand. In their monochrome costumes, the pair seem more like mayflies than the butterflies the programme names them as, drawn towards each other in an immediate courtship. They’re graceful, slick, and pleasing to watch, but the routine is unsurprising, lacking any of the drama that the short insect lifespans could lend.
A Mr Slinky act from Sergyi Rysenko fits the theme of the show, appearing as part of a bug-spray induced psychedelia, proportions shrinking and stretching and weaving around each other. He has some effective choreographies, which work best when the illusion that there’s no human body inside the wiggly suit can be maintained.
The first half ends on a troupe of ten golden scarabs flying through the air from a set of Korean cradles. Four catchers are spaced above the net, allowing for unusual crosses and passes that make this a truly spectacular routine.
After the interval the spiders woo us back, and the fly continues to woo his new ladybird love. A diabolo number in citrus colours is set against a backdrop of zinging fireflies that keep the scene peppy (more effective in the filmed projections than the green light-up thumb tips waved about by members of the ensemble at the back of the stage). Tony Frebourg is clearly capable of holding the stage alone as he builds from one to four axels spinning and tossing from his rope, but the cheeky assistance of Baker the black spider adds a little extra character to the performance that I really enjoy.
Jiangming Qiu on slackline is another of the show’s highlights. Within a minute of being raised into the air he is performing backwards rolls into handstands on the line. The next few minutes see him invert again and again, taking steps with his hands, or using balance props to hold his frame upside-down on the swaying line.
The finale takes us into an underground egg chamber where the sneaky spiders scale the walls and a team of green larvae tumble and trampoline around the set in a giant outpouring of energy. Neat lines of bouldering holds on the tramp wall add an extra dimension to the choreographies, and the show closes in a rush of good feelings and colour.
The show, directed by Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, was first created in 2009 for the CdS touring tent, and was revamped into a stadium show in 2016. For me in 2018, Ovo is inconsistent, and doesn’t deliver as much as I have grown to expect from Cirque du Soleil, but the show could still provide a good introduction to the company’s signature style, especially for young children.