Mating Season in the Insect Circus

04/20/2010 2:00 PM |


Cirque du Soleil

Directed by Deborah Colker

There's the theater of ideas and then there's the theater of sheer spectacle. Not that one is inherently superior to the other, but Cirque du Soleil falls into that second camp. Decidedly. When you walk into the big top they've erected on Randall's Island for their latest extravaganza, Ovo—a series of stupefying sketches about the secret lives of insects—it feels as though you're entering a misty black-and-white boxing arena in a silver-screen classic, except the air stinks of popcorn and grass. Uniformed apiarists wander the aisles like futuristic/fascistic police officers and, once the show begins, the cast is decked out in lavish insect costumes, like chorines in a Metropolitan Opera adaptation of The Tick. Beforehand, and at intermission, I lounge (with free food and drinks!) in the opulent V.I.P. tent, which could be called The Big Top After Dark: it's more reminiscent of a dimly lit bordello than a child-friendly circus. I mention this not to brag but to point out, with full disclosure, that everything about a Cirque du Soleil production, not merely the routines, approaches the spectacular. "This is the most artistic circus in the world," my seat-neighbor tells me. "The height of circus."

But, though the show boasts (stunning variations on) several circus-act standards—trapeze, tight rope, clowning, plate spinning—Ovo often feels more dance recital than Bros. Ringling, even if the hoofers are contortionist stuntmen. They move to an eclectic soundtrack of Old World tropes (e.g., French accordion) mixed with New World flair (hip hop beats), best expressed in an inspired moment during which the opening strains of Beethoven's Fifth morph into "La Cucaracha (Dance Mix)". The show is the brainchild of Brazilian (thus all the samba) choreographer (thus all the dancing) Deborah Colker—the first woman (thus a show conceived around, and named after, an egg?) to helm a Cirque production.

Whether acrobatic or terpsichorean, the movements in Ovo are intended to be stunning achievements of the human body, each ooh-and-aah-getter meant to wow more than the last, from the man who performs one-handed handstands atop a metal sculpture's nub to another who rides a unicycle on a tightrope that's being pulled up—while he does a handstand! (The clowns offer comic relief interludes, carrying what little narrative there is, like a musical in which none of the singers can dance—Rob Marshall's Chicago?) The show's highlight is a pas de deux between "butterflies": a man and woman who perform a corde lisse-aerial silk combo that sets them gliding, twisting and twining, making lachrymosely literal clichés about how love, dependent on trust, sends you soaring.

But most of the acts in Ovo aren't supposed to move the audience to tears—they're supposed to move it to applause. They are, of sorts, mating dances. And so the world of insects proves the perfect setting for a Cirque du Soleil production: as the company desperately seeks the audience's approval with each ante-upping achievement, so too do their characters strive to excite their fellow castbugs. Ovo's impossible feats impress on levels literal and meta, a clever marriage of form and content—though the latter is still incurably slight.

(photo credit: Benoit Fontaine; costume credit: Liz Vandal, Cirque du Soleil)