Cirque du Soleil is an odd beast. At a time when circus is striving with every sinew to reinvent itself, and ensembles such as the NoFit State circus and Circumference are testing the conceptual boundaries, Soleil is resolutely moving in the opposite direction. Ovo, created in Montreal in 2009, is an arena spectacular that delivers huge set pieces with impressive precision, but little heart or soul. Skill levels are astounding, but the performers are so anonymised that it’s impossible to relate to them. This has always been Soleil’s way; the show’s the thing. But the result is oddly fractured.
Conceived and created by a team including the Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, Ovo is themed around insect life. The performers slink and shimmer in Liz Vandal’s ingenious designs. There are nodding antennae, segmented limbs, and glittering beetle carapaces. A six-strong team of red ants (the performers are all female, and from China) give an amazing and perfectly coordinated display of foot juggling. A bendy Canadian duo, costumed as emergent butterflies, perform a pas de deux on aerial straps. And in the evening’s best section, a trapeze team of scarab beetles flies and loops overhead with breathtaking elan. Despite the flawless teamwork of the various ensembles, however, the piece never quite coalesces. Colker is credited as writer as well as choreographer, but there’s no real narrative stitching Ovo and its component acts together. The music, by Berna Ceppas, is dated and unmemorable.
In between numbers, the stage is left to three clowns – Gerard Regitschnig, Neiva Nascimento and Jan Dutler – to blunder around the stage pulling faces, shouting incoherently and spinning out the wretchedly unfunny material apportioned to them. Wednesday’s opening night was a sell-out, and there was a real sense of an audience up for a good time. But as each act ended and this charmless trio reappeared, you could feel the atmosphere evaporating, and the spectators sinking into their seats. Ovo is Soleil’s 25th show since its founding in 1984 by Guy Laliberté, and the company has always made much of its ties to traditional circus. But this needn’t mean an adherence to played-out ideas. More than a dozen people are credited for the direction and conceptualisation of Ovo, but none of them seems to have been interested in the dynamics of theatre as explored and practised in the 21st century.
This is a tight, well-oiled production and the individual acts are eye-popping. The final set piece involves trampolinists dressed as crickets who fly through the air before adhering to a climbing wall as high as a two-storey house. But the context is dispiriting and the industrial scale of the whole ultimately distancing. Ovo is a throwback. New circus has moved on.