A bug's life

Inside Ovo, Cirque du Soleil's insect world: Where Lady Gaga's egg would fit right in

Inside Ovo, Cirque du Soleil's insect world: Where Lady Gaga's egg would fit right in

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It's not easy to be a spider. But in "Ovo", you can steal the show. Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
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Performers interacting on and with the wall is an Ovo showstopper and a Deborah Corker signature. Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
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Spandex shine and giant cricket shoes: Cirque's costume room is a world of its own. Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
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The crickets/tramplolinists warm up. Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
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Practicing with the wall. Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
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Driving up to the Cirque du Soleil location in Frisco, north of Dallas, I had no idea what to expect until a giant blue and yellow striped tent emerged in view like a fantasy world Ikea. I was headed backstage for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the new touring show Ovo, an energy-filled glimpse inside a world of insects by Brazilian director Deborah Colker, which opens in Houston at Sam Houston Race Park on March 10.

As a total Cirque newbie I was struck nearly speechless. After navigating the maze of trailers, I found myself backstage under the big top. Part costume closet, part warmup gym and part lounge, the open space hums quietly with activity. A dozen enormous cricket legs hang from the ceiling, a few performers stretch on the gymnastic equipment, and one naps obliviously as I sit down across from him with artistic director Marjon Van Grunsven.

"This is the first show where there are no humans — every single artist is an insect," Van Grunsven says. "They've worked very hard on trying to find their vocabulary of movement, which is different for each family. So we have crickets that have to move like crickets. We have spiders that are a bit more flexible than the crickets so they have to move a little differently, perhaps more elegant.

"And then we have a foreigner that comes in with this enormous, mysterious egg, and the egg represents life. Ovo is Portuguese for egg. So it represents making love, finding love. And he comes into the community and gets their attention, but at the same time they don't necessarily understand it, and they steal it. So he's searching for his egg but also for love."

Van Grunsven says she watches the show as often from possible from different angles, and is always surprised to see the show evolve and discover new details.

"One note I was giving, for example, I was watching from the very front on the side, and there's a part where the egg rolls and it looks like it's about to roll off into the audience, before it's caught by a cricket. And he caught it and licked it and then made this face like it tasted bad and it was so cute! Such a great little detail.

"So I told the artist after the show that I thought it was brilliant, and he said he'd been doing that since the beginning. There's just so much to take in I see new things every time."

I head out to the seats in front of the stage, where the Russian trapeze artists are training a new member to replace a retiring member. Cirque members often describe themselves as a family, since they travel, live and work together, but backstage it's also a little like a very flexible United Nations, with different languages being spoken and performers from their teens to their fifties working together.

One such performer is Lee Brearley, who competed in the Olympics for Great Britain as a trampolinist before joining Cirque. In Ovo, he plays a cricket as well as a crowd-favorite insect called Creatura, a giant slinky-like being that expands, contracts and folds over on itself.

"It's a bit of an adjustment to come from sport, where you are trained to always have your toes pointed and everything perfect," Brearley says. "Performing in this show as an artist is different, because it's supposed to be more rough because that's more like nature."

Behind us six tiny Asian gymnasts review video of their last performance before moving to the mat to practice their drum-balancing moves (they toss them back, forth and around with their feet as effortlessly as a guy named Luigi tosses pizza dough). Across from them the contortionists begin to stretch on their equipment.

I peek into the packed costume room, where elaborate, hoof-like sneakers line the floor, an array of sparkly spandex fills the racks (performers are constantly tearing them with their movements) and the makeup artist is going over the proper application with one of the performers.

It's all very exciting and intense, seeing the costumes and the artists and the sets. But now I want to put it all together. I want to see the show.