Thursday, December 03, 2009

Reviewing Cirque du Soleil OVO: Circus and Music Soar; Storyline Lays an Egg

Out of the past: From December 3, 2009

Review of OVO from Cirque du Soleil

San Francisco, November 29
Tickets: $65.00-$250.00

Bravo, bugs of the big top!

The “wow” factor of authentic circus is abundantly on display at this latest offering from Cirque du Soleil. OVO is a brilliantly scored work of cold seductive power, perhaps a little too cold and faceless for some, that just misses the mark of a true masterpiece, blame a fatally directed second half.

The stage seems to be set, pre show, with the entrance of figures in protective gear and gadgets, wandering slowly, apprehensively into a tent of gigantic cobwebs and wild nocturnal sounds of nature. Are they agents on a mission to suppress or eradicate creepy crawly things? Oddly, the atmosphere begins to feel more like an outer space spook show. This could be fun. Certainly, the bizarre costumes prove to be. According to program notes, insects will “crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for work.” They will also perform circus tricks that will make you quicky forget that they are bugs from a “colorful ecosystem teaming with life.”

But those intriguing agents in protective gear never return. And there goes a promising comedic conflict. A huge egg surfaces, causing confusion and excitement among ants and crickets, scrabs and spiders. Will it eventually crack wide open? Out of it, what might appear? While you wait to find out, settle back, turn your brain off to narrative nonsense, and hold your cockroaches: A circus is coming! This one packs riveting artistry drawn from China, Russia, Europe, and the Ukraine, much of it, no doubt, shaped, badgered, honed and polished to incredible new heights by the demanding masters of matriculation up in Montreal, to whom I toss flu-free kisses.

From China, six young girls — Han Jing, Su Shan, Wang Shaohua, Zhu Ring, Pei Xing and Kong Yufel — engage in foot juggling on their backsides, building up their agile executions while also juggling each other, and you’ll fall breathlessly in awe. Also from the Middle Kingdom, a young man named Li Wei works a wide ranging slack wire routine on a rig that elevates his latitude. He ends up riding a unicycle on his head! This cool “spider”will satisfy fans of a certain age who long for old-fashioned daredevilry. Wei has it. Go, China!

Other outstanding first-half features (really, there’s not a single weak act on the bill) include buoyantly lithe hand balancer Vladimir Hrynchenko, who begins his work with a series of sculptured slides down a spiraling pole. Lee Brearley’s squishy “Creatura Manipulation” is infinitely delightful. Adagio aerialists Maxim Kozlov and Inna Mayorova posture and float through increasingly complex patterns, hitting a lovely persuasive payoff. A diablo spun with effortless ease by Tony Frebourg delivers ok — from what I could see of the number — slivers of action disappeared behind a tent pole. Then there’s a knockout modern Russian flying act combining trapeze swing-outs with triumphant pole vaulting landings. It brings into the tent the largest spread of rigging that CDS has ever raised. And the nine flyers who perform it bring the first half to an exhilarating finish.

Now, onto a somewhat problematic second half. An “Acrosports” opener of dance and gymnastics presented by five women stirs up an easy breezy pleasure. Solid plus. Then comes the crack slack wire work of Lei Way, and after this, the first of two mood-melting detours. It arises out of an ongoing feud between three clowns, Joseph Collard, Francois-Guillame Leblanc, and Michelle Matlock, the latter, one of two cast members from the U.S. I must state here (CAVEAT) that I was viewing this all from a far seat and partially obstructed view – I could swear the Cirque ticket seller at the box office sold it to me using a misleading diagram. Anyway, I may have missed some humor in the bickering exchanges between the two male jesters, rendered sometimes in inaudible conversations and excessive facial expressions. All of which, to me, was like trying to watch a puppet show from a mile away. Their visual slapstick registered the best on my fickle tickle bone; I loved a sword fighting bit, pantomimed to sword-clashing sound effects — clever, charming, funny. Got that.

Now, as for all the other bits, too much of them rendered in minuscule body language — is this what they call “Frenchness”? They tried their hand at working the audience, too. One of them pulls from the front row a succession of female patrons, testing the sex appeal of each on his love-starved mate and getting back in return only contorted looks of rejection (he’s really got a thing for Lady Bug). Okay stuff, I suppose. But over all, their contributions, the work of David shiner, did not strike me, sitting up in the Gods, as clowning deluxe, and a circus of this glorious stature deserves clowning deluxe. Otto Griebling, come back! Hobo Ewrecktus needed to stir up fussy French nest. Fumagalli! Are you available?

Last act is one of the most thrilling things I have ever seen in any big top anywhere (I actually felt my spine tingling), to do it justice would take hundreds of words. They call it Wall and Trampoline. Suffice it to say that the eleven participants drawn from various European capitals contribute to this showstopping finale.

But, wait ... That’s not the end. OVO has more, which proves to be incredibly anti-climactic, blame director-writer Deborah Colker, who also serves as her own choreographer. Colker, who in a program message thanks her employer “for this unique opportunity to bring the world of circus and dance together” (hardly unique, Ms. Colker), blows her moment in the Cirque sun by bringing on a superfluous Latin-flavored ensemble dance number. It is simply inconceivable how any circus would not advance directly (as did Ringling so smartly in Boom A Ring) into a company chivari or bows, especially given the victorious climax they have just achieved. Nor does anything happen to that egg I told you about. It remained uncracked. Just a prop tease, I guess.

Production values are absolutely stellar, as always. Deserving top honors in this category is composer Berna Ceppas, whose score deftly interweaves new age with African drums. A recording of it should sell well and might earn a Grammy nomination. Marie-Claude Marchand’s soft, pensive vocals are unusually fine. I’ve never purchased a CD of a Cirque score; this time I may.

Overall, OVO’s terrifically staged acts and the deeply moving music that intimately addresses each leaves a searing artistic imprint. Then why did I leave feeling both astonished and a little emotionally empty? Was it that botched up ending that felt so unconsummated? The uncracked egg? Those strange, somewhat obtuse clowns? Sometimes great works of art are like that, like a night of unexpected love full of a primal force that is gone the next morning. Make no mistake, however, for anybody thinking that Cirque has flattened out or lost its way, go see OVO. Cirque King Guy Laliberte has not lost his touch. To the contrary, he may be getting better at it. Whether intended or not, against all of the competing subsidiary elements from atmosphere to dance to character-driven allusions to plot, it’s the circus in OVA that steals every step of the show and proves how very much alive circus art still is.

Overall rating (out of 4 stars) 3-1/2

[photos above from OVO program]


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