Cirque du Soleil
Artistic Director
Marjon Van Grunsven

“Music needs to support
the visual, but music also
needs to caress the soul.
Visual and audio;
one cannot go
without the other.”

The Cirque Come to Town

Marjon Van Grunsven

by Andrew Elias

FORMED IN 1984 by a group of 20 street perfromers, Cirque du Soileil is celebrating their 25th anniversary, bringing their 25th production and newest arena show, ‘Ovo’ to the Germain Arena in Estero, September 28-October 2.

Ovo means ‘egg’ in Portuguese, a timeless symbol of birth and the cycle of life.

‘Ovo’ dives into a colorful ecosystem inhabited by incredible insects working, playing, fighting, and looking for love in the astounding gumbo of music, sound effects, acrobatics, lighting, and costume and set design that has earned worldwide acclaim for Cirque du Soleil.

I asked Cirque du Soleil’s Marjon Van Grunsven, Artistic Director of ‘Ovo,’ about the creation, production and performance of ‘Ovo.’

How long does it usually take to bring a show like 'OVO' from conception to opening night? What inspired the theme of the 'OVO' and what is the message?

Marjon Van Grunsven: Every creation has a different process. For ‘OVO,’ Guy Laliberte came up with the idea to create a show inspired by insects in 2007, when he met Deborah Colker (Stage Director & Choreographer) and saw some of her work in Brazil. He appointed Chantal Tremblay as the Director of Creation. She then recruited the entire creative team: Set Designer Gringo Cardia, Composer Berna Ceppas, Costume Designer Liz Vandal, Make-Up Designer Julie Begin, Acrobatic Designer Philippe Aubertin, Lighting Designer Eric Champoux, Sound Designer Jonathan Deans, and Acrobatic Equipment Designer Fred Gerard

This team came together in late 2007/early 2008 to start brainstorming about the show behind closed doors. Storyboards were created and soon it became clear that the inspiration of the world of insects and insects themselves were fabulous material to work with. What was clear was that the show was going to be full of colorful costumes and energetic and uplifting Brazilian live music.

It was to become a happy and joyful show for young and old, a true family show, a show full of movement and crawling creatures featuring nine incredible acrobatic acts like the ones you can expect from a Cirque du Soleil show, supporting a love story between a ladybug and a fly. Many workshops were held in Montreal to research movement and acrobatic material that could be used for the show.

The casting of the 54 artists originally recruited for the Big Top version of ‘OVO’ started in September of 2008. The cast arrived in Montreal at our Headquarters where rehearsals and trainings started.

In March of 2009, we moved rehearsals and stagings into the Big Top in the Old Port of Montreal, where we had our soft opening on April 23, 2009. Our world premiere was on May 8, 2009.

The artistic Team (Artistic Director, Stage Management, Coaching, Performance Medicine, Wardrobe) were recruited in the fall of 2008 and started working at the end of 2008. This is the team that was given the show on May 9, 2009 to guide it daily under the direction of the Artistic Director (myself), until today.

What is the role of the Sound Designer and how does he (Jonathan Deans) work with the Musical Director (Berna Ceppas)?

Jonathan’s role is to create the most beautiful sound in the house we play. This is a very challenging task as each arena is different and when we’re in the Big Top the challenge was to make the sound as good as when you are inside a concrete building. Our show works a lot with sound effects and surround sounds. In the music we have live music played over a specially designed sequence which will give the audience a feeling that they are transformed into a different world. All the while we can hear the sound of insects all around us.

In the creation stage of our show, Jonathan and Berna worked closely together to ensure that the musical intent came out at its best. For this, Jonathan needed to understand the composition of Berna’s music and Berna needed to understand the limitations or possibilities of the sound design.

What are the roles of the Rigging & Acrobatic Equipment Designer (Fred Gerard) and Acrobatic Performance Designer (Philippe Aubertin)?

Fred designed all of our acrobatic equipment. Since our show plays inside a world of nature, every apparatus needed to ‘fit’ and‘ match’ this world. It was a great challenge where many ideas were created, to finally edit to the best designs that were both beautiful to watch, safe and functional for the artists and acrobats to work with. Philippe’s work is like that of a choreographer, but for acrobatic movement and tricks. He was there to ensure safety for the acrobats. Sometimes Deborah would want to see something she had in her mind that would be acrobatically simply impossible — or the other way around; she would come up with a vision that Philippe would then be able to translate to acrobatics. For example, if she wanted a vine of a water plant to be converted into an acrobatic hand balance structure, Fred would try to make it happen and he succeeded almost all of the time!

Philippe also created a vision for the evolution of each acrobatic act in the show. This way, the artistic team had clear objectives as to how to work and continue to evolve our acrobatics of the show.

Are the acrobatics choreographed to music or is the music composed for the acrobatics?

That’s great question! Not an easy one either. Sometimes we would create music, and try to fit acrobatics and movement to it, and it wouldn’t work at all! It would be either too soft or too loud, or there wouldn’t be enough dynamic, making it is distraction for the artists. Music needs to support the visual, but music also needs to caress the soul. Visual and audio; one cannot go without the other. So to answer this question most accurately, the music and the acts were created simultaneously and through trial and error became what we hear and see today.

A Cirque du Soleil show is constantly evolving. This goes for the acts as well as for the music. Today, seven years after we first opened our show, we have been able to evolve the music so as to support the acts better each day.

Deborah’s says, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ I believe this is a very good example of using this saying.

Why did you choose Latin musics to score 'OVO'?

Because it is fun and uplifting and it makes you want to jump out of your chair and dance! That is exactly what Deborah wanted specifically because it is very different from any of our other shows at Cirque.

How were you inspired by and employed biomimicry in the costume design?

This is a question for Liz (Costume Designer Liz Vandal), but I can share some of what she has shared in past interviews. Liz has a signature style inspired by futuristic superheroes and by suits of armour from all eras. These two sources inform her designs for the ‘OVO’ costumes. Flattering lines and an elongated, corseted look are a nod to the world of super heroes, while the segmented shells on many of the garments alternate between hard and soft, much like the armour and the bodies of knights in the Renaissance.

Liz took her inspiration from many sources, including certain fashion designers such as Pierre Cardin, who focused on graphic lines and geometric shapes. She was also inspired by the slashed sleeves of Renaissance garments.

Liz and her team in the costume shop have exploited the permanent pleating technique developed by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, which gives a certain rigidity to material and creates an organic effect. “We pushed this technique even further,” she says, “by printing on colored materials, sublimation and eroding the fabric not only to stiffen it, but also to give it a metallic sheen.”

Can you say something about The Egg and the giant mechanical Flower featured in 'OVO'?

The egg portrays the mystery of life, represents reproduction and love. It is a simple reminder to all of us that we are living on this earth full of beautiful creatures, colors and most of all love.

How much time do performers devote to training, practice and rehearsals?

Our acrobatic performers train an average of three hours a day. Our character/clowns practice about an hour each day. Our musicians practice an average of three hours a day. Rehearsals happen when I call them, which is daily, but some are big, with the entire cast and crew and happen on stage, and some are small and can happen backstage. In essence, we are always working and practicing and evolving our show. Except on Mondays and Tuesdays, when we travel to the next city and set up our set and offices in the next arena.

How and where do you recruit performers ?

Cirque du Soleil has a large casting department in our headquarters in Montreal. Together with this department, and our coaches and artistic directors, we cast depending on the needs of our show. We have talent scouts traveling the world to discover new talent for our new creations and projects and sometimes for our existing shows.

The bank of candidates is very large and all candidates are selected under very high standards and through very intense selection procedures. We wish to present the best of the best in the world. Acrobatic competitions as well as Olympics are closely followed and visited by our recruiters all year long. The Artistic Director on the show, together with his or her Head Coach, will make the final choices when casting for a role is close to being finalized. •

September-October 2016