By Howard Pousner
Amazing but true: Before Deborah Colker was recruited to create “Ovo,” she had never seen a performance of Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based juggernaut that has transformed not only the circus world but also performing arts around the world since launching in 1984.
Admittedly, the Rio de Janeiro choreographer has been a little busy. Since 1994, she’s run her own contemporary dance company, Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker, which has toured South America, Europe and Asia and concluded a run at Washington’s Kennedy Center on Saturday.
In fact, it was the sometimes gravity-defying physicality and overt passion of her troupe’s work that led Gilles Ste-Croix, Cirque’s vice president of creation, to approach Colker after seeing it perform at London’s Barbican in 2006. The choreographer was astonished but game, signing on to become the first woman to create a Cirque show in the company’s 25-year history.
“Ovo” (Portuguese for egg) is set in the kingdom of vibrantly colored insects and transpires during a single day under a magnifying glass. Since premiering in May 2009, it’s won kudos for its hot Brazilian shadings and for boasting a more coherent story line than most of Cirque’s recent tour shows.
Before “Ovo” opens under the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau (big top) at Atlantic Station today, we reached Colker, who speaks in a Portuguese accent as strong as caipirinha. She was completing a mad last day of rehearsals in Rio before jumping on a jet to Washington.
On her reaction to being recruited by Cirque: “I was so surprised. And I didn’t understand. I said, ‘You want me to choreograph a show? What is it exactly?’ And [Gilles] said, ‘No, no, no, we want you to create a show for us!’
“[In 2007], they told me the subject: Guy [Laliberté, Cirque CEO] wanted a show about nature, about biodiversity, and that’s it. Oh, and it needs to be in the tent.
“He told me, ‘You must do a great show,’ and that he was very excited. He said, ‘Usually this show will stay around the world for 15 years, and it’s for grandmothers, grandfathers, adults, children, everybody and every different culture.’
“I said, ‘OK, I have to think about it.’ ”
On how she decided to focus on insects: “I came back to Brazil, and I began to work with the insect world because of the relationship between the acrobats and insects. All the insects have six legs, only the spiders have eight. I thought, oh, the insects have many legs, and the acrobats, they’re not normal human beings. It’s like they have more legs, more arms than everybody. Acrobats really can fly, climb walls, they can jump, they can walk down the floor. And with this, I really began the idea of ‘Ovo.’ ”
On what else she likes about bugs: “Insects really can subvert totally the space. They play with gravity, for example. And this is something as a choreographer that always interests me. The way they can fly, their different dynamics of movement.
“Also, because I live in the city, I used to love to go to the country … to be in touch with nature, with the earth. And in these places, we can find many different flowers and insects.”
On determining the personalities of her insect stars: “I tried to give each family of insects personality, feelings and a way of moving. Because it’s a story, to bring emotion and feeling for this show, it was necessary to give them different personalities.
“I created this together with my team, including the costume designer; how the fleas they will be more adolescent and more sexy. … The ants will be the children of our community. And we have one chief, the ladybug, who is the lonely one. She doesn’t have a family and she’s waiting for someone; she’s waiting for one love.”
On the Brazilian vibe that spices “Ovo”: “I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I will create something Brazilian’ or ‘I want to make this show a Brazilian show.’ I didn’t use any folklore, I didn’t use any labels, any Brazilian codes. I didn’t think about Brazil, but I am Brazilian. My experiences are here, my background is Brazilian, my breathing is Brazilian, my inspiration is Brazilian.”
On the enigmatic symbolism of the recurring large egg on stage: “The egg for me is something very important: The egg is the enigma, the metaphor of life. We don’t know exactly about life, what comes before. We have the joke: ‘What comes before, the egg or the chicken?’ Also the egg is so aesthetic.”
On the importance of telling a full story: “Sometimes what happens is [Cirque shows] have a name and a theme, but during the show I lose the story and it’s more dealing with the [acrobatic] numbers, not a whole show.
“I didn’t want to do that. If my show will have a subject, will have a name, I want to have a story that everybody will understand. It’s very simple: It’s a love story, it’s an egg story, and it’s really easy to connect with the story.
“The audience can choose how many metaphors they will connect with, they will find.”
On making the various acts cohere rather than stand out individually: “I tried to convince all my artists on the stage with me that we will be a journey. And it’s not about each number: ‘My number is this and then another number is that.’
“No, I say to everybody, ‘Let’s bring the audience together with us inside a journey. When we finish one number, it’s the beginning of another one. Let’s try fusion. Let’s try to be inside the community of insects.’”
On choosing acrobats to dance instead of vice versa: “Cirque asked me if I wanted to have many dancers on the stage. I answered no. I said I wanted to have high-level, Cirque-level acrobats on my stage, and I will make them dance.”
On how that worked out: “[Audience members and critics] have said that the performers were amazing on the stage. And I was very happy with this, because it’s not easy to make Russian traditional acrobats and Chinese acrobats dance. I think some of them [dance] more, some of them less.
“But the dance is printed on the show, because I think through movement. I think we can see and recognize that it’s a Cirque show directed by Deborah Colker, who is a choreographer, understand?”
“Ovo,” Cirque du Soleil
Opens Nov. 4 under the big top at Atlantic Station. Tickets available through Dec. 5, but run expected to be extended through Jan. 2.
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. $35-$255. 1-800-450-1480, www.cirquedusoleil.com.
Cirque by the numbers
Here’s a look at how the fun of Cirque du Soleil’s 25th production in 25 years adds up:
performing artists from 16 countries
feet in the air that six trapeze artists fly in a 66-foot-high tent
tons — equipment hauled in 51 trailers
crickets, largest insect group onstage
ladybug, smallest insect group onstage
height in feet of wall that 20 artists leap to the top of (without support), run and walk across, in final act
Cirque shows, including “Ovo,” performed in Atlanta since 1991