'OVO' Makes a Buzz in the Motor City

Marjon Van Grunsven: Artistic Director On a New Cirque du Soleil and Acceptance

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Marjon Van Grunsven

After performing under the big top for nearly seven years, Cirque du Soleil's "OVO" returns to Detroit transformed in its new arena format.

Artistic Director Marjon Van Grunsven believes the show - complete with acts of hand balancing, foot juggling, aerial acrobatics, contortion, slackwiring, dancing, and trampolining - is "better than ever before," featuring 50 cast members from 17 different countries.

The production, dreamt up by Brazilian movement director Deborah Colker, will be presented at the Joe Louis Arena Dec. 22-25 for six performances only, as part of a global tour in arenas around North America. Colker is the first woman in Cirque du Soleil's 32-year history to craft an entire production from the ground up, from creation and direction to choreography.

"OVO," meaning "egg" in Portuguese, is described by the company as "a headlong rush into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work, eat, crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for love in a non-stop riot of energy and movement."

In April 2007, Grunsven, a native of the Netherlands, joined Cirque du Soleil and toured as artistic director of the company's first arena show, "Delirium," until it closed in 2008. Then, she was hired as the artistic director of "OVO" and took the show on tour under the big top in 2009 until its closing in 2015. She went on to work as the artistic director for "Quidam" until 2016 before resuming her role with the insect-inspired "OVO."

Grunsven has traveled the globe working as a professional dancer, teacher, choreographer, producer, and a certified pilates instructor. She shares with BTL her experiences working with Cirque du Soleil, how being a part of the LGBT community influences her work, and what was involved in the rewriting of the "OVO" script for an arena format.

When you learned Cirque du Soleil was changing to an arena format, did you already know what you would do differently?

Yes! This is like the greatest question you can get as an artistic director. I look and watch and there are often moments I say I wish I could change that or do this differently, but there's never time when you're on tour. You can make small changes, but not big ones. And then I thought, the show is very intimate in a tent, people sit close to it, they feel close to the artists. The arena is such a large environment so when we change the stage and use a bigger one, I wanted to add projection so when sitting far away, you still feel close because it's such a large set to look at. Then I thought, let's put props inside the house and bring artists on the floor at moments. We have changed the pacing of the show, too. The first and second half are now 50 minutes each instead of 60. It goes faster. There's no time to be bored, really.

There are three characters who really tell the story, the clowns. I dissected their stories, which weren't very many, but they were long, so I said let's see if we can make them shorter and have them appear more frequently in the show so they are constantly involved. We changed the acrobatic acts. The original flying or cradle act was too difficult technically to bring up in the air in the arena. So we took an act that used to be in one of our previous shows, "Corteo," and reworked this act into our show and brought another completely different act that tells a love story between two butterflies. This entailed changing music and costumes. Just a few, but it's been great.

We started working on that at the end of 2015 into 2016 and started staging in March and premiered in April. In that moment, it wasn't quite finished yet, but we needed to open the show. And it was really, really hard with the challenges of being on tour to actually make changes, but we did it and I'm very thrilled with the results. It's absolutely exciting and so stunning visually. It's beautiful.

In what way has your approach to Cirque du Soleil shows changed?

I'm just so touched by the eclecticism of the performers, the technicians, musicians, the story, set design - everything that comes together to create magic. We enjoy every second of what we do and you really feel it as an audience. You just get sucked into it. Each show is different, but the goal is the same - trying to create a memento for your audience, something they will never forget. We have 19 shows now. There are more people involved, more creators. Sometimes it had to go fast and feels rushed, but we put the best people in place to get the best quality on stage every day. In that sense, technology has changed. The competition is completely different than back in the day when we were the only one doing what we did. Many companies in the entertainment field are trying to do the same things. We are challenged all the time and have to try and be better all the time. And we have to learn from our mistakes. We're not the only one doing what we do anymore. Things don't always work and we have to go back to the drawing board. At the same time the creative process is still the same. We just have a lot more because a lot more is going on at the same time.

What is one of your greatest challenges as an artistic director?

To help artists become their characters. Some have theater experience. Some artists come to us completely new, having competed as athletes in the Olympics or as acrobats, for example, and have no clue what it means to be an artist. My task is to tell them what the story is about, what it should be like for them and for the audience as an experience. It takes time to sit with them, play with them, workshop with them, rehearse, give them notes, or watch videos of the night before together. Slowly, but surely, they completely get sucked into the story and become artists. It takes time, attention and focus as an artistic director to find ways to inspire them. Each one is different. I have to get to know them a little bit more to come out of their shell, let's say. But when that happens, they see their colleagues doing it and want to be like them. It's just fantastic.

How do you explain the message behind "OVO"?

It's interesting because we can go very deep or stay very simple. It's a simple show in the sense that what you see is what you get. It's inspired by the real, actual life of insects. It's a story about love - simple - a ladybug falls in love with a fly, which is absolutely a fantasy of course, but what I love about it. Then you can go into the deeper message of it - it can be about acceptance; when you see the ladybug she's so different. She's so large and happy and great and fantastic. The fly is this really clumsy, tall, skinny dude - kind of - that comes in from another community of insects. Nobody in the community of insects he visits at first accepts him in it or accepts the fact that he likes their sister, the ladybug, so he has to go through all these adventures and tests to prove he's worth the love of the ladybug. And of course, it's a happy ending and everybody opens their insect arms, let's say, to him and welcomes him into the community. They fall in love and it's great. It's simple, it's funny and it's cute and it's really a nice twist on acceptance in real life. It's a fantastic story that tells you that love is important and acceptance is important. And mostly, to have fun is really important, too, so I think that's the simple message of our show.

As a member of the LGBT community, how important is the message of acceptance?

Well, I was married to a woman for several years so for me, for example, if we go on that side of the story - I'm open to anything: man, woman, dark, light, tall, skinny - for me it's very important to allow yourself to be connected to whatever you encounter on your path. This is something that I do translate into my work as well. The team, staff, cast - everyone is equal. I don't treat any one person different than the other. Everyone should be respectful of each other's cultures and their values and allow time to get to know those and then work with those. When you succeed to create such an environment it can absolutely be very creative and innovative after that. Does it necessarily bring with me the community of lesbian and gay or straight people? I don't think of that all the time consciously, you know? I think it relates and it's just very recognizable for this community and I think our insect community is a perfect example, exactly portraying that. They're all different, but they all live together and they all accept each other and they all fight with each other, but then move on like a family. I think it's really great.

Following a tumultuous post-election period, how important is it for our community to come together through art to support different cultural experiences and perspectives?

This is breaking my heart. What a disaster. I'm not totally into politics that much, but if I think back to what I just told you - if we did not have art, the nation would simply die. Artists are able to express their inner emotions and opinions in a way that really does open one's mind if you are open to it. I hope that this new leader that is being put into position is going to continue to stimulate this form of life as I like to refer to it. And if he does not, then I think lots of riots will erupt on Earth because being an artist is something that human beings are born with. It always existed. This could turn into a very exciting period of our lives if he doesn't support it and stops people entering into the country and therefore stops the multicultural exchange that we worked so hard to establish and be open to. We're going to have a big problem, but I also have great faith in the artists of this world that they will fight and they will be heard and art is going to be even stronger than it was before. I like to see the positive and optimistic side of things. Artists will never be put down and be made quiet or be told that they have to be silent. They will, in fact, get even more creative. No matter what happens, we're going to be OK.

Give a standing ovation for "OVO" when it runs through Dec. 25 at the Joe Louis Arena located at 19 Steve Yzerman Drive, Detroit. Visit Cirque du Soleil online for details and tickets which start at $44.
  • Latest News

Enter To Win

Enter contests to win great prizes like CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and more

Special Section: World AIDS Day
Rising Above

Activist Cleve Jones has lived an extraordinary life, filled with world-changing friends and figureheads from Harvey Milk to Dustin Lance Black.

View More World AIDS Day
This Week's Issue

Download or view this week's print issue today!