News Column

Cirque du Soleil Getting Antsy for New Show

Jan. 23, 2012

Rob Lowman

After Sunday, Cirque du Soleil's "Iris" at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood will take a two-month break to make way for the Oscar ceremony.

But fans of colorful high-flying acrobats, contortionists and clowns have nothing to worry about.

Starting tonight comes "Ovo" -- the latest tent show from the famed French-Canadian circus. Call it bugs' lives. There will be grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, a whole ecosystem of insects crawling, gyrating and buzzing under the yellow-and-blue big top on the sands by the Santa Monica Pier.

Meanwhile, coming to the Honda Center on Tuesday and then

to Staples Center starting Jan. 27 is "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour," a production, which recently opened in Las Vegas, that filters the King of Pop's music and choreography through Cirque's unique slant.

Having done shows on Elvis Presley and the Beatles, a Jackson extravaganza is right up Cirque's alley.

Insects, that's something else.

If you're like me and see a spider scurrying across your bedding, your inclination might be to grab a newspaper and have a whack at it. That said, even the costumes for "Ovo" look pretty cute, and that includes the mosquito, and I really hate mosquitoes.

"The whole team worked like ants building an anthill," says costume designer Liz Vandal, using a buggy analogy about the creation of "Ovo" (the word means egg, in Portuguese).

The show's insects, of course, are the colorfully clad human performers and one thing Vandal -- who has designed costumes for dance, opera and film -- had to keep in mind, was movement.

"Contortionists have to be able to move in every direction," notes the Montreal native, who was enjoying a day in Santa Monica when we talked. So Vandal based her costumes for the show on the stretchiness of the fabrics, some of which she created from scratch.

Another challenge was for the fabrics to maintain their detail and beauty even as the acrobats were going through their paces. One scene, for instance, combines a trampolinelike floor and a climbing wall, which a New York Times review called dazzling.

"The fabrics for the crickets look like muscles," says Vandal, who says the chirpers are her favorites. "They have pleats in order to move with the body in the extreme purposes."

As a kid, Vandal wanted to be a dancer; then she wanted to go into fashion design. But her parents were pragmatic, she says, and didn't believe she could make a living at it.

So she studied computer science in college, but soon after graduating started working toward combining her youthful loves, which she has been doing for more than 20 years.

Vandal started her own company, and over the years had a number of successes with various productions. The designer had flirted with working with Cirque for a decade before coming on board for "Ovo" in 2008.

Vandal says she wasn't sure she was ready before then.

"You might be there to design but they will squeeze you like lemon because that's why you are there -- you're good and they want the best of you," she says. "So it was an intense year of giving the best of myself."

In some ways it may have been destiny, because Vandal has been fascinated with insects since she was a kid.

She says Cirque's instructions to her were, "innovation not imitation and that was a pretty big directive.

"So instead of studying them, I closed my eyes and think, 'I'm a spider. What would I look like?' And I had these feelings of elegance and shiftiness, a long-limbed woman moving a certain way."

Vandal does get a lot of her inspiration from nature, but sometimes it's from things unexpected -- like the eyes of a dragonfly.

"I play around with pictures of the infinitely small and the infinitely big," she says.

Surprisingly, despite her background Vandal doesn't design on a computer. In fact, she doesn't usually even draw the designs. Instead, she works with fabrics on a mannequin.

It took about a year for her to create the 15 types of insects in "Ovo," including crickets, ants, butterflies, fleas, wood insects, spiders, a mosquito, a dragonfly, a ladybug and a fly. Each acrobat has three or four costumes, with the more elaborate ones used for the showy numbers and the stripped-down ones for the acrobatics.

Vandal has created some fabulous costumes inspired by superheroes and medieval armor for dance performances and operas. But what about her own outfits?

"People always ask me if I designed something I'm wearing. I go to secondhand stores. The pants I'm wearing now are beautiful but they cost four dollars."

Source: (c) 2012 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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