Keeping a spring in their steps High-flying, tumbling stars of Cirque du Soleil’s insect-themed OVO would never dream of scrimping on training and preparation
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The morning of a Cirque du Soleil show resembles a game-day practice before a hockey game, and in the case of OVO at the Canada Life Centre on Wednesday morning, the venue was the same.
Watching the group of crickets — gymnasts, tumblers and trampolinists play the springy insects in the show — stretching and chatting in various languages prior to their rehearsal is a master class in getting your body ready for the rigours of the day as well as building the teamwork necessary to make the night’s main event a success.
It’s a beehive of activity, apropos for a show with an insect theme. Come showtime Wednesday evening, the performers will switch from their morning workout togs into lavish costumes with antennae and wings, transforming into creepy crawlies that star in a seven-show run that winds up with two shows today and two more Sunday.
In the backstage workout area, a long, thick rubber band descends from a 10-metre steel rigging and performers use it to aid their stretching and as a grip for the first of the day’s many flips and twists.
Elsewhere in the warm-up space is a trampoline, and early bounces by performers send them soaring as high as the towering steel rigging, foreshadowing some of OVO’s most dazzling moments.
Every four years, a couple of days of trampolining and tumbling competitions bring acrobatic magic to the Olympic Games, but at Canada Life Centre this week, aerial manouevres are just part of a daily routine for those who combine athletic prowess with an artist’s grace.
For one of the tumblers, Kilian Mongey, who competed for France before reaching his ultimate goal in 2016 — joining Cirque du Soleil — keeping his muscles and ligaments in top shape is just as important for his livelihood as it is for any million-dollar hockey star, perhaps even more so.
“I try not to think about it, but I know (injuries are) an eventuality. It happens because it’s a dangerous job,” he says.
After their lengthy warm-up session, the crickets leave the space and begin their rehearsals on a stage set up on the arena floor. The trip there passes a room where two Cirque physiotherapists work — “they know our bodies, we know our bodies,” Mongey says — and the artistic director’s office.
Colourful costumes and weird looking footwear have replaced the hockey sweaters, shoulder pads and shin guards in the Manitoba Moose dressing room, where three costumers work furiously to repair a clothing rack full of garments with broken seams and tears from OVO’s previous stop in Saskatoon.
The stage emerges a few steps further, past some of the giant eggs and boulders that serve as set decoration for the show.
A long strip of the stage protrudes into where some of the audience will sit during seven shows, allowing tumblers and gymnasts to build up a head of steam prior to liftoff and a host of aerial manoeuvres. Particularly good ones landed in rehearsal on Wednesday elicit cheers from fellow team members.
Behind them is an nine-metre climbing wall set up beside two large trampolines — the equipment will get their own jungle-like costumes come showtime — and Cirque artists plummet and flip from the top off the wall to the trampoline and bound up to the top again or use their momentum to walk up the wall to the top or sideways to leap to another trampoline.
All this looks so effortless, but their skill hides the thousands of hours of training and learning from mistakes that are the foundation of all this mastery.
“All the skills, we acquired them pre-Cirque and now the hard part is to synchronize everything. We have to trust each other,” Mongey says. “We need to co-ordinate because what we do on stage is pretty dangerous.
“We go through I don’t know how many times in training… it’s very long but we need that security in our mind to be OK that I trust this guy, I know what he’s going to do, I know if I go under him he goes high enough.”
The COVID-19 pandemic kept OVO and all other Cirque du Soleil touring shows off the road since March 2020 and sent the Montreal-based company into bankruptcy protection in Canada and the United States.
Mongey, who first caught the Cirque bug when he saw a show in Paris when he was 11, was confident Cirque would return one day. The time away from doing their aerial tricks was a challenge.
”The pandemic was a hard time for us. We all love performing, that’s what we do for a living and (we love) the adrenaline of it,” he says.
The performers spent three months to prepare for the 2022 tour, and Mongey remembers the aches and pains of getting back in OVO mode.
“Oh yeah, it was hard,” he says with a groan. “Although we kept training on the side, I was running and all that, it doesn’t (equate) to when we go on stage.”
For OVO artistic director Fabrice Lemire, who has been with Cirque du Soleil since 2008 and has directed six other Cirque shows in his career, returning to the road after pandemic limbo is like going home.
“Personally I did not wait around during the pandemic, I had no choice but to be creative, think outside the box and get back on my feet and work no matter what the job was to get by,” says Lemire, a former ballet dancer and ballet master who is from Paris.
“Some of the lessons I learned during the pandemic were not to put all your eggs in one basket not to feel sorry for myself and that I am a survivor.”
New performers have joined OVO since it returned to the road in February — 52 of the 100 members of OVO’s cast and crew are artists — and he’s had to make minor adjustments to the choreography to fit their strengths and weaknesses, Lemire says.
“Each time a new artist joins a show or a new discipline is added to an existing product we have an opportunity to revisit the meaning of the story,” he says.
“It is also very important to me to regularly push our artists to explore their craft outside their comfort zone and to keep pushing forward. Like (opera singer) Jessye Norman used to say, ‘Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.’”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.