Lyn Gardner: In its 30-year history, Cirque du Soleil has laid plenty of golden eggs, making it one of the world’s most profitable live entertainment companies. But Ovo – named after the Portuguese for egg, and set in the insect world – is one that they weren’t keen on me cracking.
You can invite who you like to your own party, but it’s downright rude to extend an invitation, wait until it’s accepted and then tell your invitee that she won’t be welcome after all. That’s what happened to me, presumably because somebody finally got around to reading my one-star review of Cirque’s 2016 Tempest-themed love story, Amaluna, which I described as being as erotic as a wet wipe.
I know plenty of people who would quite happily pay to not sit through a Cirque du Soleil show. But despite the unbearable clowns (the pesky Ovo lot will have you putting the pest controller on speed dial) and the company’s penchant for draping high-class circus in rainbow-hued tat, I love the acts. It would be foolish to pretend that Cirque doesn’t showcase some of circus’s most skilled performers.
The critic Sanjoy Roy, who has never reviewed the company before, was approved for a press ticket for the show and the Guardian bought a ticket for me for £73, which offered a side view over the stage. That might disappoint some, but I found it added visual interest as you can better see the rigging and the technical setups. One of the things that normally makes Cirque so much less compelling than other circus is the way they try to disguise the mechanics of the medium, and overlay everything with so much tasteful window-dressing it diminishes the performers. It effectively turns them into highly skilled but emotionless automatons.
Ovo is no different in that respect. But perhaps that’s because this work was made way back in 2009 and is only getting its British premiere now. It’s less overblown and more unassuming than recent Cirque shows. Ovo tries less hard to impose meaning and narrative and simply uses the insect theme as a frame for a series of classy acts, including a thrilling aerial display of Russian cradle.
You can’t complain about lack of human engagement when a manipulation act involving foot-juggling outsize pieces of plastic kiwi fruit is apparently being performed by an army of red ants. Ants are not known for their displays of passion, but for their ruthless efficiency and teamwork. Which pretty well sums up Cirque, too. This is an impressive show, just not a warm, witty or particularly likable one. These five-star circus performers are trapped in a two-star aesthetic concept.
Sanjoy Roy: “You don’t see something like that every day,” said the four-year-old next to me to his mum. Indeed not: in Ovo, people ping off walls, fly through the air, twist themselves into pipe-cleaner shapes, and juggle each other – with their feet. And all dressed in insect outfits riotously decorated with various glitters, gauzes, panels and protuberances. Which bit, I asked the boy, did you like best? “All of it,” he said. “Everything.”
There is a lot to like when the show awakens your own inner four-year-old, open to amazement and sensation but not too bothered by sense or story. Rubber-spined Kyle Cragle (a dragonfly) balances on one hand atop a climbing frame, his pelvis tilting and legs splaying at impossible angles. Fellow contortionist Ariunsanaa Bataa (a white spider) braces her chin on a rotating rod and arches her back so far that her legs slope down past her face. You marvel – and also wince. There’s a giant, worm-limbed Slinky (Sergyi Rysenko), and a spiderman (Jianming Qiu) who rides a unicycle – upside down, on a rope 15ft above the ground. But, as ever, it’s the aerial acts that inspire the most wonder, whether through the swooping beauty of dancers swinging on ropes, the bouncy-flea somersaults of tumbling acrobats, or the vertiginous exactitude of flying trapeze artists. You think insects are strange? Look at these humans.
Where the show works less well is in the theatrical storyline that threads through the acts, featuring the eponymous egg, a bumbling beetle and a goofball fly who falls for a sassy ladybird. Never mind whether you find clowning intrinsically creepy, what bugged me was the comedy courtship, with its low-level male pestering and eye-fluttering female mock-outrage. The insect world is full of strange societies and marvellous mating rites, and resorting to such human stereotypes feels like a lack not just of consideration, but of imagination.
I can’t decide whether to give Ovo three or four stars. It’s directed by Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, whose penchant for physical risk and moveable sets, and whose background embracing contemporary dance, athletics, pop video and carnival parades, makes her a good fit for the circus company. And it is very much circus rather than theatre, much stronger on spectacle than drama. While grownups may yearn for more coherence or depth, four-year-olds will go away dreaming of flying.
• At the Royal Albert Hall, London, until 4 March. Box office: 020-7589 8212.