Cirque du Soleil | Tim Bennett, Artistic Director, Interview
The SSE Arena, Belfast • 17 October – 21 October 2018
Interview: Chantelle Frampton
It would be very difficult to find someone that has never heard of Cirque du Soleil. Their performances are renowned for being groundbreaking and innovative with their acrobatics and in-depth story telling.
The Cirque’s latest show entitled OVO, which means “egg” in Portuguese, follows the life of an insect colony whilst exploring themes such as social inclusion and the importance of our environment and smaller ecosystems.
OVO was originally created as a big-top show back in 2009; the show has expanded and has moved to arenas all over the world. We had a chat with Artistic Director Tim Bennett to explore OVO and Cirque du Soleil ahead of their Belfast show in October.
There is a huge number of people that work with Cirque du Soleil and allow it to be as successful as they are. What does your role of Artistic Director entail?
The role of artistic director is to take care of the artistic aspects of the show, so the result is the show stays as new, fresh and exciting as the day that it opened. So, day to day I do anything that needs to be done in terms of looking after all of the artists, the artistic staff, the stage managers, the coaches are managed by me. I run rehearsals, oversee the training programmes and give notes and then I also handle the administrative side of that. Things like replacing people, handling injuries and all those sorts of things.
You mentioned that you like to keep the show fresh. Would there be huge differences from one show to the next?
It is a little different, for a couple of reasons. One, we’ll occasionally be replacing acts, so acts will change, and the acts take quite a while to evolve and settle. We will also have injuries at different points, so a performance will need to be replaced and it will change. We also run for such a long time, the performers will like to evolve things and challenge themselves in new ways, so the show really is constantly evolving.
Cirque du Soleil is the crème de la crème of acrobatics. What is it that differentiates someone from being a good performer to being Cirque du Soleil standard?
There’s a couple of things. One is the technical level of acrobats that we have are the cream of the crop. The other thing about Cirque is that when an audience member walks in to the arena or the tent they are transported into a different world and the set design, the costumes, the makeup and the story and vibe transports you to a different place. All the performers as well as being acrobats are also characters and instead of calling them acrobats or athletes we call them artists. They create characters and stories so in addition to the jaw dropping acrobatics the performance and the experience is something that people have never seen.
A lot of people would be quite squeamish when it comes to insects. What is the significance of choosing to do a show based around them?
When this show was created it was the 25th anniversary production and the team wanted to do something that was earth friendly and environmentally sensitive and supportive. When they brainstormed what this new world would be they thought “let’s do insects”. They’re close to the earth and they’re a key part of the environment. With the Cirque every show tries to create a new world; they created a colony of insects. Each creature is based on an insect and they’re wildly re-imagined with the costumes and the makeup. Each act is based on in some way what that insect would do. For example, the crickets – a real cricket can jump 800 times its height, so the thinking was what acrobatic act could incorporate this jump. So, this became a trampoline wall act. It’s an amazing act, its really unbelievable.
There is so much more awareness when it comes to wildlife and our environment, especially with programmes such as Blue Planet on our screens. I’m interested in the environmental aspect of the show that you mentioned, can you elaborate a bit on that?
It’s always been in Cirque’s DNA; it’ a very culturally sensitive company. It’s very environmentally supportive and family supportive, culturally aware. It started as a Canadian circus and they are very aware of supporting those around them. It’s always been a company that wanted to give back to the world around them. There’s part of Cirque that’s called the One Drop Foundation that was concerned with everyone around the world having fresh water to drink. Just that sensitivity has always been a part of the DNA of the company in many different ways. OVO was a way to bring it to one of the shows.
There are movies and novels that have explored the idea of getting inside the mind of an insect e.g. James and the Giant Peach as well as many Disney movies. How does OVO approach this in a different way?
I’ll answer this from a Cirque perspective. Many of the Cirque shows are mysterious, dark and quirky in different ways. This show was created by a Brazilian Director/Choreographer Deborah Colker and it’s very playful and colourful and silly. It really takes the playful side of insects and the world. Because of that and the clowns, the story’s based around the interaction with three clowns and they tell you a little bit about the story, they’re all very fun and playful so it has a different tone. It’s very family friendly and a different way for Cirque to go.
How does the show appeal to both children and adults of all backgrounds and interests?
It’s family friendly, I’d be concerned about using the world child-friendly. It’s definitely not written for children, but it can be appreciated by everyone because it operates on that level and it has brought comedy and bright colours and very up-tempo music so kids do appreciate this and many come. It’s not just a kid’s show though, it has all the things that a Cirque show has with the acrobatics and the themes that an adult can appreciate that a kid might miss. It’s really nice that it can be appreciated by all ages.
OVO has been performed around the world, debuting in 2009. Do you find that social changes in the last ten years has any effect on the message of the performance?
I think that as the world has changed and become more sensitive and more aware, the show has become maybe even more applicable. I don’t believe the show has evolved to adapt to the world, but almost the world has become more aware of the themes of the show. The story is of an insular colony of insects and in comes a stranger, the character of The Foreigner. At first, they reject him because he is a different insect to them and he’s not one of them. Through the course of the story they realise that he’s much more similar to them than different and by the end they embrace him. This is a story of inclusion and seeing other people in real life and their differences but they’re really not that different under the skin, or the exoskeleton. I think that’s an incredibly timely message right now with what’s going on in the world and again it’s been part of the show in the beginning. It’s like the world is lining up with what the show is saying.
Cirque du Soleil runs at The SSE Arena, Belfast from Wednesday 17 to Sunday 21 October ’18.