Click this image to open the slide show.
Wisely returning to a "grand chapiteau" after last season’s stint in the Rose Garden, Cirque du Soleil’s month-long footprint is marked by this fanciful blue and yellow big top on Marine Drive.

Photo by Darryl James

THIS JUST IN: A SPECIAL DISCOUNT FOR OVO!

Last summer and fall, Cirque du Soleil ditched rather than pitched its famous tent, with press literature explaining that the spiky installation that had, in prior years, inhabited a waterfront spot near Macadam was no more, recycled into tote bags as part of a company-wide green initiative. But the reduction of Cirque’s carbon footprint seemed to bear unforeseen creative costs. Dralion and the Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour , presented at the Rose Garden with stripped-down staging, notably lacked the sensory immersion, intimacy, and pure otherworldliness that typically accompany Cirque under the “grand chapiteau.” Read review…

But any Cirque du Soleil connoisseurs who had braced themselves for a stripped-down era of “Cirque du Compromise” (or defected altogether to equestrian offshoot Cavalia) can take heart. Last Thursday, Cirque returned to Portland with OVO, a whimsical microcosm where cute-as-a-bug clowns and agile insect acrobats spin a web of mystery and delight while Brazilian beats gently coax giant flowers to bloom. Under a dark blue big-top, Cirque regains the home-field advantage, marshaling every light, seat, set-piece and sound to draw the audience deeper into its fanciful scenes. In place of last season’s onslaught of stadium-scale blowout numbers, Cirque returns to the varied pacing and broad emotional spectrum that originally grew its household name.

Gabbling in a universal tongue, a large ladybug, a spiky centipede and an elder caterpillar usher us through the acrobatic action via accessible themes: boy-meets-girl, caretaker (or single parent?) gets separated from his nest-egg and goes on a quest to retrieve it; aging pedant struggles to train an unruly troupe of young grubs. Additional character designations fold the acrobats’ feats into the narrative context: Ants are transporting food, fleas are leaping (like they do), and spiders, naturally, are balancing on a thin strand of web. The pairing of insect personas with acrobatic acts is an elegant fit, making perfect sense both visually and thematically.

From the soaring scarabs to floating butterflies, Cirque’s acrobatic and aerial work is as thrilling as ever, although opening night saw one beetle’s ungainly fall. Not to worry: Cirque wisely strings a safety net for this dangerous number, letting acrobats enter and exit from underneath it like cockroaches scuttling under floorboards. Protocols are also in place for performers who botch a trick. On opening night, as a pained firefly made several passes at his juggling number’s finale, the band grooved on, repeating and subtly varying its refrain to keep the audience engaged until, finally, the frustrated fly triumphed to roaring applause. Considering the difficulty of these tricks, human error is inevitable and becomes a parallel demonstration of the performers’ additional skills: poise, patience, and tenacity.

Not content to simply show us tricks, OVO also instructs us how to watch. Curious insect voyeurs relax at the edge of scenes, observing the events that are taking place and effectively puncturing the “fourth wall” to legitimize the watcher’s role as a passive participant. As we watch a spider watching a dragonfly, we’re reminded that audience—arachnoid or otherwise—is a crucial character in any scene. Clown crowd-work also keeps the audience on its toes. There’s no tuning out when, at any moment, you might literally get pulled in.

Inadvertently echoing the rock-wall finale, OVO ‘s narrative closes with a cliffhanger. Without giving too much away, suffice to say some of the show’s big questions go unanswered. While we’d’ve preferred a bit more closure, we respect Cirque’s right to invoke French mystique. After all, do you really want to know? Or do you simply want to wonder?

Cirque du Soleil’s OVO continues through May 20 at the Expo Center.

For more about Portland arts, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, or sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter!