Cirque du Soleil: ‘OVO’
Friday-Sunday, Aug. 18-20
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m., Saturday; 1:30 p.m., and 5 p.m., Sunday
4500 Patriot Circle
7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 4 p.m., Saturday; 1:30 p.m., and 5 p.m., Sunday
Royal Farms Arena
201 W Baltimore St.
When Cirque du Soleil created its 25th show back in 2009, Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker became the first woman to ever direct a Cirque show and cast Michelle Nicole Matlock to bring to life the main character of Ladybug.
An actress, writer and teacher, who had years of experience in the circus arts, Matlock was in residency at the LGBT Center’s Y.E.S. program in New York City at the time, directing LGBT youth’s individual solo shows, which were performed at the Dance Theater Workshop.
“I was also performing in a one-woman show when someone came up to me afterwards and asked me to audition for Cirque,” Matlock says. “I guess I did well, and four years later they asked me to create the role of Ladybug.”
That was almost a decade ago. The offer came in late 2008 and “OVO” premiered in 2009. It continues at EagleBank Arena (formerly the Patriot Center) this weekend before moving to Baltimore on Wednesday, Aug. 23.
At the time, Cirque du Soleil wasn’t even on Matlock’s radar.
“I didn’t know much about the company and I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show,” she says. “I had started dabbling in the circus world and doing gigs with other companies but I didn’t know anything about them.”
When they offered her the opportunity, it was really her friends and colleagues who became enthusiastic about it, so Matlock started researching it, talking with other artists and began to see what they were all about.
Ever since, Matlock has performed close to 300 shows a year, and she’s closing in on 2,500 performances. With the show, she’s travelled all around the world, including Australia for a year, Japan for 18 months, Mexico and many other countries.
“We started in a Big Top and we played that for six years and then we had another creation about a year ago, which put the show into an arena, and we had the opportunity to revamp and recreate our parts,” Matlock says. “That’s been a lot of fun.”
A native of Washington state, Matlock studied at Western Washington University and continued her studies at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City. After graduating, she took acting jobs with Moonwork Inc., Fay Simpson’s Impact Theater and the New Acting Company.
Next came a gig with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Krooz Komic program, an interactive clown program aboard their Voyager Class ships, which provided great experience for the work she’s doing now. Here she learned how to juggle, walk on stilts and the art of clowning. From there, she worked as a clown for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Circus Amok and the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which brings classical circus to hospitalized children at pediatric facilities across the U.S.
It was her 2002 solo show, a 12-week run of “The Mammy Project,” that attracted the attention of Cirque. Matlock loves working on the show with the cast and crew, which includes fellow out lesbian, artistic director Marjon van Grunsven.
“There are about 50 in the cast and 50 crew and management employees, with about eight of us since the creation,” she says. “It’s really a close-knit group and it’s very open and accepting and just a great environment to work in.”
“OVO” is a show rooted in the world of insects. The story begins as an egg appears among the insects. Ladybug is considered the romantic of the show.
“She is the only insect of her kind and is the love storyline; she’s searching for love and a foreigner, a city fly, shows up to the community and they instantly fall in love and the antics begin of the two of them trying to come together,” she says. “Ladybug symbolizes hope, love and happiness and it’s a really fun character.”
Matlock enjoys the openness of the character, especially that she’s super confident in herself, looking for that “right bug,” like so many in life do.
“She’s such a playful, open, very simple character and there’s something so satisfying about playing that role each night,” she says. “No matter what’s going on, I can have a lot of fun through the physical comedy and the playfulness of the storyline.”
The show is appropriate for all ages and Matlock feels adults will enjoy it as much as little ones.
“The music is amazing, the costumes are extraordinary and there’s a Brazilian flavor and rhythm than is incredible,” she says. “This is a very bright, open and celebratory show.”
With such a busy performance schedule, Matlock hasn’t had much time to do much else, as Cirque du Soleil is all encompassing.
“I have had breaks here and there and written shows in New York and gone back and done them, but it’s quite difficult to do something because there’s not much downtime,” she says. “The past nine years, my career has basically been with Cirque and it’s been a great journey.”
Matlock also teaches character work and acting to some of the athletes and circus performers who are hired who don’t have that training.
“It’s been really nice to branch off into that aspect of it also, while I’ve been traveling and performing,” she says. “It’s an intense schedule, but being in this eco-system has been such a fantastic opportunity.”
When her time with the show ends, which she hints could be in the next year or so, Matlock will get back to writing and performing, hopefully in New York.
It was 10 years ago when she collaborated with the band Inner Princess to develop “Sum Of Us,” which explored transgender history including Billy Tipton and the life of Harlem renaissance blues singer Gladys Bentley, and was staged at New York City’s Dixon Place.
“I had come across the history of Gladys Bentley, a crossdresser and blues singer, and I was friends with Inner Princess, who were singing and creating performances about the transgender experience, so we got together and wrote this show,” Matlock says. “We decided to create something that could blend the music and the historical figures, and we did it for three weeks in New York.”
Right after, Matlock was whisked away for Cirque and she never had the opportunity to develop it further.
“That theater did just commission me to write another piece for 2019, so I’ve been exploring possibly bringing that back to life,” she says. “If not that project, I would like to do something again with those people. That was a really fun project and it was a time before the transgender story was really popular. In 2007, it was on the edge of people becoming aware of the issues. It’s interesting to think about creating something new for 2019.”
By then, Matlock won’t be continuing as Ladybug full-time, but will always be available to her Cirque family if they need her to do some coverage or teaching.
“Nine years has been fantastic and I love it, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to step away and do some other stuff over the next few years,” she says. “There’s still a lot left I hope to do.”