OCEAN AVENUE — Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo” will swarm Santa Monica in January, unleashing the hidden world of insects underneath the troupe’s iconic blue-and-gold big top, a scene brought together by the show’s insightful designer and first female director.

Liz Vandal, a freelance designer, spent a year of her life conceptualizing and creating costumes that can manifest the repulsiveness of the cockroach, the playfulness of the flea and the sensuousness of the spider, all without encumbering artists tasked with near-impossible acrobatic feats.

That means convincing an audience that they’re looking at a creature, even if it doesn’t have the requisite number of legs to qualify as an insect or arachnid.

“It’s not imitation, it’s evocation. You have to get into a mood, a feeling,” Vandal said.

In her hands was the head piece worn by the acrobat that plays one of 10 grasshoppers, a bright green polyester that stretches its permanent pleats to reveal a core of yellow underneath.

It wasn’t a method that she’d tried before the show, but that’s what Cirque du Soleil does to you, Vandal said.

“They squeeze you like a lemon, until every ounce of creativity comes out,” Vandal said.

Absent the ability to recreate the physical structure of the creatures, Vandal relied on texture and color to build the image of each bug, often forced to create new methods of fabric manipulation to achieve the effect she sought.

Her imagination became more important than the realistic structure of the creatures as scientific anatomy gave way to the demands of the stage.

The long horns she wanted on the scarab were sacrificed — “That could put an eye out,” Vandal said — but against the muddled copper color of the costume, war wounds etched in blue hinted at the battles that the warrior insects had endured.

In the end, Vandal and her team created between 17 and 18 unique creature costumes for the 52 performers involved in the “Ovo” show, subtracting and adding elements to each costume for “life in the colony” scenes versus those for acrobatic performance.

The duplicate costumes, particularly those for the 10 crickets cast in the performance, emphasize an essential characteristic of insects: quantity.

“Where there’s one, there’s always more,” Vandal said.

“Ovo” is Vandal’s first Cirque du Soleil show, a task she had not been personally prepared to take on until 2008 when the company approached her to design for their 25th production.

The show spoke to Vandal, who hearkened back to afternoons as a child spent in Quebec, Canada turning over rocks in her front yard to examine the life that thrived underneath.

Vandal was enthralled with the insect world, creatures that wore their armor on the outside, quite the opposite of people, whose armor is all interior.

“I would study the shapes, what they were doing,” she said. “I had a passion for insects.”

When asked why one of the best-recognized acrobatic performance companies on the planet would do a show about bugs, director of creation Chantal Tremblay simply said: “Why not?”

“At the end of the day, it’s all about movement, and acrobatics with movement,” Tremblay said. “Insects do have a lot of movement … the concept is quite interesting.”

The production was written and directed by Deborah Colker, a native Brazilian and the first female to direct a Cirque du Soleil show.

Colker’s Brazilian background influenced the direction of the show more than her gender, Tremblay said, not only in the name — “Ovo” is Portuguese for “egg” — but in the percussive heavy music.

“She gives a Brazilian flavor that we didn’t have,” she said. “The other men were from Belgium, Switzerland and Quebec.”

At its heart, the show is pure entertainment, although audiences might walk away with a touch more sensitivity toward the world’s smaller denizens.

“Maybe, a little more respect, I think,” Tremblay said. “I always loved spiders, but in my head, they move like our contortionist now. Maybe people won’t kill them quite as fast as they used to.”


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