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Imagine: A Conversation with OVO’s Artist Director Marjon Van Grunsven

by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts and Culture Editor

“What’s your dream?” she asks.

I look at my friend Marjon across the table at the little café on Second Avenue, where we regularly go for an affordable bowl of pasta and a glass of wine after work. It is 1997 in New York City, and she is waiting for my reply. I am embarrassed to respond. My face feels flushed to even contemplate my dreams and goals.

I fumble and take a long drag off my cigarette avoiding the question. “I’m not really sure. What is your dream?”

“I want to be in Cirque du Soleil.”

Fourteen years later Marjon and I have long lost touch. It is January, 2011 and I am sitting at my kitchen table in Los Angeles, California drinking a cup of tea and listening to NPR’s Elizabeth Blair report on the trust of trapeze artists in Cirque du Soleil. An unmistakable, warm and lyrical Dutch voice explains, “A flying act is built on trust – but first, each artist needs individual strength and training.”

Instantly I remember our conversation and smile, raising my tea mug to toast the little red radio on the shelf. “Well done, Marjon. Dreams do come true!” Marjon Van Grunsven is the Artistic Director of OVO, Cirque du Soleil’s 25th production. Written and directed by Deborah Colker, OVO is the first Cirque du Soleil with a female director and reflects her native Brazil. Brilliant costuming by Liz Vandal (imagine colorful abstractions but not literal representations of Arthropod life – crickets, ants, spiders, a passionate ladybug) and a musical score by Berna Ceppas combine the sounds of bossa nova and samba with funk and electronic music to complete this ecosystem of colorful energy and life. The name OVO, egg in Portuguese, in itself looks like an insect with the O’s for eyes and the V, a nose.

Currently touring North America before heading to Australia next summer, OVO is in Los Angeles, California until March 25.

In Cirque du Soleil’s warm family kitchen, next to the trademark Cirque blue and yellow “grand chapiteau,” I meet my old friend Marjon. I recognize immediately that Cirque du Soleil is a community. The kitchen feels like the central nervous system of the larger Cirque body teeming with partially costumed OVO performers (which of course make me think of molting reptiles), crew members and, to my surprise, children.

This community has become Marjon’s home – the company, her family. We sit down at an empty table happy to acknowledge that almost fifteen years hasn’t changed either of our appearances much. I ask her if she remembers our conversation years earlier at the café on Second Avenue. She smiles, “I do remember. I tell that in almost every interview that I do.”

Cirque du Soleil first inspired Marjon in 1996 when she attended a New York City performance of Alegría. “I was mesmerized by the fusion of the costumes, the music, for sure the acts, but what I loved was…the technicians working together with the artists…It was such a beautiful feeling…for a number to never end but flow flawlessly into the next.” She paused and smiled again, “Yes, that was my dream and I have been so lucky in my life.”

How does this happen that your dream fourteen years later is a reality? She shares her path and I note that gratitude and respect for others are common themes. “I remember auditioning [for Cirque du Soleil] and I was already super happy that they didn’t cut me right away. I always got very far and then at the very end there were like four people left and they only needed two.”

In 2000, Marjon returned to Europe, residing in Paris for a period before re-establishing her roots and her dance company Memento in The Netherlands. She opened Memento Bodyworks studio for Pilates – Body Therapy and Performing Arts. While her company and career took off, she maintained correspondence with former teachers and mentors who had helped her along the way.

In 2007, a former teacher, Ria Martins, who had left Holland twelve years earlier to join Cirque du Soleil, contacted Marjon. “They need someone at Cirque and I’ve recommended you. Would you be interested? It’s only for three months.”

Though Marjon had just opened her own studio, bought a house and settled down, she replied, “Oh my god, this is my dream coming true!”

Marjon joined Cirque du Soleil and began her adventure.

Continually amazed and thankful for her life and career, she describes the role of Artistic Director as the person who guards the “artistic integrity” of the show’s creators. Because of the longevity of a touring show – Big Top shows can run 10 to 12 years – she works consistently to maintain the show and make it better.

“My daily life, my week, or my year consists of managing 66 people… what I have to do is watch the show, give notes, decide where there are moments in the show where I don’t feel that magic any more, then I call a rehearsal, so there is a lot of planning.”

Keeping everyone inspired, Marjon also acts as ear, listening to problems. “This is their life, they travel with their family, so sometimes I’m like their mom, sometimes I’m like their director, sometimes I’m a sister or an enemy or a friend or an advisor. It’s a big role.” The OVO cast consists of 55 performers from 14 different countries.

Casting insects for OVO was a creative endeavor in itself. When Deborah Colker decided she wanted insects such as ants, crickets, and spiders, a creative team had to decide which Cirque performers matched these types of creatures. As an example Marjon shares, “If you think about a cricket who can jump three times its own height and then you think about what Cirque artists can do, you think of trampolinists that can jump…so they became our crickets.”

As another example, she explains, “ants work, they are energetic, they are cute, they are fast, they always work, so somebody in Cirque said… what do you think of foot jugglers?”

Marjon proudly shares that many of the performers had never been in a theater production before. Instead they came from Olympic backgrounds, competitions, and sports. “My role is to help them become an artist.”

She helps the performers understand their importance on stage by working with them individually. “Sometimes I would take one out and say, ‘I would like you to watch tonight.’ They would come back to me and say ‘oh my god, I had no idea that if I would be there, by that light, that is what I would look like.’” In this way Marjon believes that each performer co-creates the individual role.

As it nears 4PM, and the first of the day’s two performances, I ask Marjon about all the happy children I see running about. She explains that they have an onsite school because approximately 26 children travel with the company. “Our red spider has a beautiful little son, so her husband travels with us.”

Lois Yaroshefsky, an onsite teacher, walks by our table and Marjon introduces us. She tells me that she is teaching English to a group of six Chinese girls. “One of the things I do – and I did it with the boys on Iris, I did it with the kids on Totem – is I teach them the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. I go through the whole thing where I explain to them who The Beatles are because they don’t know at all, they have never heard of The Beatles. They have come from a communist country and it is a whole different thing. So I explain that, and then I explain what peace is…I go through the whole thing of what happened to John Lennon…and then we sing the song and they get it. And then I give them this analogy, ‘what [Lennon] wanted is very much what Cirque du Soleil is. It is the only place that I know…that has what John Lennon wanted which is all these people from all over the world, everybody working together, living together, performing together.”

For twenty-seven years Cirque du Soleil has brought together people from around the world. I think John Lennon would be happy to see this community; and as I walk up the boardwalk and back to my car, I am happy to see my friend living her dream and thriving in such a sustainable, loving community.

About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP’s Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.

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