Every inch a lady

INSECT ASIDE | Michelle Matlock forms part of a romantic triangle in Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ovo.’

All abuzz over Michelle Matlock, the lady-loving ladybug of ‘Ovo’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Michelle Matlock is the female romantic interest in the Cirque du Soleil show Ovo — a role that, Hairspray aside, rarely befalls bigger girls. And girls of color? And openly gay? Well, she’s basically the only one. Like, ever.

“I think it’s pretty special,” she says from a break in performing under the grand chapiteau in Frisco. “Not only for me being a big girl but a black girl. You don’t see us being a love interest  much — even though I’m a bug.”

Yeah, did we leave that part out?

Matlock plays the giddy, delightful ladybug, wooed by a handsome housefly to the dismay of the other members of her garden of tight-knit insects. About 10 different acrobatic acts perform in the show, but Matlock is one of the story anchors, a clown who has her own share of tumbles, pratfalls and jumps.

Clowning might seem a far cry from Matlock’s classic training at the National Shakespeare Academy in New York, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“My base is theater, but over the last five, six years, clowning has dominated my career,” she says. “It’s actually a culmination of everything I learned [at the conservatory]. I used almost everything I’d ever experienced to help create the role. I had intensive clowning [there], and we had ballet and modern dance — a well-rounded program. I just never thought that seven weeks would actually be the kind of work I’d be doing the rest of my career.”

Not the entirety of her career, though. Matlock is also the creator of a one-woman play called The Mammy Project, about stereotypes of black woman, especially ones of size. The idea came about when Matlock was asked to audition to be the face of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. The play begins with the first woman to create Aunt Jemima, back during the 1893 World’s Fair, and goes up through Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind and Matlock’s own experiences. It’s one reason Matlock is so pleased that she could create the Ladybug as a romantic figure.

And create the role she did. She auditioned for Cirque du Soleil in 2004 after several years’ experience clowning in other circuses, but while the audition went well, they didn’t have a part for her at the time. “But we have some shows in the works,” they told her.

More than four years later, in November 2008, she became part of the team that created Ovo. She’s been touring with the show ever since and just signed to stay with it through 2011.

That schedule has taken its toll on her relationship with her girlfriend, who has remained in New York (she also works in theater).

“It’s been difficult, especially at the beginning, maintaining a long-distance relationship,” she says. “Fortunately, we’ve gotten over that. It has been nice for us. And now that I’m signed through 2011, she might come and join me on tour. She is a stage manager and very organized. She might work for Cirque. And then it’ll be another challenge: Working together.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright

Egg-cellent

GRAVITY BE DAMNED | The slack-wire act, left, and the spider contortionist are some of the feats of physical skill in ‘Ovo,’ a thrilling big-top circus extravaganza.

Ovo, Cirque du Soleil’s new insect-themed cavalcade of jaw-dropping wonders, is reason to drive to Frisco

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The opening of Ovo, the new Cirque du Soleil touring production, sounds like an attack of locusts, which is sort of the point. The concept of the show is A Bug’s Life, set to abstract music and eye-popping feats of physicality.

As a concept, it works terrifically. Cirque shows traditionally have themes that establish the look, but don’t really tell a story. None of it matters — it’s just a pretext for the juggling and high-wire acts. But here, there really is a romance between a ladybug and a housefly, played out with clownish bravado. And even better, the acts seem to tie into their characters.

That’s due in large, large part to the gorgeous costumes, which are as colorful and varied as the microcosmos of the insect world itself. (And, let’s say it, sexy.) The design mirrors what the acts are supposed to do: Crickets with extended haunches bounce off walks faster than a meadow on a warm summer night; a spider — the slack-wire gymnast, all of 95 pounds, clad in a skin-tight exoskeleton — scurries across a strand of his web, doing handstands and rolling on a unicycle; fleas flick their bodies nimbly through the air as if the dog show just got to town.

All in all, there are about 10 acts in the two-and-a-half hour production under la grand chapiteau in the parking lot of the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco. It’s been a long time since Cirque came to North Texas; it’s worth the drive to check it out.

The awesomeness is difficult to describe — or to put in context. After the parade of characters, the main event kicks off with a small display: A firefly who contorts while balanced on his h

and. It sounds simple, even ordinary, but the skill involved astonishes you. Then out come a crew of waif Asian girls who juggle — balls, ottomans, each other — on their feet, passing human bodies around as effortlessly as a salt shaker at the family dinner. It takes the spool juggler — basically, a yo-yo artist extraordinaire — to drop a few to realize these are, in fact, humans who make mistakes. The illusion is that effective.

There’s something for almost every taste, from the elegant aerial ribbon flight of the butterflies to the oh-my muscularity of the trapeze-swinging beetles to the silly, wild dancing of the inchworm. I don’t remember the circus being this fun — or this sexy — when I was a kid. Here’s to progress.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.


—  John Wright