*She shimmies, she coos, she blushes – and she’ll beat a bug down if she has to – all in pursuit of her soulmate.
Meet Cocinelle, the lovelorn ladybug played by Michelle Matlock in Cirque du Soleil’s 25th and latest extravaganza “Ovo” (Portuguese for egg).
Currently nesting in the Washington D.C. area, the insect-themed production draws audiences into a diverse ecosystem filled with such colorful creatures as amorous butterflies on a rope, high flying crickets on trampolines, trapeze-swinging scarabs and foot juggling ants – not to mention an assortment of sinewy spiders, acrobatic fleas and something that looked like a mushroom ate a slinky toy. (Thankfully, there were no bedbugs – either on or off the stage.)
Cocinelle’s jovial spirit and bubbly search for love is woven throughout the 2 ½-hour ride under Cirque’s blue-and-yellow big top. Her patience pays off. A blue fly named “Foreigner” (François-Guillaume LeBlanc) eventually returns her affection, albeit clumsily. (At one point, she gives him a “talk to the hand.”)
“First and foremost I think she’s a romantic,” Matlock says of her pink-winged, black-corseted alter-ego. “She wants to spread love. She’s the most optimistic character in the show. She’s full of joy. Even though she hasn’t found love yet, I still think she’s content with herself, but still looking for that perfect one.”
After graduating from the National Shakespeare Conservatory in NY’s Catskills, Matlock was on a similar journey when it came to finding quality roles that would reflect her classical training. Her career took an unexpected detour into the circus clown profession after a friend suggested she had a knack for comedy and should at least give it a try.
Soon, Matlock and her friend would be hired to help Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines develop a clown program. That led to bigger clown opportunities – among them, gigs with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the Daredevil Opera Company and the Big Apple Circus – that put money in her pocket while she continued to pursue traditional acting roles.
“Straight out of the [Shakespeare] conservatory I was working a lot actually. A lot of my teachers had companies and they were casting me in their shows,” she tells EUR exclusively. “Then, I sort of hungered for more – for more roles, deeper roles, better roles. I found that for an African American woman in the industry, it’s fairly limited in terms of theater roles, even with the classical training that I got.”
The Tacoma, Wa. native found that commercial roles for the taking tended to be rooted in stereotypes of black women, one of which Matlock encountered so much on auditions that she decided to explore the subject in her 2001 one-woman show, “The Mammy Project.”
“I decided to find out why and where this stereotype, icon and myth was coming from, why for African Americans it’s such a painful thing and why for white America it really wasn’t – and how we couldn’t see that of each other,” she says.
Matlock’s research turned up “a lot of history and a lot of characters” that could be made into a story, she says. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ If I’m gonna be put into this stereotype, I’m gonna do it myself and do it in my own way, and do it in an educational way – and try to blow it out of the box.” [See clip below.]
Buzz followed the “The Mammy Project” through its initial run in New York, then at college campuses throughout the country and venues in Canada and South America. In 2004, someone with Cirque du Soleil happened to catch one of the shows and invited her to an audition.
While nothing was available within the company at the time, casting directors saw something in the actress that prompted them to track her down years later while creating their ladybug for “Ovo.”
“I think all of the work – my theatrical work and my circus work – informed the creation of this role to bring the ladybug to life,” says Matlock. “I think it’s unique in that way. I can look back and really say all the things that I did culminated in working for this company and creating this role.”
Cirque du Soleil’s “Ovo” opened Thursday (Sept. 9) in Washington D.C. at the Plateau at National Harbor (201 Waterfront St., National Harbor, MD) and will play through Oct. 24. It then moves to Atlanta (Nov. 4 – Dec. 5), the Dallas area (Jan. 28 – Feb. 13), Houston (Mar. 10-27), Cincinnati, Chicago and Seattle. [View the trailer below.]