Running away to join the circus wasn’t always Beth Williams’ plan.
Yet, joining Cirque du Soleil’s production of “Ovo” has been a much more exciting career path.
“It’s really beautiful, it’s a really wonderful show,” Williams said.
“Ovo,” just one show on Cirque’s extensive roster, heads to the Times Union Center on Wednesday and combines traditional circus acts, like the contortionist, jugglers and trapeze artists, with some not so common costumes and storyline.
At its heart, the production is a whimsical love story in which all the characters are insects. There are crickets, ants, spiders, a dragonfly and other creatures crawling, jumping and flying around their ecosystem. Everything changes one day when a foreigner brings an egg into the insect colony (“ovo” means egg in Portuguese).
“It’s the story about how [a] strange fly that comes in integrates into the community. At first, he doesn’t get on very well with the other bugs and it’s about how they learn to accept him. Along the way, he falls in love with a ladybug and it’s about how he tries hardest to win her love and the other insects help him,” Williams said.
She, along with her husband, Martin Alvez, are butterflies, and they flutter through the air, high above the stage during their aerial strap performance. Their act requires intense concentration and physical strength training, which Williams has practiced most of her life.
Growing up just outside of London, her mother sent her to ballet classes when she was 3 years old. Later on, she enrolled in a ballet school in London and started figure skating when she was 8.
When she went off to university, she studied French and later fashion marketing, though she got sidetracked when she discovered the National Centre for Circus Arts.
“I just fell in love with circus and I found an audition to do a three-year degree in circus where you’d be training from 9 to 5 every day and I was absolutely sure that was what I wanted to do. I auditioned, I got a place at the school and I trained there for three years,” Williams said.
During the first year, there were 24 people in her class. By the end, there were 15, perhaps because of how intense the program was.
“It’s a lot of training. For your first year at circus school in London, you get a chance to try out all different things. You try acrobatics, you can try aerial, you can try juggling and [you] really find out which specialty you want to do. Then [in year two you] fine-tune that discipline,” Williams said.
Like figure skating
For her, that was aerial straps.
“I figure-skated for 10 years, from 8 to 18, and sometimes when I watch aerial straps and I watch what we do, [I realize] it’s very similar to the skating background that I come from. If you look at a figure skater flying around the ice, I do pretty much the same thing now but in the air,” Williams said.
Since graduating, she and Alvez have performed their duo act all over the world. Their “Ovo” performance contains pieces of the act they created, though they worked with the director to adapt it to the show’s storyline.
While she and Alvez are performing many feet above the stage floor, Williams said she doesn’t focus on the height so much as on the act itself.
“We work really high up so there’s never a moment where I sort of relax and get complacent with what I’m doing. I’m always 100% focused because if you make a mistake, we don’t want to have an accident. So my focus is always 100%,” Williams said.
During their act, they gracefully flit around like butterflies, spinning one another around in a way that emotes the sense of first love. Their costumes help to round out the butterfly illusion.
“It’s in soft blues, browns, creams, and it’s got the most beautiful wings on the back. I have two wings on the left leg and two wings on the right leg made of a beautiful gauze, shimmery fabric, with butterfly patterns on it,” Williams said.
For safety purposes, the wings are attached with a strip of velcro and elastic.
“If I’m spinning at high speed with my husband up in the air, and one of the wings gets trapped on his arm, it will move slightly. It won’t rip the wing and the worst that will happen is the wing will detach a little bit. So they’ve been quite clever with how they’ve made the costumes,” Williams said.
That’s in part thanks to Charlotte Foret, the head of wardrobe. She manages 2,000 costume pieces a day, including shoes, headpieces, accessories and the costumes themselves. The department also includes five washing machines and three dryers. In total, it takes up two and a half trucks.
When the show loads into a new city, Foret has to play Tetris backstage to figure out where each dressing room is going to go, as well as where she and her team are going to be able to make repairs to the costumes.
“With what they do on stage, they really damage the costumes a lot. So we have 20-30 repairs per day,” Foret said. She and her team of three also have to repaint the performer’s shoes every day, make necessary changes to costumes and wash each piece after the performances.
It’s a lot of work, though Foret wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like circus more than any kind of show because it’s more particular. What people do with their costumes is really different than anywhere else so I’m more interested because you have to think more about how you’re going to make that costume, how you’re going to create it to make it as comfortable as possible for them and at the same time also protection for them because with what they do for the show they’re jumping everywhere, crawling on the floor,” Foret said.
She started out as a costume maker with Cirque Farouche and joined Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam” in 2014 as a local contractor, helping to iron and repair the costumes.
“I loved it so much because those costumes are so perfect. They are so unique and well made, the fabric that they have you can’t find this anywhere else. It was so beautiful. I was like ‘That’s it, that’s all I want to do now. I want to be at Cirque du Soleil.’ After I left ‘Quidam,’ I applied once a month for three years. I kept on insisting, sending my CV and everything. I was like, at some point, they’re going to crack and they’re going to get me in,” Foret said.
It paid off. In 2017, she became a costume assistant on “Ovo” and became the head of wardrobe earlier this year.
Though the costumes are designed at Cirque headquarters in Montreal, Foret and her team often make adjustments for each performer. She admits that it’s an intense job, though the costumes are some of the best she’s ever worked with.
While there are many creatures and costumes to handle, her favorite is the cricket costume.
“They are a unique color, green and shiny. They also have a pair of legs that really make them look like crickets like when they’re on stage. We don’t see humans on stage. It’s a really well-done way to design,” Foret said.
Williams’ butterfly costume is another favorite.
“They are so beautiful. It’s super delicate and they’re really well made. They have wings so when they fly in the air because it’s [an aerial] act, they’re literally flying in the air and you have those little wings that make them really look like they are flying around in the room,” Foret said.
The butterflies, crickets, spiders and more all come together to create the ecosystem that is “Ovo,” a dynamic show that will be in town from Wednesday to Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Times Union Center. Tickets are $29-129. For more info visit timesunioncenter-albany.com.
Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Ovo’
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun.,Feb. 2
WHERE: Times Union Center, Albany
TICKETS: for children $29-63, for adults $38-129
MORE INFO: timesunioncenter-albany.com