The family circus
The Savards, a Quebecois family of four, make their home under the big top touring Cirque du Soleil’s OVO.
Blessedly interrupting the bland Muzak playing while I’m on hold with the Residence Inn Cincinnati Airport, six-year-old Jasmine Savard picks up with a cheerful, French-Canadian, “’Elleau?”
I ask for her father, Sébastien, a violinist in Cirque du Soleil’s OVO, which arrives June 30 for a monthlong run at the United Center.
“Oui ’elleau,” says Sébastien.
The near-ten-year Cirque veteran, wife Melanie, Jasmine and her three-year-old brother Etienne are holed up in the hotel due to flooding at Cincinnati’s Coney Island amusement park, where Cirque had set up its signature blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau. With a week of shows canceled, “We’re awaiting good news,” he says.
Such is the life of a family whose home is the road. It’s been Savard’s life since he was 15, when he’d play one- and two-night-stands around central Canada between summers as a member of Québec Issime, a long-running tribute to Quebecois musicians. The show plays at the Théâtre Palace in Jonquière, 400 miles due north of Boston.
“I painted the walls of that theater,” he says. “That was my school, almost—playing many instruments, learning choreography and having someone change my clothes while I played violin.”
Seven summers there helped him land a job in Cirque’s Quidam; after the show’s run in Nagoya, Japan, he took a two-week break back home in Roberval on Lac Saint-Jean, not far from Jonquière. While there, he ran into his old friend Melanie, “and we realized we were more than just friends,” he remembers.
But he had to return to Japan, and Skype was still a few months away from revolutionizing long-distance calling. Melanie, a horticulturist and teacher, “paid herself a plane ticket and put her life in boxes,” Savard says, “and just tried to see if it was possible to have a relationship with a guy who travels all the time.”
Melanie joined the staff of Quidam’s school, tutoring young performers and company members’ kids. OVO travels with about 25 children in tow, although they’re “mostly babies,” Savard says. In September, Jasmine will join the OVO school’s two other students, teenage acrobats from China.
When Etienne arrived on the scene, Melanie became the star of the Savard Family High Wire Act. “She’s in charge of the balance of the family in this crazy environment, balancing the kids, giving them a routine,” explains Savard. “I come home to our hotel room and it smells like bread! I feel like I’m in a house. She’s doing an amazing job.”
Jasmine’s taken up the violin and gave her first performance on Easter Sunday: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Both kids are prolific artists and wallpaper their bedroom with colorful drawings. Etienne’s are almost all of Mr. Potato Head. “It’s like a Potato Heads Hall of Fame!” says Savard with a laugh. Jasmine fancies drawing fairies, princesses and OVO characters, who wear elaborate bug costumes by Liz Vandal. A portrait of Dad in his cockroach outfit has a home on Savard’s dressing-room mirror.
Chicago is the 15th city on OVO’s inaugural tour, but the show hasn’t lost its magic for les enfants Savards. “They love to go,” he tells me. “They sing all of the songs, they try to imitate the artists. The people onstage are all of their friends. They’re surrounded by their heroes.”
The Brazilian-inspired production’s title may be Portuguese for egg, but, for the Savards, ovo means home. The kids aren’t attached to a place, Savard observes: “Their family, their parents, the people—that is their house. It’s a place to be.”
And if life with the circus does lose its magic? “I have good kids. That’s why I’m still on tour. If they weren’t happy, I wouldn’t stay. They’re my primary thing in life. Family first, and then musicand Cirque.”
OVO makes its home under the Grand Chapiteau at the United Center June 30 through July 31. See Calendar.