Costumes designed by Liz Vandal. Picture: OSA Images

Stepping into Cirque du Soleil's international headquarters is like entering a thriving village. Everyone is busy - from the artists leaping, tumbling and bouncing in one of the training studios to the woman painstakingly hooking individual hairs into a wig.

There are large workshops dedicated to creating almost everything audiences see in this celebrated circus troupe's globetrotting shows, including hats, shoes and costumes (which, in 2012 required 150km of fabric, 80 per cent of it being printed, hand-painted and dyed in-house). There's a library for inspiration, a gym and two cafeterias which draw on the herb and vegetable gardens outside this gleaming 36,600sqm building in Montreal, Canada.

A blend of quirky, colourful creativity and a sleek corporate attitude - including the occasional security guard keeping prying eyes from rooms in which new shows are being developed - it's a place most performing arts organisations can only dream about.

Luc Tremblay is senior artistic director for Ovo, the vibrant insect-themed show touring Australia. Although he joined Cirque du Soleil in 1999, he's still amazed by the people he meets in the cafeterias.

"One day you might have lunch with an executive producer, the next day you'll have lunch with a costume specialist or someone from artist management," he says.

Tremblay regards these chance encounters as "subliminal cross-training" which helps the 2000 people who work in the building to collaborate effectively.

"If you don't understand what the other person's job is about, you will not be able to collaborate," he says.

For complex shows such as Ovo, which took about 18 months to develop before its 2009 premiere, collaboration is critical.

Department heads met regularly during this period, to share their discoveries, ideas, designs and creations.

Their aim was to conjure a world recognisably inspired by insects that was also a celebration of human form and creativity: the costume designer observed bugs under a microscope; the choreographer drilled performers in insect-like movements; the set designer studied creepy-crawly habitats.

"People are working in their own departments but ultimately what we come up with is a shared result," says Tremblay. "That's what's fascinating at Cirque du Soleil."

The costume department's mission for Ovo was to create 20 concepts for critters such as spiders, butterflies and ants, aiming not for the "image" but the "evocation of the insect", according to Jean-Guy Rannou.

Assistant to the show's costume designer Liz Vandal, he points out the costumes' key visual cues: the ladybug's spots; the grasshopper's vivid green colouring with subtle yellow streaks (conjured with fine, labour-intensive ruching); the hard shell effect of the cockroach's corset. "We don't expect that an insect could be sexy but she brought that to them," Rannou says of the designs.

Making costumes that succeed on stage, and not just on paper and mannequins, is a constant challenge for Rannou and his colleagues. Their creations must accommodate the performers' "extreme movement", he says, and also look their best as a result of that movement.

"Costumes in the circus have a speciality: to accentuate the movement of the artists," he says. "This is achieved by repeatedly putting the concepts through their paces on those leaping, tumbling, bouncing bodies - just one of many collaborative processes that occur every day at the lively village that is Cirque du Soleil headquarters.

'Costumes in the circus have a speciality: to accentuate the movement of the artists.'

The West Australian

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