Corteo, by Cirque du Soleil
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Let’s get some things clear at the outset. There is nothing in the world like Cirque du Soleil. Watching Cirque, you will see men and women do things you thought were beyond human capability. If you’ve never seen a Cirque show before, you will go home shaken. This is not trickery, or illusion. This is a redefinition of human possibility.
This is as true of Cirque’s latest offering, Corteo, as it is of any other Cirque show. You have probably seen tightrope walkers. You may have seen an especially skilled artist, such as the Great Blondin, ride a bicycle on a tightrope. (And if you have seen the Great Blondin, congratulations for reaching the age of 115). But I doubt you have seen a man ride a bicycle on a tightrope upside-down. You will if you see Corteo.
You will also see human beings juggled by enormously muscular jugglers twenty feet above the stage and jugglers taking over for each other while objects are still in the air. You will see a woman, one leg extended over her head in a balletic pose, float off to heaven dragging a sizeable man, holding her other leg, with her.
I dare not tell you all the things you will see, for much of what makes Cirque as great as it is is the surprise behind its presentations. I take it back – “surprise” is too mild a word. What Cirque aims for is gaping, jaw-on-floor amazement. In Corteo, as in most of its productions, Cirque generally succeeds.
This success is not due simply to the astounding athleticism of the artists. (The cast includes four ex-Olympians). It is principally due to the company’s attention to detail. Dominique Lemieux has outfitted the immense cast with costumes so rich, layered and specific that we could identify the time and setting if there were no actors at all. Jean Rabasse has created an astonishing rotating set, with two 40-foot tracks built into the 180-foot floor. Full of objects and decoration, it nonetheless has enough free space for the artists to speed through three dimensions with Cirque’s characteristic velocity.
Rabasse’s greatest creation for this show, however, may have been the scrim he painted. Inspired by an 1885 painting by the Parisian artist Adolphe Willette, it tells us all we need to know about the story behind Corteo – both the story that was, and the story that could have been.
It is a panorama, cutting through time and space, inhabited by angels and humans. Angels are interesting creatures, and superb story devices. Bathed throughout eternity in a sea of grace, they do not know pain, and thus cannot comprehend the human attraction to it. In the upper stage left corner of the scrim, there is a prototype of the species. She is naked, and her face is rigid with rapture. Icy indifference radiates from every pore of her spectral body. Below her, other angels laugh and cavort, carefree laughter being their birthright. There is a procession of humans alongside them; this is the Corteo procession – circus people, perhaps, but conceivably farmers or tradespeople or even bureaucrats. Are they the living? Perhaps, but they are in the middle of the scrim, far above the earth.
At the bottom stage left, a clown studies the ground. He, too, has angel wings, but he is not happy. And, upon reflection, it’s easy to understand why: to be an angel, you must give up being a man.
And so it begins: a dying clown (Mario Mozzani) – who we see is no clown at all, but human, like us – sees the angel of death approaching even as his family is gathered at his bedside. She is so radiant with joy that not only does the clown reach out for her but his young son does too. Initially coquettish, the angel eventually takes the dying man to the land beyond life. As his family mourns, he begins, awkwardly, to take on his new wings. He struggles to join this strange, joyous new land as his former lovers, now translated to angels (Julie Dionne, Helena Saldanha, Marie-Michelle Faber and Évelyne Allard), cavort above him.
Tentatively, like a kid at a new school, he begins to make friends in heaven. He becomes the puppeteer for a grateful human marionette (Rebecca Jose). He becomes friends with a gigantic fellow clown (Victorino Lujan). Even as his son on Earth calls out for his PaPa, he discovers a wonderful baby (Valentyna Pahlevanyan) in heaven. This one is swaddled in a crown of helium balloons. Playfully, he bats the baby – Ms. Pahlevanyan, of course, is no baby, but an exquisitely petite actress – into the audience, and there she travels, gooing and giggling, from stem to stern of the circus tent like a teenager in a mosh pit.
This is an immensely powerful and moving concept, and Cirque pursues it with such diligence and intensity through the first Act that one is compelled to think that perhaps Heaven, after all, is like a Cirque act. Alas, I am forced to report that the idea is largely abandoned in the second Act, except for a brief valedictory appearance by the dead clown towards the end of the show. The result of the story’s disappearance was that the wonders of Corteo became decontextualized, and I sometimes felt as I once did in the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida – surrounded by images so astonishing that any single one of them might have taken hours to process.
It is difficult to credit the individual artists without giving away their surprises, and the show’s, but I will do my best. The human jugglers are Elena Dobrovitskiya, Emilie Fournier, Rebecca Jose, Marat Khakimov, Volodymyr Klavdich, Taras Shevchenko, Sviatlana Taparkova, Roman Tereshchenko, Halyna Tyryk, Andrei Vassiliev, Asya Vorobyeva and Jamar Young. Someone is going to do some things on the high wire which will make you want to get your eyes checked; she is Anastasia Bykovskaya. Uzeyer Novrusov will do things with a ladder; please do not try them at home. The people with the hoops, doing things not previously seen outside of Road Runner cartoons, are Stéphane Beauregard, Viachaslau Hahunou, Yuliya Raskina, Jérémie Robert, and Petar Stoyanov. Have fun!
Corteo runs through November 26 at the City Center Grand Chapiteau, 8th and H Streets, at the site of the old Convention Center. Performances are on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8; Fridays and Saturdays at 4; and Sundays at 1 and 5. Tickets range from $40 to $75 for adults; from $28 to $52.50 for children 12 and under; and from $36 to $67.50 for students and seniors (65 and over). No senior or student tickets for the Friday evening show or the weekend shows. You may obtain tickets at www.cirquedusoleil.com or by calling 1.800.678.5440. Seats are a tad narrow, so if you weigh much more than three bills you may be a little uncomfortable.