It has always been exciting when the circus comes to town and for the last four decades, “circus” has been defined by the Canadian company Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun). I’m excited that one of the company’s classic shows, Corteo, is on its way to Palm Desert.
When traditional circuses such as Ringling Brothers Barnum & Baily were crisscrossing the country, the 2002 edition was essentially the 2001 edition in different costumes. It always opened with a lion act, then acrobats, a parade of 20 elephants, etc.
When Cirque du Soleil opened its first show in 1984, one of their goals was to smash that existing pattern. They have never had any animals in their shows, have incorporated original music scores, dance, and stage effects that certainly appear to be magic. When they open a show, it is a unique entity which can tour the world for years or find a permanent home such as Las Vegas where Mystere will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.
Corteo was first presented in 2005 but its conception started about two years before when director Daniele Finzi Pasca was selected. He wrote the show and assembled a team of set, costume and lighting designers, choreographer, composer, musicians and a company consisting of 53 performers of 20 different nationalities, 35 technicians and six musicians. Pasca’s skills include writing, directing, choreography and lighting design so he was able to envision and communicate well with his team.
Corteo is the Italian word for cortege, the procession which follows the casket in a funeral. We first meet Mauro the clown. He is watching his own funeral taking place in a carnival atmosphere, as quietly caring angels watch over him. The show consists of various events and memories of his life as he recalls them. Since he was a clown, his life was spent in the circus, but Cirque du Soleil would never present anything too literal. The various acts are magical and dreamlike, as Mauro remembers and imagines them. A little clown he knew grabs onto some helium balloons and is suddenly lifted to the ceiling. The bed he is lying in becomes a springboard for acrobats who, with childlike glee, perform an incredible trampoline number. He remembers some beautiful chandeliers he had seen, imagines that some of his former lovers are swinging from them, and voila! You’ve got an aerial ballet with the performers swinging from giant lighting features. By the way, those chandeliers are decorated with some 4,000 sparkling “jewels” and garlands of reflective acrylic spheres.
When Corteo first opened in 2005, it was performed across the country under Cirque’s gigantic blue and white striped tent which can seat 1,600 spectators. Well, actually there are more than a dozen huge, multi-million-dollar tents. On any given day, Cirque usually has about 19 productions being presented in the far outposts of the globe. Around 2016, they decided to give Corteo a rest and warehoused all the props and costumes. Then in early 2022, recovered from the Pandemic, they reassembled the show in a format that could play in arenas which would allow larger audiences. They use the seats on the two long sides of the arena and have built a full-stage turntable so that audiences sometimes see the front view and sometimes see the artists’ view of the audience when the turntable has the performers facing away. They also have a variation of the staging which will be used in Los Angeles’s huge Microsoft Theatre which seats almost 7,000 people.
Mauro the Clown imagines his dream cortege to be in an old theatre which includes giant chandeliers and 19th century theatrical trappings. Cirque commissioned two gigantic curtains to represent artwork of the French Impressionists. The curtains were fabricated in Canada and then sent to France for painting. It took more than two weeks to paint each of the central curtains in watercolors. Those central curtains are attached to huge supports which contain winding motors to roll them.
Much of the technical magic – flying of humans and magical set changes – is achieved by a structure they call the “Patience.” It is a massive structure made of steel which is suspended 40’ above the stage. It can carry up to 3,000 pounds of scenery and acrobatic equipment on and off the stage.
Touring the almost 100 people required by Corteo takes military-scale planning. The 53 onstage performers always appear as humans, unlike some Cirque shows that have more exotic characters, so each does his/her/their own makeup, based on a designer’s drawing. There are over 260 costumes with almost 2,000 individual costume pieces that have to be cleaned, repaired, and kept track of. And of course, the performers have to stay healthy. If a performer in a group act such as hanging from the chandeliers is sick or injured, there are alternate performers who can take their place. However, if a specialty act such as the man who balances on and walks across the stage on ladders is incapacitated, usually other specialty performers have a second act they can perform so the show will go on.
Some of the acts include:
–Chandeliers: Four women, Mauro’s former lovers, come together in dreamlike joy. They perform aerial acrobatics on three giant chandeliers that span above Mauro’s bed.
–Bouncing Beds: Like a gaggle of young kids playing in their grandparents’ bedroom, six artists jump on two 600-pound beds that move on rotating platforms. In a playful atmosphere, they perform acrobatic feats, each more daring than the last.
–Acrobatic Ladder: A ladder specialist amazes the audience with his unnerving balance and finesse as he performs on various ladders, trying desperately to reach the angel who is watching him from above.
-Teeterboard: Surrounded by two groups of artists lending rhythm to the act with their voices and percussion work, two acrobats redefine teeterboard technique in an act where speed is rivaled only by complexity.
–Cyr Wheel: Five artists (mostly shirtless men!) perform solos and group figures on Cyr wheels – giant hula hoops which can encompass a human with arms and legs extended. The simplicity of the Cyr wheel’s pure circle sets off the intricate and energetic performances of these artists.
-Tournik: A group of artists cross paths in an act which marries horizontal bar techniques with circus arts. The artists perform on a central cube-shaped structure, with two additional bars on each side of the cube. The complexity of the men swinging and rotating on the bars while seemingly defying gravity will keep you on the edge of your seat. They present a final farewell to Mauro.
Corteo recently performed to sold out audiences at the Microsoft Theatre in L.A. Coachella Valley’s brand new Acrisure Arena now gets to experience Corteo from August 31 to September 3. For tickets go to www.CirqueDuSoleil.com/Corteo and scroll down through the cities until you come to Palm Springs. And if you have not been, it’s a perfect opportunity for a first look at the arena – and a terrific show![Photos courtesy Cirque du Soleil]
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