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This week I was quite looking forward -- in a perverse kind of way -- to writing an essay about how much I dislike Cirque du Soleil. Ever since experiencing the Canadian company's work for the first time (Alegría, at London's Royal Albert Hall in the mid-1990s), the puritanical part of my warped little theater critic's brain has reacted violently against the transformation of circus -- that most Rabelaisian of arts -- into blockbuster, multinational business. The company, privately owned by its founder and CEO, Guy Laliberté (who may be the world's only billionaire combination stilt walker, accordion player, and fire eater), boasts five permanent productions in Las Vegas and Disney World, Orlando; six touring shows visiting cities as far-flung as Guadalajara, Mexico, and Osaka, Japan; and successful music, film, and merchandizing spinoffs.
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It wasn't just the corporatization of the art form that turned me off, with its inflated ticket prices, in-your-face sponsorship deals, and VIP specials. It was also that after the initial excitement I felt at seeing a Cirque show -- after all, the troupe revolutionized circus in the 1980s by blending cabaret, street entertainment, and eccentric costumes -- the productions felt evermore formulaic. From the overblown visual aesthetics and pseudo-atmospheric Euro pop-style music to the half-baked attempts to impose story lines onto what is essentially abstract material to the fact that almost every production celebrates some positive, intangible idea like "joy," "life," or "fantasy," the magic, at least for me, rarely endured past the final somersault.
So it was with no small amount of surprise that I left the blue-and-yellow-striped "Grand Chapiteau" erected at SBC Park for the San Francisco leg of the company's latest touring show, Corteo, feeling like I wanted to run away and join the Cirque. For, despite an inauspicious start that included shepherding people through the merchandise tent on the way to their seats and kicking off the performance with the ringmaster reciting a list of the show's corporate sponsors, Corteo quickly turned out to be unlike any other Cirque du Soleil show I've seen.
While I remember precious little about productions like Mystère and O -- in the former, only one intense, sculptural duet between two male acrobats that nearly stopped my breath, and in the latter merely a general watery quality -- Corteo has so many startling moments that it's difficult to organize them into separate thoughts. The premise is just as whimsical as any other Cirque show's: something or other to do with a clown dreaming about his funeral. Yet director Daniele Finzi Pasca's creation of a glittering world that exists somewhere between heaven and Earth, just beyond human reach, is rooted in the abilities of the company's incredible performers. The narrative, such as it is, lives more in the unfurling limbs of an aerial dancer suspended high above the stage on a giant, twirling chandelier, or in the antics of a golf-playing clown trying to whack a belligerent golf ball with an oversize club, than in any rigid story line.
Free from the confines of plot, the circus once again breathes, marrying pristine physicality and sumptuous aesthetics with topsy-turvy anarchy. It's that clownlike combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, the tragic and the comic, the chaotic and the orderly that makes Corteo great. The entire show, in fact, is a study in clowning. Clowns are at the very heart of the piece and take on many forms. There are giant clowns, midget clowns, and clowns in bright, baggy clothes who rampage through the audience, soaking people with fake tears that sprout like garden sprinklers from their eyes. There are harlequins in commedia dell'arte suits, jester acrobats who juggle and tumble energetically about the stage, and even cheeky pantomime horses that trot around in human shoes and tousle audience members' hair.
The word corteo means "cortege," or procession, in Italian -- in this case a stately (perhaps funeral) procession. Balanced against all the tomfoolery, then, is a serene, mystical realm. This alternate universe is epitomized by Jean Rabasse's lush, Baroque set design (the hand-painted watercolor curtains, in particular, wouldn't look out of place in a major art museum) and a panoply of ethereal angels who appear in the stratosphere every now and again, quietly watching over the artists, even assisting them on occasion. The otherworldly side of Corteo is also implicated in the perfection of the circus acts, because no company comes close to Cirque du Soleil for sheer supernatural talent. As thrilling as it is to watch a group of pajama-clad acrobats performing dangerous feats on a couple of old-fashioned king-size beds, there's a glassy, almost sinister precision to the performance; it's as clear-cut as the hand of death.
For all that, carnival antics constantly interrupt even the most transcendent moments. Rubber chickens rain down on the heads of a trio of contortionists trying to dance a stately tango, as if to poke fun at their rubbery, double-jointed limbs. Surrounded by stunning angels like something out of a Titian painting, one plump, dead clown (played by Mauro Mozzani) straps on fluffy feather wings and tries to fly. A pantomime horse wanders onto the stage in the middle of the fast and faultless "Cyr Wheel" act (in which four acrobats create intricate patterns with spinning hoops). And the show's bossy, sergeant major-like ringmaster (Sean Lomax) turns out to be a virtuoso whistler.
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