Corteo in Japan

“Corteo in Japan”
Fascination! Guest Submission
By: Steve Long

This past Spring I made my annual trip to Japan and took the opportunity to see Corteo again, this time in the first part of its Japan tour. I had first seen a Cirque du Soleil show during the time I was living in Japan, the 1994 tour of Saltimbanco, and have been a great fan ever since.

Following then is a description of some of the differences I’ve seen in a Japan tour vs. a North American tour, followed by a personal review of the performance.

One of the major differences is the tent. Instead of the familiar yellow and blue spirals the tent is dark blue with horizontal white stripes. Where the North American tents are held up by towers and poles the Japan tent has a ribbing of tubular metal, undoubtedly because of earthquake concerns, so there is no problem of partially obstructed seats.

There is a significant difference in ticket pricing arrangements. In the North American arrangement the 100 sections at and near center are the most expensive while the 200 sections at and near center are, for the most part, slightly lower. (The 100 and 200 side sections becoming less expensive.) With Corteo Japan the person sitting in the front row of Section 100 is paying the same ticket price as the person sitting in the back row of Section 200. Prices only start dropping when you got to the smaller side sections. You’re talking about US$120 on a weekday and about US$130 on a weekend and holiday for the majority of the seats under the big top. And they’re selling out shows at those prices! (There doesn’t seem to be any Tapis Rouge service as part of the Japan tour.)

The program for the Japan tour is generally larger and glossier than the North American version. It has your usual performance photos, intros and statements from the key creators. This program has a neat variation on the headshots of the artists, with both their regular headshot and a headshot in costume and makeup. The Japanese program also includes in-depth interviews, detailed information on the making of the show and a guided tour behind the scenes courtesy of a Japanese national performing in the show. The US$20 Japanese program goes beyond photos and becomes a detailed source of information about the show and its creation. And we can’t forget the celebrity comments and endorsements of the show.

Concessions are where the Japanese tour truly shines and true Cirque du Soleil fans could find themselves going into hock purchasing all that’s available. There were more than six different Corteo related t-shirts as well as caps and masks. There’s also a vast collection of stationery items; pens, mechanical pencils, regular pencils, decorated “clear folders” for holding documents, post cards, and small notebooks. You could buy key chains including a small stuffed Mauro clown doll and cell-phone straps. There were also towels; face towel size in various colors, long thin “muffler” towels and bath towels. You could have a Cirque du Soleil themed bath room if you wanted! And there is packaged food to take home.

The Japan tour concession stands benefit from the Japanese concept of “omiyage,” souvenirs that you bring back to the people who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to travel with you. There are cookies and chocolates and Corteo shrimp-flavored rice crackers. Many of these items come in containers that can be reused. I purchased a draw string-type bag of cookies just for the traditional Cirque logo on the outside. Curiously, I didn’t see any 25th anniversary material for sale. Nor did I see any flyers or advertising for Cirque du Soleil Tokyo’s resident show, ZED. (Probably because ZED has different sponsors.)

There were DVD’s of Cirque du Soleil shows available, including Corteo, and a special made-for-Japan ‘Corteo behind the scenes’ DVD for about US$50.

Now to the performance of Corteo itself. I’d first seen the show during its Randall Island, NY performance, twice in one day as a matter of fact as I was going to be headed to Japan a few days later. Having seen Daniele Finza Pasca’s work with Cirque Eloize I was looking forward to the performance and was not disappointed. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the Japan performance, as was the Japanese friend attending with me.

As I recall the beginning in New York, a couple of artists were in the audience doing little things. I remember these great sprays of water, clown tears from one of the artists. Then they went back stage and the show began with a funeral procession that evolved into a parade of characters. In Japan, it seemed as though more than half of the artists were in the audience doing things, it was almost a street festival-type atmosphere. Then they went backstage and the show began but the street festival energy carried over and the procession very quickly became the parade of characters. The focus on Dead Clown Mauro’s bed was quickly lost. I knew from before why they were trying to restrain the giant man but I don’t know if the Japanese audience understood or simply saw that as part of the parade.

I see Corteo as a collection of opposites, floor vs. air, big vs. small, low energy vs. high energy, each complimenting the other in the course of the show. To my mind the energy contrast was lost at this performance, things were running in high energy from the start and that affected the early acts if not the whole show. It all seemed a little rushed. The thing is that I don’t think that it would have taken much to quickly bring down the high energy of those pre-show activities and prepare artists and audience for the funeral procession.

The Bouncing Bed routine was fun, though probably a little rushed. I didn’t think to ask my Japanese friend about her reaction to the act. Traditional Japanese beds are futons laid out on the floor at night and folded up and put in a closet during the day. Not a lot of bounce there. However, there are numerous western style homes all throughout Japan and western style beds. Still, I don’t think the notion of kids jumping on a bed is as common in Japan as it is in North America.

The first act progressed and came to the Golf routine. I loved this in New York, a wonderful, almost silent film-like piece of slapstick comedy. The use of physical comedy and sound here being quite a challenge for the golf ball as she only has her head and face to work with. Quite successful in NY. Alas, sometime after the NY performances the golf ball started talking with lines like, “I’m allergic to golf!” Verbal comedy is easier than physical comedy for getting laughs and that line probably got great laughs during the North American tour but in Japan, where the primary language is not English? Once you’ve lost confidence in the ability of physical comedy and sound to achieve a laugh I guess all you can do is soldier on with your lines until you’re performing for English speakers again.

Where the golf routine got wordy for me, the Helium Dance act with Valentyna and Mauro was wonderful. The two had learned simple Japanese words and, more importantly, learned how to inflect those words to wonderful comic effect. When they find themselves performing in an English speaking country again they may find it difficult to recreate that comedy, just because of the differences in how English and Japanese can be expressed.

Somewhere along the line they had the raining rubber chickens routine. It was wonderful in New York, the Loyal Whistler stomps on and through the performing space and says, “I hate chickens.” I’m thinking to myself, “What’s this all about?” and then during the following juggling routine rubber chickens start raining down on the performers. When the act is finished the chickens are swept into a central hole and the next act begins. A wonderful piece for me because it was a surprise and because it was short. Alas, sometime after New York the rubber chickens became a running gag through the whole show, with rubber chickens even appearing in the pre-show ‘street festival.’ Some might like it, but for me, in this instance, less was much more effective.

The Teatro Intimo performance in the second act seemed to fall victim to the loss of energy contrast I sensed at the beginning. In New York, this act started a little disorganized and then descended into chaos. In Japan, it started chaotic and got worse. On two different occasions after the show my Japanese friend mentioned that she didn’t see any reason at all for having that act in the show.

Tourik finished off the show as impressively as I remember in New York. Then came a rather unusual second curtain call with some of the crew running in from the sides and one dropping down from above. A rather interesting change. Having worked in professional theater, I know how easy it is for the audience to forget all the behind-the-scenes people that are so vital to making a show happen. (It’s a little like that part in “O” where the underwater platforms come up and the SCUBA crew gets temporarily beached.) Don’t know if that could become a standard part of curtain calls going forward or whether that is something that can only be done in this show because of the unique design of the Corteo stage.

The performance was well appreciated by the Japanese audience.

The male singer sticks out for me because in New York I remember wondering where the male singer was. I recall the flamenco style setup, with singer and guitarist below the high wire act, but for some reason I thought that the White Clown was the primary male singer for Corteo. In Japan it was quite evident who the male singer was. (On the Cirque du Soleil web site they show this man in a blue themed costume when they talk about singers for Cirque du Soleil performances. Honestly, I never knew what show this character was from until I saw Corteo in Japan.)

In recalling all the Cirque du Soleil shows I’ve seen it seems to me that the male or female singer who appears on stage as a character hastaken on a difficult task. As with opera it is not enough to sing well, not enough to remember your stage directions, not enough to be present on stage, the singer also has to be a “presence” on stage, as much of a “presence” as any of the other acts. And though I felt that he tried I just didn’t get the sense of the Corteo male singer being a presence on that stage. I’ve had similar experiences with the replacement singers in Dralion and Varekai. The male and female singers for ZED are, for me, examples of presences on stage.

My disappointment with Corteo in Japan led me to once again ponder how Cirque du Soleil manages its touring shows, especially now that they’re taking the long run tent shows and turning them into arena shows. How does Cirque pass on the original creative intent of the show? As the show changes and evolves, how does Cirque keep it connected to its “roots,” if you will? My understanding is that a show is staged by the Director and Creative Team, let run for a few months and then there is a final “fixation” session after which the Director and Creative Team move onto other projects and the show heads off in its own direction. When there was only one director for all Cirque shows this might not have been much of a problem, but recent shows have different directors with different approaches to the performance arts. In the case of Corteo, how does the show retain those unique aspects of the performance that make it a Pasca created and directed production?

Just a thought.