“Dedicated to the Angels: A Review of Corteo”
By: Wayne Leung – Ottawa, Ontario (Canada)
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Corteo, Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show, opened in Montreal on April 21, 2005 and I, along with dozens of other Cirque fans, had the pleasure of seeing Corteo during its opening weekend.
Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca of Cirque Eloize fame, Corteo is a very different style of show for Cirque du Soleil and while reaction will undoubtedly be mixed, Corteo may be just what the company needs as a refreshing change to the style of their touring shows.
** SPOILER WARNING **
The reviews below reveals the show in detail. If you haven’t seen Corteo and would prefer to be surprised, skip ahead. There will be an advisory ending this spoiler warning. Also, this review is based on early performances of the show, and the information contained herein may not be completely accurate, as the show continues to be refined.
** SPOILER WARNING **
The first major difference one notices upon entering the Chapiteau is the new seating arrangement, with the stage reaching from one end of the tent to the other, bisecting the audience into two halves directly facing each other. Each side faces a proscenium arch created by the overhead rigging (the télépherique system) with a large scrim curtain featuring a painted fresco covering the stage.
Once the audience has settled into their seats the requisite pre-show announcement is piped over the sound system in the form of a sexy female voice welcoming us on board the “express elevator” to the sky. “Level 101: The use of cameras and video recorders is dangerous for the artists, we ask that you turn them off . . . Level 411: Please turn off your cell phones and pagers . . . Seventh Heaven: Mesdames et Messieurs bienvenue dans l’univers de Corteo!”
The show opens with a somber scene; a bell tolls and the lights come up on a grand hall where three large chandeliers hang from the ceiling. We see a clown (Mauro Mozzani) on his death bed. An angel hovers over the clown as his friends and cohorts walk across the stage forming a grand funeral cortège (the show’s namesake) en route to pay their last respects. The Clown dies and the premise of the show is basically his journey through a sort of purgatory where moments from his life, real or imagined, flash before his eyes (and ours as well). Corteo is the Dead Clown’s journey to heaven, his dream for a final show, his quest for redemption and a celebration of life.
The sobriety of the opening scene soon gives way to whimsy as four beautiful ladies, the Dead Clown’s former lovers (Evelyne Allard, Julie Dionne, Marie-Michelle Faber and Helena Saldanha), ascend on the three chandeliers to perform a gorgeous aerial act. Combining skills from the disciplines of trapeze and aerial hoop, the women perform to the sounds of a lilting Italian waltz sung by Corteo’s main vocalist, sandy-voiced tenor Paul Bisson.
The next scene is a flashback to the Clown’s childhood; two large beds are wheeled out and a group of performers dressed as children begin bouncing up and down and playfully throwing pillows at each other. The beds are actually trampolines and the performers spring up, perform flips, balance on the bed frames and eventually bound from one bed to the other all to the sounds of an upbeat swing song.
At the end of the scene angels appear overhead to escort the dead clown toward heaven, his bed rises and he is fitted with a pair of angel wings. The audience laughs at his awkward first attempts to fly.
A group of performers roll across the stage, each performing in an apparatus called the Roue Cyr (Cyr Wheel), a simple metal hoop about 6 feet in diameter. The artists roll and manipulate their wheels so they spin like quarters on their edges. A beautiful duet sung by Paul Bisson and Marie-Michelle Faber over a soaring string arrangement accompanies this graceful act and lends an air of nostalgia.
A comedy act where a little person (Grigor Paylevanyan) plays a trainer of two mischievous horses follows and eventually gives way to a somber funeral procession where the cast marches slowly from one side of the stage while singing a lament. The funeral cortège then takes a festive turn and breaks into a party before the show’s ringmaster The Loyal Whistler puts everybody back in line.
As the procession vanishes the partially lowered scrim curtains rises to reveal a tightwire. Tightwire walker Anastasia Bykovskaya crosses the wire en pointe, on a unicycle, and then proceeds to spin hula hoops while balancing on the wire. She finishes by ascending a precarious diagonal wire before disappearing into the rafters. The nature of tightwire acts means they don’t lend themselves well to artistic presentation and for the most part the act in Corteo is no exception. The saving grace for the presentation is the sensuous Latin ballad that accompanies the act. Guitarists Michel Vaillancourt and Buddy Mohmed sit on the centre turntable of the stage and play while singer Paul Bisson passionately sings the gorgeous Spanish song while clapping rhythmically to the music.
A comedy routine follows where Corteo’s Giant Clown (Victorino Antonia Lujan) attempts to play a game of golf with a human golf ball. Unfortunately, the routine falls flat because it is a one trick visual gag that drags on for five minutes.
The next number features a team of highly skilled jugglers; the Teslenkos (siblings Anatoly, Dmitry, Elina and Victor) performing an astounding variety of intricate juggling routines. Using hoops and clubs, they flip and balance on each other while maintaining an unbelievable number of objects airborne. Though this act is technically very strong, the artistic integration is weak. The act
feels tacked on because it was; it was a very-last-minute addition to the show two weeks before the premiere.
Two vignettes follow. The first features a performer as a marionette puppet rigged to a fascinating contraption of pulleys and counterweights. The second is an enchanting scene featuring a small person (Valentyna Paylevanyan) taking flight over the audience under a large array of weather balloons.
The first half of Corteo ends with a bang as the cast takes to both sides of the stage forming two opposing factions singing, chanting and clapping in time to the catchy melody. Drummer/percussionist Kit Chatham stands on the edge of the outer turntable and pounds out the pulsating rhythm that accompanies the Teeterboard (Korean Plank) act. The act is performed by two young men (alternating between Stéphane Beauregard, Jérémie Robert and Petar Stoyanov) who propel each other ever higher and perform increasingly daring flips before landing back on the plank. This act is simply astounding not only for the high
skill level but also the inventive staging. The atmosphere is intense, like a street fight, and each of the two factions on stage chant and cheer their champion. The first act closes with the two combatants reconciling and the entire cast breaking out into a rendition of the catchy Teeterboard theme as the scrim curtain descends for intermission.
Upon returning from intermission we peer through the scrim to see what looks like a large safety net apparatus laid across the floor of the stage. As the second half starts a team of acrobats bounce across the net using it as a trampoline in an act Cirque du Soleil calls “Paradise” Eventually, catchers perched overhead on Korean cradles catch the bounding acrobats and toss them about on the trampo-net. The act segues into a full-fledged Korean cradle number as performers are tossed from one cradle station to another while performing elaborate aerial twists and flips. While it is an interesting concept showing a great deal of potential, the staging of the act leaves much to be desired. The Paradise act will undoubtedly increase in skill level and improve in presentation as it has time to evolve.
When the trampo-net is being disassembled and hauled off stage we find the Dead Clown and the Loyal Whistler (Sean Lomax) in the audience. The Dead Clown coaxes the Whistler to perform pieces of classical music. The Whistler then takes the stage to join a fantastical orchestra comprised of performers playing crystal wine glasses and large glass basins filled with water to create a whimsical opus. At the conclusion of the act the Whistler breaks out in a musical duel with the violinist (Yonatan Miller).
The next act features the Little Clown and The Clowness (Grigor and Valenyna Paylevanyan) in a beautiful adagio act balancing on a rotating circular frame. They are accompanied by Helena Saldanha and Marie-Michelle Faber vocalizing to an enchanting melody played on bells. This is a sweet act and is actually the most touching act of the show.
In an act dubbed “Not-So-Serious Act” Yuliya Raskina, Tamara Yerofeyeva and Alexander Savin perform a balancing/contortion/manipulation act in which nothing goes right, the two ladies fight and attempt to upstage each other, and eventually the act is interrupted by a downpour of rubber chickens. The act is ludicrous and, unfortunately, doesn’t work at all. It’s supposed to be funny but it just comes off as boring and awkward. The performers are obviously highly skilled in juggling and rhythmic gymnastics but the act is an awful waste of their talents. I’d personally prefer to see these performers performing a “serious act,” a bit of dance and choreography could go a long way toward making a spectacular and beautiful act.
Once the chickens have been swept off the stage an angel hovering over the stage passes a man (Uzeyer Novrusov) a ladder. The artist proceeds to climb up and balance on the shaky ladder, amazingly keeping the precarious ladder in equilibrium. It’s a great circus act even if, again, it lacks in presentation.
The next act is a comedy routine called Teatro Intimo in which the little people are set to perform a rendition of Romeo and Juliet, but everything that can go wrong does. The scene is cute and mildly amusing at first, but at over ten minutes in length the scene is more than two or three times as long as it needs to be and it gets tired quickly.
In the lead up to the finale we see the Dead Clown riding a bicycle and ascending to heaven in a scene reminiscent of a Franco Dragone show (or the movie E.T.). His friends assemble below to wave goodbye and a celebration ensues.
The final act of Corteo is called Tournik. It consists of a team of gymnastic highbar performers on a cube shaped highbar apparatus centre stage with two additional bars on the outer turntable. The performers exhibit a remarkable sense of timing as they perform elaborate figures, and multiple artists fly through the air from bar to bar. The act is breathtaking; one small misstep would lead to a catastrophic collision.
At the conclusion of the act the cast returns to the stage as the Dead Clown descends from heaven, he is now an angel. The cast flourishes with a reprise of the joyous Teeterboard theme and takes their bows.
END SPOILER WARNING
Corteo is a very different show for Cirque du Soleil. It is a complete 180-degree turn from Cirque’s most recent offerings. While the style of the show can be described to a certain extent as a super-sized Cirque Ã‰loize or perhaps Franco Dragone-lite, the credit goes to director Daniele Finzi Pasca for the dramatic change in style and presentation and Corteo is unmistakably his signature.
If I had to describe this show in one word it would be “charming”. It’s a very different style of show for Cirque but there’s a lot of warmth and a lot of charm. For a show with such a seemingly dark theme it is not morbid at all, it is actually quite joyous and uplifting in the end. I enjoyed Corteo very much.
I loved the staging I had my reservations about an in-the-round show but they’ve managed to pull it off very well, and it seems as though the show would play well regardless of where one sits in the Chapiteau. The new télépherique is fascinating, it’s hidden in the flies and not supposed to be a visual element of the set like the one in Quidam. It is mostly used to fly the angel characters on and off stage and to create some of the show’s beautiful imagery.
The musical score is a mixed result. Some of the songs are gorgeous and beautifully romantic; the Italian ballad for Chandeliers, the soaring strings and vocals on Roue Cyr, the gorgeous Latin ballad for Tightwire, the catchy and upbeat rhythm piece for Korean Plank and the joyous Tournik song are my favourites and can easily rank with some of the best Cirque du Soleil songs. However, other pieces are simple and forgettable. However, the musicians, all talented multi-instrumentalists, excel at breathing life into the score of Philippe Leduc and Maria Bonzanigo. The musicians in Corteo sit out in the open in four pits on either side of the stage and are clearly visible for the entire show.
Director Daniele Finzi Pasca has described himself as the son of a painter and a photographer. He has a keen sense for evocative imagery and seeks to bring still images to life. Indeed the turn-of-the-century circus scenes depicted on the giant frescos painted on the two scrim curtains on either side of the stage are skillfully “brought to life” by the characters of the show.
The first impression I had about Corteo was how similar it was in style and presentation to Cirque Ã‰loize’s Rain, a previous show by the same director. Though the stage is bigger, Finzi Pasca really sought to keep the degree of intimacy and the uniquely human element in the production. It is the directors aim to tell a very simple, human story in a fanciful and slightly surreal manner. Unlike previous Cirque shows where the atmosphere is exotic, foreign and inaccessible, Corteo feels very warm, familiar and evokes a strange sense of nostalgia for a time most of us haven’t lived and a place that probably never existed.
Another remarkable difference in Corteo is that there is much more emphasis on acting and character work than in any other Cirque du Soleil show. Each cast member plays a character and most numbers have a distinct yet abstract dramatic thread expressed through the character interaction and the music.
One instance where this works particularly well is in the Korean Plank number, where the cast forms two opposing factions facing each other on stage and sing, clap and chant in rhythm to the music. The premise of the number is a showdown between the two performers who act with such dramatic intensity that it really makes the act daring and thrilling from a dramatic standpoint. Aside from being a technically strong act, this number is also brilliantly acted, a first for Cirque du Soleil.
A Daniele Finzi Pasca signature is to turn all his circus acrobats into full-fledged stage performers. There is evidence in Corteo that the performers went through an intense series of workshops to develop skills in acting, music, singing and clowning, all of which the cast must do in the show in addition to performing their acrobatic act. It is the director’s goal for the performers to be multi-disciplinary. This was a bold move that comes with mixed results. While some performers flourish in the opportunity to show off hidden talents such as singing or comedy, other performers seem to be more timid when singing or have trouble with comedic timing. These skills are honed by seasoned stage performance and the cast will undoubtedly improve with time.
However, while the acting is very prominent and for the most part well-done, in Corteo it comes as a trade-off with dance and choreography of which there is little to none. The most recent Cirque shows were infused with dance and heavily choreographed numbers. Varekai originally had three straight dance numbers, Zumanity relies heavily on dance and even KÃ€ is a heavily choreographed acrobatic ballet. In Quidam, for numbers like Aerial Hoop, Handbalancing and Banquine, the artists are instructed to remain expressionless and stone-faced so the artistic expression of the numbers comes almost entirely from the choreography and not the acting. Corteo differs in that most of the interstitial vignettes are acting and most of the circus acts are performed in a very straightforward manner, unembellished by choreography. While this is part of the director’s style I found that I really missed the dance elements, and Corteo feels incomplete because of the absence of dance. The lack of choreography for the acrobatic acts also lends to the roughness and slightly unpolished look of some of the numbers.
While it is to Daniele Finzi Pasca’s credit that much of the imagery presented in the show is gorgeously surreal, the movement connecting the images is not as refined as it has been in the past with the Franco Dragone/Debra Brown team.
Having just opened, the show is still very rough around the edges; the performers are still adapting to the show and trying to get comfortable with their characters. The show also has some major pacing issues; while the first act is a solid collection of acts and time just seems to fly by, the second act is full of slower, longer, comedic acts and really felt slow. This can be easily remedied by some rearrangement of the order of the acts. The same problem initially plagued Varekai early in its Montreal run but was remedied by the rearrangement of the acts to even the pacing.
Overall, Corteo is a gorgeous show. Instead of being in-your-face as some of the other shows tend to be it is more subtle and meant to be savoured. With some additional refinement and some time for the artists to become comfortable in their roles it has the potential to become one of Cirque du Soleil’s finest shows.