People used to talk about Cirque du Soleil as if the company's productions were somehow transformative, as if taking in the brilliant spectacles, pondering the ambiguous plots and thrilling to the performers' beautiful and impossible feats would somehow bring clarity and enlightenment to their own lives. As Cirque grew into the mammoth, multimillion-dollar phenomenon that it is now, I found myself increasingly skeptical — but the shows kept winning me over. I remember watching Varekai in a happy daze a couple of years back, wishing it would never stop. But with Corteo, Cirque's magic has finally diminished.
Make no mistake: This is still a fine experience, visually gorgeous, musically exhilarating and filled with acts of athleticism that take your breath away. The costumes and sets are lovely and evocative, with the kind of fanciful curlicues you imagine adorning a fairy-tale palace or a miraculous child's birthday cake. Angels hover over the action, their dresses and bodies making elegant shapes in the air and suggesting wondrous other dimensions. But the story sounds a bit like a Cirque self-parody: A clown is fantasizing or dreaming his own death. His funeral cortege is made up of his circus brethren, and all the acts represent both a celebration of life and an urging into the unknown.
Remembering his boyhood, the clown encounters a twinkling, indescribable little creature on his way to school — a figure who reminded me of all the elves, goblins and will-o-the-wisps that I imagined haunting the edges of my world when I was a child and hoped could be teased into visibility by a sudden turn of the head or the right incantation. As this creature plays with him, descending to earth, soaring unexpectedly skyward, the clown can say only, "Mommy, she stole my ball." Then there's the woman walking up a tightrope strung at a steep incline, her feet sometimes slipping, while two angels watch. It's a moving image; how passionately many of us wish we could have such heavenly watchers during difficult times. The acrobatics aren't merely daring — and graceful — but they weave beautiful patterns together. As one group swings rhythmically in the air, another performer hurtles along the ground in a series of moves so fast and skimming that you can hardly take them in, creating a brilliantly contrasting dynamic on an altogether different plane. Other wonderful surprises: a ringmaster whose whistling is as full and sweet as the sound of a flute; an upside-down yellow creature crossing the stage on a trapeze; the infectious joy of the jugglers; a tiny woman floating over the audience, held up by helium balloons, and the happy coming together of audience and performer as dozens of pairs of hands are raised to help keep her afloat. And all the while, the music — now luscious, now quickening; sometimes portentous, sometimes humorous — throbs through your body.
But everything doesn't cohere. In Varekai, wistfully expressive Anton Chelnokov gave the production its soul as the fallen Icarus, embodying the pain and joy of being earthbound after flight, the astonishment of discovering the world and of first love. Although Jeff Raz's clown is jovial and appealing, no one in Corteo matters in this way — not because these performers aren't fascinating, but because none is given that kind of focus. The dialogue is banal; the clown tells us that he's no longer afraid of flying, and — several times — that "it's beautiful up here." And some of the clowning is downright silly: rubber chickens appear; a woman in a white hat impersonates a golf ball afraid of being hit; in a long, long scene, the company parodies Romeo and Juliet on a miniature stage where little people Grigor and Valentyna Pahlevanyan perform with slaps and squeaks like puppets in a Punch and Judy show.
I want to know so much more about these performers. Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they Cossacks or ballet dancers? Circus clowns or actors? But for all the company's wealth of paraphernalia — the coffee mugs, CDs and T-shirts — it's impossible to find this information. The program (which isn't included in the price of the expensive ticket) seems almost an afterthought. For $15, you get a slew of glossy photographs of the show, a history of the company and pages of self-loving bios of the founders and artistic staff. The performers get only a two-page insert featuring thumbnail pictures, names and roles. That speaks volumes about today's Cirque.
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