Cirque du Soleil pays homage to carny culture in ‘Corteo’

January 31, 2015

There are hundreds of reasons to see a live production of Cirque du Soleil. No matter which iteration you attend, the jugglers, dancers, acrobats, and strongmen are some of the best in the business. The Montreal-based franchise takes enormous pride in its cast and crew – 4,000 people from more than 40 countries – and a disproportionate number of them can spin multiple hula hoops at one time.

But “Corteo,” which plays for the next two weeks in San Rafael de Alajuela, is particularly worth attending. Unlike the Las Vegas shows, which are colossal and play for audiences of 9,000 people, “Corteo” takes place in a traditional big top. All Cirque shows have moments of audience participation, but if you sit in the first 10 rows, you’ll feel like the trapeze artists are about to land in your lap.

More important is the concept of “Corteo,” which is essentially a two-and-a-half hour homage to traditional carnival culture. Since its birth in French Canada in the 1980s, Cirque du Soleil has touted itself as a “nouveau” circus, exchanging animal tamers in cheetah-skin costumes for Gallic mimes from another dimension. This is a noble ambition, and its avant-garde approach has won millions of fans, each of whom may pay hundreds of dollars for a single ticket.

Yet “Corteo” models its costumes and acts on turn-of-the-century Europe. The title is Italian, meaning “procession,” and the atmosphere is a mix of Sicily and vaudeville. Many of the men wear fedoras, suspenders, and seersucker outfits, while the women wear dresses and bloomers. Cirque clowns always have an old-fashioned bag of tricks – props, pratfalls – but the “Corteo” clowns look old-fashioned, like Depression-era hobos. For the moment, Cirque had dropped the “nouveau.” This is the kind of circus your great-grandfather used to see.

“Corteo” opens on the deathbed of an elder clown. A “procession” of carnies come to pay their respects, for the clown has nearly expired. But before he fastens his wings and ascends to wherever clowns go – this literally happens, thanks to suspension cables – we see a kind of impressionistic biography of the clown’s life. The story isn’t very important, any more than the plot of the ballet sequence in “An American in Paris” is important. It’s all an excuse to showcase some superhuman performances, including several hundred backflips.

Then again, the story may trigger emotions, if only because “Corteo” is about emotional things – mourning death, celebrating life, and honoring a tradition that is both extinct and immortal. There is hardly a human in the Western world who doesn’t appreciate a circus tent, who hasn’t briefly dreamed of running away to the circus. You may never have seen circus in real life, but the world of barkers and show-horses still captures the imagination.

Case in point: When two “Corteo” acrobats face off on a seesaw, their interaction has the intensity of a duel. Each man leaps in the air, and when he lands, he sends the other flying upward. The men rely on each other to keep the momentum going, but they are pretending to compete, a perfect mix of machismo and collaboration. The sequence ends with a brotherly handshake, as if making amends. Such daring showmanship, mixed with fraternity, is hard to find in daily life.

The only problem with “Corteo” is that the spectacle is frontloaded: The opening scene of four women spinning around on chandeliers is both breathtaking and mildly erotic. The audience gets frantically excited in a matter of minutes. The second scene shows acrobats, dressed as young children, jumping in and out of bed. Their movement is so unusual and fun to watch that nothing that follows ever surpasses it. “Corteo” is filled with wondrous tableaux, including a tiny woman harnessed to enormous balloons, who floats around the audience, giggling as she goes. But the show breaks the cardinal rule of circuses: Each act should be more amazing than the last.

That is a small criticism for a show that features high-wire flamenco, operatic whistling, and bodybuilders flinging lithe young women from one high-rise platform to the next for minutes on end. When “Corteo” draws to a close, the finale is genuinely touching. You’re not just awe-struck, but also moved. The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus has long been called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But it takes a nouveau circus to be something more than merely great.

“Cirque du Soleil: Corteo” continues through Feb. 8 at Hacienda Espinal, Alajuela. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 12 & 4 p.m. 38,000-140,000 ($74-280). Info: eTicket.

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