Stage Door Review

Corteo

Dec 13, 2018

✭✭✭✩✩

written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca

Cirque du Soleil, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

December 7-16, 2018;

• Centre Bell, Montreal, QC

December 19-30, 2018;

☛ DCU Center, Worcester, MA

January 3-6, 2019

The Dreamer Clown: “The show must go home”

Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, premiered in 2005 and toured the world as a big top show until 2015. In 2018 CdS relaunched it as an arena show and in this format it is now playing Toronto. There is no doubt that Corteo is gorgeous to look at given that it has taken its style cues from 18th-century Italy. Unfortunately, Finzi Pasca has emphasized style over substance and left the audience dissatisfied. This is the first time I recall an opening night of a CdS show that did not receive a standing ovation. In fact, the applause died out before the performers could leave the stage.

In adapting the big top show for an arena, CdS has tried something new. In its adaption of Quidam in 2010, it chose to divide the arena in half at the midline and and use only half of the seats facing the stage for the audience. For Corteo CdS uses an alley staging for the first time and designer Jean Rabasse divides the arena down the middle lengthwise with the audience on both sides. The centre of the stage is beautifully painted circle with a trap door in its centre and several independently revolving rings. Runways stretch from the circle in both directions to two wedge-shaped wings. The effect is like looking through a proscenium stage only to see an audience staring back at you from the other side.

The stage is hidden from the audience by an exquisitely painted scrim based on the painting “Parce Domine” (1885) by Adolphe Willette framed by Italian-style side curtains that gives the show a delightful period look quite unlike other CdS shows. In fact, until you realize that there is an audience on the other side, you could easily imagine you were in the Royal Alexandra Theatre or the Elgin Theatre instead of an arena.

In theory the concept for the show holds a lot of promise. The show is supposed to reflect how an Italian clown known as Mauro, the Dreaming Clown (Mauro Mozzani), imagines how his funeral procession or cortège (“corteo” in Italian) will unfold. Twice we see a cortege march solemnly from one of the two stage entrances towards the other only to have the procession break into disorder.

Otherwise, the show is merely the usual succession of circus acts with rather too much emphasis of aerial acrobatics. The primary flaw of the production is visible in the very first act entitled “Chandeliers”. Here four women perform aerial acrobatics on three giant chandeliers. The “chandeliers” are really aerial hoops that have been so dressed up with garlands and strings of acrylic baubles that once the performer is inside the chandelier you can’t really see what she is doing. The design obscures the human activity and even when a performer hangs from another performer on the hoop, it is unclear what exactly is happening.

The same thing happens again in the act called “Artist’s Marionette” where Anastasiia Spiridonova is rigged up with aerial ribbons tied to her hands, feet and waist. The idea is that she is supposed to be a live puppet manipulated from above, but the set-up makes it unclear how much control she has over the ribbons and quantity of ribbons make it hard to tell what exactly she is doing.

In the second act there is a scene called “Crystal Glasses and Tibetan Bowls”. For this segment a glass harp (wine glasses filled to different levels) is set up and Tibetan Bowls (glass bowls of different sizes) are placed around the rim of the circular stage. The glass harp is played by rubbing the rims of the glasses with a wetted finger and the bowls can either be stuck or played by rubbing a soft mallet around the edge. In the brief periods we’re allowed to hear them, the instruments make a hauntingly beautiful sound. Unfortunately, this delicate music is used as the background to a battle between a violinist with an amplified violin and ringmaster Mr. Loyal (Sean Lomax), who, also amplified, is a virtuoso whistler. The two completely drown out the sound of the glass harp and the bowls and ruin the point of the scene.

The juggling act that follows this is also ill conceived. Three performers (Svetlana Tsarkova from Russia, Johan Juslin from Finland and Laido Dittmar from Hungary) juggle rings, hoops, clubs and a diabolo simultaneously. Individually, they are all great but when they all perform at once, it is impossible to focus on any one of them and appreciate what they are doing.

Other acts are frustratingly choreographed. Early in Act 1 is the “Paradis” in which performers play the role of children jumping on their parents’ beds. The apparatus is a mix of two Tramponets, that combine trampolines and safety nets, and two Korean Cradles, or standing stations for catchers. The scene is meant to reflect Mauro’s childhood and the transition from merely jumping up and down on the beds to performing a circus routine is well done. The problem is that with a trampoline we expect the jumper to perform various tumbles in the air before landing. The use of the Korean cradles means that for most of the routine the jumpers leap mostly back to the headboards of the two beds. There is some bed-to-bed jumping and some mid-air tumbling, but that happens only at the very end of the routine.

Another act that promises kore than it gives is the use of five synchronized Cyr wheels – the first time I’ve seen such act. The performers demonstrate typical Cyr wheel stunts before they begin their fascinating synchronized action, but like the “Paradis”, the great act strangely ends just as it is about to become more interesting.

Even the final act of the evening is only partially thought-through. This act uses a device created by CdS called a Tournik. It basically consists of four horizontal bars as used in standard gymnastics but arranged as a square. Performers using any two parallel bars can do traditional gymnastic stunts and travel from bar to bar. The only way, however, that performers can use all four bars at once is if they stick to doing giants (360º circles) without attempting different grips or releases. This is because it is difficult enough for the two pairs on the parallel bars to synchronize with each other and still be deliberately out-of-synch with the other pairs on the bars at the other two sides of the square. It is indeed a marvellous sight to see ten performers all in motion at once, but at the same time you do realize that the set-up has compromised the variations they would otherwise be able to do.

Despite the all this, there are a number of acts that do stand out with little or no qualification. Prime among these is Canadian artist Sante D'Amours Fortunato who can rotate hula-hoops not just around her waist, but rotate several of them around both her ankles and wrists at the same time while moving into various contorted positions. The next most notable is Ukrainian artist Slava Pereviazko, who is the first in my memory of CdS to use the acrobatic ladder as his apparatus. What this means is that Pereviazko not only walks about the stage while standing on his ladder, but that he can move into various poses while near the very top of it without anyone supporting the ladder from below. It is truly amazing to see.

Another enjoyable act is one in which two pairs pairs of male performers enter into a competition using the teeterboard. What is unusual about the act is that all four are both pushers and flyers. Only by reading the programme would you know that the two sides represent rich and poor, but that point is irrelevant to the increasingly difficult twists, turns and somersaults each flyer makes while in the air.

There can be no faulting Botakoz Bayatanova from Uzbekistan) or Oleksandr Kunytskyi from Ukraine who perform the second-last act of duo-straps in which Bayatanova often hangs in position from the incredibly strong Kunytskyi, who may already be in Iron Cross or Maltese Cross position. The problem is that in a show where there have been so many aerial stunts, we are already visually sated when we see yet another pair of artists being hoisted aloft to perform.

As is so often the case, the clowns in Cirque du Soleil are problematic. Mauro the Dreamer Clown is exceedingly garrulous. He runs on and on in Italian and luckily takes a brief break to summarize what he has been saying in English. Otherwise, only Italian speakers will know what he’s talking about and certainly only they will understand the jokes he makes. His best scene is his imagining how he will get his wings when he dies. He enters on his flying bed (a beautiful image) and one of the many angels who remain in the air during the show helps him on with his wings. The most humorous part is his learning from the angel how to fly which requires long graceful strokes, not the rapid flapping he thinks is necessary.

While the later CdS show Kurios (2014) made use of one Little Person, Antanina Satsura, a “proportionate dwarf” only one metre tall, as the character Mini Lili. Corteo makes use of two proportionate dwarfs, Valentina Paylevanyan from Ukraine as the Clowness and Grigor Pahlevanyan from Armenia as the Little Clown. Valentina is given a long scene in which she is fixed to four helium balloons. Mauro pushes her off into the audience and they are encouraged to push her up in the air and finally back to the stage.

Valentina makes amusing comments about the process throughout, but at some point you do have to wonder how right it is to be treating a human being with a congenital anomaly as as an object for fun that is, perhaps, just a more elegant form of the ignoble Australian “sport” of dwarf tossing. The main scene, “Teatro Intimo”, involving both Valentina and Grigor as actors playing Romeo and Juliet is so chaotic and in its tiny stage-upon-the-stage so hard to see that it overstays its welcome shortly after it begins.

Corteo also employs an actual giant, Victorino Lujan from Argentina, a man with the medical condition acromegaly, who plays the Giant Clown. His main comic scene is also a disaster not because of him but because its concept. Lujan plays a golfer and another clown wearing a white hood plays a golf ball. The golf ball succeeds in hiding or moving out of the way so many times, that Lujan decides to take a swing with his club at his partner’s head – not really an idea to put into children’s minds.

It is strange that Cirque du Soleil would relaunch a show like Corteo without taking the opportunity to rethink and retool some of the acts as much as it does in rethinking the stage. Visually and musically the show is one of most attractive to watch and hear. Yet, it is ultimately unengaging and somehow lacks the propulsive energy that makes so many other CdS show so exciting. This was one of the very few times when, instead of being elated, I was actually relieved when the show finally ended. And, judging from the audience response on opening night, I was not the only one who thought so.

Christopher Hoile

Tour stops after Worcester, MA:

• Little Caesars Arena, Detroit, MI

January 10-13, 2019;

• PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, PA

January 16-20, 2019

• Ford Center, Evansville, IN

January 23-27, 2019;

• FedExForum, Memphis, TN

January 31-February 3, 2019;

• PNC Arena, Raleigh, NC

February 7-10, 2019;

• CenturyLink Center, Bossier City, LA

February 14-17, 2019;

• H-E-B Center, Cedar Park, TX

February 20-24, 2019;

• Moda Center, Portland, OR

March 14-17, 2019;

• Lawlor Events Center, Reno, NV

March 21-24, 2019;

• The Forum, Inglewood, CA

March 27-31, 2019;

• Tucson Arena, Tucson, AZ

April 3-7, 2019;

• Santa Ana Star Center, Rio Rancho, NM

April 11-14, 2019;

• Kansas Expocentre, Topeka, KS

April 18-21, 2019;

• Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, MO

April 24-28, 2019;

• U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids, IA

May 1-5, 2019;

• Wright State Univeristy Nutter Center, Dayton, OH

May 8-12, 2019;

• WFCU Centre, Windsor, ON

May 15-19, 2019;

• FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton, ON

May 22-26, 2019;

• Budweiser Gardens, London, ON

June 13-16, 2019;

• Agganis Areana, Boston, MA

June 19-30, 2019;

• Royal Farms Arena, Baltimore, MD

July 3-7, 2019

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) The Tournik with Mauro Mozzani on bicycle; Dzmitry Labanau on Cyr wheel; Slava Pereviazko on acrobatic ladder; Valentina Paylevanyan and Mauro Mozzani. © 2018 Dominique Lemieux.

For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.