Arts and Entertainment

Here comes ‘Corteo’

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Corteo’ tells the story of a Dead Clown, who watch his sendoff from a mortal life. - Marie-Reine Mattera photo
Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Corteo’ tells the story of a Dead Clown, who watch his sendoff from a mortal life.
— image credit: Marie-Reine Mattera photo

Cirque du Soleil returns

to Marymoor April 24

The international sensation Cirque du Soleil returns to Marymoor Park April 24-May 25. Since its inception in the 1980s, the Montreal, Quebec-based “Circus of the Sun” - as translated in French - has dazzled spectators with its reimagination of the circus concept, using no animals and showcasing the beauty of human movement.

The title of the production coming this year, “Corteo” is derived from the Italian word meaning “cortege,” as in a funeral procession. The show’s central character is The Dead Clown, who watches over his splendiferous send-off from mortal life into the great beyond. Music, dance and acrobatics combine to illustrate the strengths and frailties which exist within all of humankind.

In a phone interview, we asked Alison Crawford, artistic director for “Corteo,” how average American audiences, weaned on reality-based musicals from “The Sound of Music” to “Jersey Boys,” are reacting to this show’s vaguely psychedelic premise. “Dead clowns” seem like they might be a hard sell.

Crawford laughed.

“This one is actually a little easier to follow (than past Cirque du Soleil productions),” she remarked. “It does have a story line, a theme, of a clown looking back at his funeral, looking back at his life and seeing who inspired him. This is an old circus so we meet acrobats, Little People (once called “midgets”) and a giant ...”

As the show unfolds, The Dead Clown recalls both the quirks and endearing qualities of friends, lovers and co-workers.

The 61-member troupe of “Corteo” comes from all over the world, tracked down by a vast casting department with subcategories such as “clown specialists, dance specialists and acrobatic specialists,” said Crawford.

Casting information online makes it much faster for prospective performers to learn what they need to know, “and it’s a great new tool we have to bring people to our audition sites,” she said. “They present (themselves) to the senior artistic directors ... As we’re trying to build an act, we say, ‘Does this look good?’ As the show goes on the road, it evolves. We’re always working at making it better.”

About half of the current “Corteo” performers have been out on the road with the show for its two-and-a-half-year run, Crawford said, and they have learned so much along the way. “In ‘Corteo’ there’s a lot of acting - at first, some of these artists had no acting skills,” she noted.

Most range in age from 18 to 35, except for The Dead Clown, who’s played by a 45-year-old man. And most are from the competitive gymnastics world, not trained in the traditional circus way.

Although the show is scripted, there is always a tinge of improvisation. That’s necessary “to take it to the next artistic level,” Crawford explained.

“They come to me and say, ‘I’ve got a really good idea,’ and we look at it. At the beginning, they didn’t have the tools but now they’re feeling it every day, pushing the limits - they’ve been doing a double and now they’re going for a triple, in order to not stay stagnant ... They’re a great gang. You see how much they love and care what they do.”

As seasoned performers, they have to make incredible feats look effortless, but everyone makes mistakes. We asked Crawford how often that happens and how they recover from the occasional “faux pas.”

There are nets and harnesses for the flyers, she said, and a special feature called a “bavette” which means “bib” in English, to catch the wayward performers.

“When there’s a need for an adjustment, the stage manager knows how to talk to the band leader, to keep people whistling or dancing longer,” Crawford said. “Falls haven’t stopped the show. We have a physio team on standby. It’s all part of the preparation. If there’s a problem, the audience usually won’t even know.”

When Cirque du Soleil last pitched its Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) at the park, the production was a huge boon to local restaurants, many of whom offered special discounts to Cirque patrons. But what do the performers typically do in host cities during their downtime?

“They love visiting new cities,” said Crawford. “The musicians love finding out where the great jazz bars are. But they usually have only one day off and like everyone, they sleep or do laundry when they get the chance.”

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