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The Arts
January 25-31, 2006

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Photograph by Benoit Aquin
Liat Luxe: A decadent trapeze beauty hangs from a giant chandelier in 'Corteo.'

Clown Town

Cirque du Soleil marries technical pizzazz to visual jazz in 'Corteo'

By Marianne Messina

AS IT SEEKS to enact the highlights of a clown's life, Cirque du Soleil's Corteo has woven in many elements of the old-time circuses that blew through rural towns enchanting them with the wonders of the world. With band members dressed as clowns, the troupe presents jugglers, acrobats, little people and a giant. Many of the acts are familiar circus acts—juggling rings and pins, high wire, teeterboard and trampoline. But besides adding a dramatic premise, Corteo combines three rings into one fantastically layered stage show and lets complex, multiethnic music replace the barker who narrates the carnival flavors of danger, mystery and romance.

The premise? A jovial Italian clown (Mauro Mozzani) imagines his funeral as a procession (or corteo in Italian) of all the friends, lovers and associates near to him since childhood. His corteo starts as a wild New Orleans/Gypsy-flavored banging and bugling that at one point causes the ringmaster (or "Loyal Whistler") to warn that it is a little out of hand for a funeral. As Loyal Whistler, red military suited, whip-cracking Sean Lomax can certainly whistle. He takes requests, mostly classical music, and duels the violin by repeating intricate ditties from Mozart and Verdi. Though the show's tone and feel is Old World, from the baroque cherubs painted over the stage curtain to the elaborate candelabras and Venetian/commedia dell'arte costumes, the musical suggestions scatter across the spectrum—flamenco guitar, Italian opera, Gypsy music accented with hoots, claps and percussion, hints of klezmer, Parisian accordion, high church organ, Middle Eastern scales all swell forth from live musicians to augment the drama.

But underpinning all the drama is Cirque du Soleil's much touted artistry. The teeterboarder ends his wild triple somies and airborne pirouettes by landing so precisely on the see-saw board as to throw his opposing acrobat up in the air for a competitive feat. Women hang from rings, ropes and chandeliers by nothing but a neck or an ankle. Girls' extended bodies are passed head over heels like relay batons from one high-bar hanger to the next. A ladder artist (Uzeyer Novrusov) does a handstand atop a two-point ladder to nowhere.

The technical skill is always married to beautiful images. The large, perfectly balanced Cyr wheels, in which acrobats stretched like wheel spokes tumble and spin, create blurred time-defying shapes in the air. Likewise, the shapes spun out by the jugglers' sparkling pins and glowing rings create the sense of exceptional events on a celestial plane. Often the clown's afterlife proceeds on two levels: earth and sky. Angels aloft serve both as guides and prop masters.

In one scene, the clown, with his angel guides, looks down on the acrobats as he rides a bicycle through the sky. He progresses much slower than real time, as if he's swimming through the proverbial ether. Throughout the show, much of the action takes place—or appears to—in this slow-motion zone suggestive of a dream. Though one is always aware of the moving machinery—pulleys and wires and tracks—Corteo creates the impression of incredible levity, both humorous and feathery light. The "Teatro Intimo" in which the little-person duo of Valentyna and Grigor Pahlevanyan attempt to stage Romeo and Juliet (a staging rather more like Pyramus and Thisby from A Midsummer Night's Dream) is belly-laugh funny. The epitome of lightheartedness, Valentyna Pahlevanyan's brief, enchanting romp a la helium balloon will leave echoes of her pixie voice going "Ooops!" and "Ooh-la-la!" in your ears long after the show. As the troupe sang, drummed and bowed its final curtain call, my often somber, thirtysomething friend blurted out, "I want to leave with them." I think if I had to write a six-word review of Corteo, that would be it.

Cirque du Soleil's Corteo plays Tuesday-Wednesday at 8pm, Thursday-Saturday at 4 and 8pm and Sunday at 1 and 5pm (8pm only on Jan. 27 and no shows Feb. 7). Tickets are $31.50-$85. (1.800678.5440)

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