Spectacle and Substance

Cirque du Soleil brings ‘Corteo’ to Louisville

Photo of Svetlana Tsarkova and Harvey Donnelly by Antonio Pantoja. Assisted by Todd Proctor, Lisa Dean and Taylor Christine

Story by Remy Sisk

Photos by Antonio Pantoja and Courtesy Photos

If you’ve ever seen a Cirque du Soleil production in the past, you know that it is simply an unparalleled experience. Characterized by stunning acrobatics combined with lush orchestration, dazzling sets and costumes and overall resplendent visuals, Cirque du Soleil is an entertainment company that creates spectacular shows that draw from circus traditions. Every show is unique with its own storyline and all feature unbelievable interpretations of classic circus acts. This August, one of the company’s most revered shows will stop in Louisville. “Corteo” is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and its ability to weave a heartfelt story with the expected theatrics makes it a show that you certainly will not want to miss.

Harvey Donnelly.

“Corteo” first premiered in Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters city of Montreal in 2005. In this big-top format, it ran for 10 years before closing in December 2015. The show then underwent a reboot to be restaged for an arena tour, which is the production that will play the KFC Yum! Center Aug. 15-19. The show features such familiar acts as juggling and Cyr wheel but also less common moments. At one point, a woman is lifted high above the audience and the stage by helium balloons.

The concept of the story is centered on a clown who dreams of his own funeral. Admittedly, it isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a cirque theater show; however, this is Cirque du Soleil, and eccentricity is one of their many fortes. What this eccentric concept flourishes into, though, is truly beautiful. It is not a plodding production overwrought with sorrow but rather a joyous and festive presentation.

“Even though his death is the main theme of the show, the show is more a celebration of life,” says Maxwell Batista, touring publicist of “Corteo.” “When you’re watching a movie and someone’s about to die and they have all the flashbacks of everything that happened in their life, that’s what you’re going to see in ‘Corteo.’ You’re going to celebrate all the greatest moments that happened in this clown’s life. You’re going to see when he was a child and used to play on his bed like it was a trampoline, like how all of us have done before, and you’re going to meet all the loves that he had in his life.”

Following cultural traditions such as those of New Orleans and Latin America, creator and director Daniele Finzi Pasca positions his show to look at death through a lens of celebration and not of sadness. As opposed to a funeral full of tears, this funeral is a procession that looks at the authentic beauty of having lived a life. The name “Corteo” in fact means “cortege” in Italian, which is a procession or parade. That is precisely what “Corteo” is – one big, beautiful parade.

That is not to say, however, that the show is just a massive party. The tone is delicately set so that through death, we find joy, but along with that joy comes sincere nostalgia. It’s a balancing act as tricky as those done in the show itself, but one that, when executed successfully, can have astounding impact. Their approach has a way of amazing the audience with the stunts while also making them feel emotional resonance with the show.

“Corteo” currently tours with over 100 people, 51 of whom are performers, representing 18 nationalities. When audience members walk into the arena, haze and fog will fill the space, giving already a sort of “dream” appearance. As opposed to in-the-round or proscenium, the stage will split the audience down the middle. When the curtain rises, spectators will not only see the action, but they’ll also see audience members on the other side. The stage was developed in this way because, according to Batista, Pasca wanted to give the audience the perspective of the artists and make them feel what it’s like to be on stage.

The first person on stage is the clown, who is the central figure to the story – a quality that’s actually quite unique in its own right for conventional cirque theatre. “Whenever you go to the traditional circus, you see the clown not as the main character – the clown is part of the whole show,” says Batista. “But in ‘Corteo,’ he is the show. He is the main character, so the story is about him. We’re going to see the intimate side of a clown and his life.”

From there, it takes off. Batista’s own favorite moment of the show is the chandelier act, where four of the clown’s past loves come together and swing exuberantly from massive chandeliers. “I’ve never seen a chandelier that big and people flying on it,” he laughs. “To give you an idea, the creator, when he was a child at his grandma’s house, she used to have big chandeliers and he always wanted to be hanging from them and swinging from one side to the other. So he decided to put it on stage.”

Meanwhile, for performer Harvey Donnelly, it’s the act one finale that he most enjoys. A teeterboard and Cyr wheel artist, Donnelly was a competitive trampolinist in England between the ages of 10 and 19. He’s been with Cirque du Soleil for seven years, and “Corteo” is his fifth production with the company. At the end of act one, there’s a battle along the stage between the rich and the poor, Donnelly explains, and as the battle progresses, the acrobatics rapidly escalate.

“We are constantly trying to (one) up the other one and trying to do bigger tricks and bigger tricks and bigger tricks until eventually we do some extremely high-level somersaults,” he describes. “And at the end of the battle, it’s almost a mutual respect and an understanding. Even though the act is only five or six minutes long, by the end of it, the audience is almost a little tired with us.”

Ultimately, what is so remarkable about “Corteo” is that the show is about so much more than tricks. In fact, juggler and Russia native Svetlana Tsarkova emphasizes that the heart of the show has a deep connection with her and the group of performers she works with – a sort of cathartic resonance not always so common in this medium. “It’s like a big family because circus is always like a big family for all of us,” says Tsarkova, who has been juggling for 16 years and attended the Kiev Circus School. “We spend so much time together, so for me, this show is really about family and how you feel and how you treat your people and how they treat you back. It’s really poetic and really charming, and at the same time, it’s super sensitive.”

Similarly, when Donnelly first saw the production, he remembers feeling tremendously moved by it; the story’s core was just as significant as its visuals. “I first saw ‘Corteo’ in 2013 – I wasn’t a part of it, I was just going as a spectator – and I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful shows I’d seen,” he recounts. “The costumes, the stage, the visuals, the storyline – everything, even the music, was just so classy and theatrical and really thoughtful. I was blown away. There were some moments in the show that really stunned me.”

This dazzling impact is why Cirque du Soleil as a company has experienced the staggering success it has over its decades of existence. It brings unprecedented artistry to stages around the world, leaving audiences awestruck in its wake. While shows like “Michael Jackson ONE” (the company’s tribute to Michael Jackson) and “TORUK – The First Flight” (the “Avatar”-inspired show) are wildly entertaining and creative, they don’t have that same human substance that is at the heart of “Corteo.” In this show, we’re not seeing otherworldly creatures or mysterious beings or insects (such as in the bug-themed “OVO”). Instead, we are seeing real humans celebrating a life, the adventures they find themselves on and the memories they make along the way.

It is the extraordinary confluence of spectacle and substance that makes “Corteo” the striking event it is today. This is not just a performance to be seen – it is meant to be seen and felt. “If you’ve seen Cirque shows before, you already know that you get transported to another world,” Donnelly muses. “It can be surreal, it can be almost dreamlike, and although this show has those surreal, dream-like movements, the artistic level of this show is so high, the show for me is a total piece of art.” V