When a clown dies
Vail, CO, Colorado
The spectators in the tent were just quieting down when a man in a long blue coat and blue top hat came trudging down the isle. On his back, he carried a coffin.
Suddenly, the rough-hewn blue box sprang open, and a young man jumped out. Turning, he saw his final resting place, screamed and ran off ” leaving half the audience in horrified shock and the other half in stitches.
Such is the vein of Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo” ” meaning “funeral procession” in Italian ” a mixture of dark humor and light acrobatics, a juxtaposition of ridiculous and tragic that combines to create a spectacle of beauty, passion, grace and just plain fun.
The clown is dead. The gossamer curtains rise to the chubby, curly-haired fellow reposed in a narrow brass bed. All those he has known in his lifetime pass his bed, some sobbing, some giggling, yet a carnival atmosphere pervades. All but four women leave ” his past lovers.
Shedding their long dresses for turn-of-the-century lingerie, they performed aerial acrobatics on three massive chandeliers, their bodies contorting sensually to melancholy music. The dead clown can’t believe he’s dead as the women spin and sway above his head, and he called out to them. But instead of dwelling on lost love, his thoughts turned to childhood.
It’s every child’s fantasy ” a super spring-loaded bed capable of catapulting a bouncing a tot into the heavens. Six performers dressed as children ready for bed jumped on two bed beds moving on rotating platforms. Bright lights and upbeat music lent themselves to the playful nature of this act where each “kid” dared the next to perform something more outrageous then the last. One can’t help but laugh out loud at the youngsters’ crazy antics.
But alas, we were at a funeral and the somber mood prevailed. The angels ” dressed like the ones you see on top of the Christmas tree ” that hung from the rafters throughout the show descended to grant the clown his wings. Every angel needs his wings, but the vertigo-prone clown said he’d rather take the nether-world option to avoid the heights of heaven. Unfortunately for him, it’s not his choice.
We’re transported to heaven as four acrobats played on Cyr wheels ” hula hoops on steroids where the person fits into the wheel ” in an act that featured first one, then all four men and women spinning wildly in intricate patterns, perfectly timed and never missing a beat.
Some of the acts had nothing overtly to do with life or death, expect the performance in itself was magical. In one act, a couple used aerial straps in a mesmerizing display of agility, balance and strength. Their moves combined with the poignant music created a tender, heart-wrenching performance. And yet, as she swung through the air, legs spread in the Chinese splits with her partner balanced on her thighs, nothing but awe filtered though my mind.
While the amazing physical prowess and grace of the acrobatic acts certainly makes up a large portion of Corteo, there’s more to Cirque du Soleil than just flips and spits.
A purposefully disastrous rendition of Romeo and Juliet drew laughs, as did a couple of pantomime horses who give their trainer a hard time as the stallion flirts with the mare.
In Helium Dance, the diminutive Valentyna Paylevanyan ” one of the two little people in the show ” is carried over the crowd by six huge helium balloons. As she descended, it was an audience members’ responsibility to push her back up again.
“Oops,” she cried out in her high, squeaky voice, each time she landed on another pair of hands, until a frustrated clown demanded the audience return her to the stage.
There are moments in Corteo where there was so much happening, it was hard to know where to focus. Angles flying through the air, vocalists singing, dancers spinning, musicians playing ” but it’s a delightful sort of overwhelming feeling.
There were also quiet moments ” some bits of the show perhaps meant solely to spur thought or just give the audience a sensory break. Those empty shoes clomping across the stage ” what do they mean? Is it a metaphor for life or did the choreographer just think it would be a funny diversion? What about the rubber chickens that rained from the sky?
There are acts that we’ve seen before ” a man juggling a Chinese yoyo, another climbing unsupported ladders and a troupe on a teeter totter. But as always with Cirque du Soleil shows, artists have perfected these traditional acts and taken them to the next level. The hand is steadier and technique more refined. The ladders are higher and the tumbling off the teeterboard his never been more complex.
In the end, the dead clown climbs on a bicycle and rides through the night sky in ET-like fashion toward the bright light we’ve come to associate with death. He’s no longer afraid of the prospect or the heights, but the audience is left wondering whether the clown we’ve come to love is really dead. Perhaps it was all just a beautiful dream?