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The Arts
January 18-24, 2006

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Sunny Side Up

Cirque du Soleil returns to San Jose with 'Corteo,' an acrobatic meditation on the meaning of clowning


By Marianne Messina

CONSIDERING the historical, linguistic, philosophical and artistic references all tumbling around in a Cirque du Soleil production, you may think the creation process is quite cerebral. But speaking to Alison Crawford, the artistic director for the new touring Cirque show Corteo, what you hear most clearly is the heart.

Crawford, who has been with the company since the 1996 Quidam tour, describes the rewards of her work in language anything but cerebral: "To work with a show that you love, it's your child, your baby, you've seen it come from nothing and go out into the public."

Crawford has indeed nurtured Corteo through a long process of meetings among over a dozen creatives—acting, sound, costume, set and lighting designers as well as acrobatic-rigging designer Danny Zen, two creative directors plus the oversight of Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil founder and "Guide."

Corteo (Italian for cortege or procession) asks what the funeral procession—in a mythical realm—might be like upon the hypothetical death of a clown. According to Crawford, the idea comes from creator Daniele Finzi Pasca's own musings: "This is something that Daniele has had on his mind for a long time. He is a clown himself, and he's always asked that question, What happens? Who would come? What kind of party would I have?"

But Crawford is quick to point out that there is nothing macabre about Corteo; it focuses rather on the joyous sum total of what a human life has to offer. And in celebrating humanity, Corteo does not rely heavily on the masks and elaborately disguised faces that helped define Cirque in the past.

"There is makeup, but it's not mask makeup; you can see their faces. Basically, their eyes are bigger; they're beautiful—the beauty of men and women." Whether inspired by Chagall or Chartres cathedral, Picasso or commedia dell'arte, the sensory blitz of Cirque du Soleil has evolved mostly from a series of images.

"There's one beautiful image that we worked, with one of the little persons," Crawford says, referring to Valentyna Pahlevanyan from the "Helium Dance" (Pahlevanyan's real-life husband, Grigor Pahlevanyan, also stars in the show). "It's when she's flying with these huge helium balloons, and she's passing through the audience, and it's so absolutely incredible. It was talked about, it was drawn, it was practiced and it came to fruition."

As always, Cirque du Soleil draws the young talent for Corteo from all over the world—16 different countries in all. And Crawford says that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work is watching these performers grow. "A lot of them come as acrobats," Crawford explains. "They don't have a theater or acting or dance background."

Crawford notes that in an act called "Paradise," Asya Vorobyeva is making her "little angel" role more exciting every performance. "[For 'Paradise,'] we're doing an act of Korean cradle, which is quite a difficult act we haven't actually done in this way." Involving high-flying and jumping in a system that combines trampoline and trapezelike stations, Corteo's Korean cradle breaks a world record for the distance between stations.

"I remember when we were first looking for the little angel," Crawford recalls Vorobyeva's early trials. "She was up there singing and laughing, and she said, 'I could stay here forever!' So she is really made for the position." Crawford calls Vorobyeva's act "scary" because the acrobats don't use the traditional safety belt.

Like each Cirque show before it, Corteo seeks to push boundaries and redefine the Cirque experience. Corteo audiences will find themselves seated on both sides of the performing area, facing each other, so they can share a "performer's-eye-view of the audience." Quelle idée!


Cirque du Soleil begins Jan. 19 at the Taylor Street Bridge at Taylor Street and Highway 87 in San Jose. Shows are Tuesday-Wednesday at 8pm, Thursday-Saturday at 4 and 8pm, Sunday at 1 and 5pm. (8pm only on Jan. 19-20 and 27; no shows Feb. 7). Tickets are $31.50-$85. (1.800.678.5440 or cirquedusoleil.com)

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