There is almost too much to look at. A woman in a pink-and-purple-fringed leotard drops from the ceiling to the stage floor, her limbs apparently as limp as a marionette’s. She’s attached to a puppeteer’s strings, but she’s the one in control as she seems to levitate a few feet off the ground, displaying grace and immense power. Moments later, clowns flip madly around a set of parallel bars and bounce on free-standing ladders, using balance to defy gravity. And then a beautiful woman dangles by just one leg from an enormous chandelier above an old man sleeping on an ornate, four-poster bed. Funereal yet cheerfully surreal music plays.
At the circus, a sense of ineffable magic is part of the promise. To elicit the requisite awe from onlookers, Cirque du Soleil, the internationally renowned contemporary circus, relies on the athletics of acrobats rather than stunts with large exotic animals. Cirque uses intricate costumes and sets, and dramatic music and lighting to envelop audiences in its fanciful world — as performers stun and beguile with masterful feats of flexibility and aerodynamics.
One of Cirque du Soleil’s traveling shows, Corteo, comes to Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho for six performances over five days, beginning Thursday, April 11.
“One of the things I love about this show is that it deals with such a human situation,” said Mark Shaub, the artistic director for Corteo.
In Corteo (Italian for “procession”), a clown named Mauro watches his own funeral while in a dreamlike state. There, his friends and loved ones celebrate his life in the circus. “Mauro wasn’t a traditional clown with a red nose and painted-on smile,” Shaub said. “He is a funny man but also very passionate. When we look back at his life, we see that not everything went all that well. He’s not a perfect character, not a genius. He’s somebody you might sit next to on a bus and wind up chatting away the hours, not noticing the time that’s passing.”
That said, Cirque du Soleil does not specialize in complex narratives. Since its founding by street performers in Montreal in 1984 and the proliferation of international touring shows during the 1990s that continues to the present day, Cirque du Soleil has redefined how audiences experience circus arts by presenting them with visual and aural spectacles that all but overwhelm the aesthetic senses, utilizing story as a loose framework for stunning acrobatic numbers that carry the plot forward. Some of the scenes in Corteo recall Mauro’s childhood, like “Bouncing Beds,” in which acrobats dressed as children bounce on mattresses that are really trampolines. “In another number, four women who were important to Mauro in his life do an aerial act on chandeliers. They are dressed in costumes that are romantic,” Shaub said.
Corteo premiered in 2005 in Montreal as a Big Top show, which is a circus held in a large tent. It toured for more than 10 years, setting down stakes in 60 cities in 19 countries. Shaub served as Corteo’s artistic director during the first few years of its Big Top tour and then oversaw other Cirque shows and worked on outside projects before returning in 2015 for its final year under a tent. He came back again in 2017 to help transform Corteo from a Big Top show to the arena show that is coming to New Mexico. He oversees Corteo on the road, making sure the production “develops and grows and matures, all the time respecting the artistic vision that was there when it was created,” he said. “An artistic director at Cirque doesn’t create the shows, but we maintain them. We keep them alive.”
Hundreds of people are involved in the life of Corteo. The cast numbers 51, and the band has six musicians and two singers. Together, the cast and crew represent 15 nationalities, with performers from Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, the United States, and other countries. Behind the scenes at the arena show, 34 staff technicians and about 100 local people are responsible for setting up and taking down the entire production in each city. It takes 12 hours to unload the trucks; erect the rotating stage, sets, and rigging materials; and get the actors dressed, made-up, and in place. After the last performance, everything is broken down and loaded up in just four hours.
When Corteo was a Big Top show, many more hands were needed and the process was much more involved. Shaub explained that when the circus comes to town, they have to raise a big-top tent as well as tents for concessions and for the artists; put in audience seating; wire for electricity; and install plumbing. This takes seven days to complete. In an arena show, all of that infrastructure is already in place.
The Corteo arena show is a more portable version of the original, with changes between the two being primarily technological. Some things that make Corteo easier to present in 2019 simply weren’t available in 2005, Shaub said. For instance, 260 costumes are needed for Corteo, all of which have to be washed and mended between performances. Originally, these outfits were made of natural fibers — linens, silks, and velvets — and required a huge staff to care for them. Now, modern technology allows some of the finer details and textures to be printed onto fabric that is durable and easily cleaned.
Some of the musicians and performers in Corteo have been touring with the show since 2005, though only a few of them are acrobats. That’s because bodies give out over time due to age and injury, which is always a risk when operating at the intensity that’s required for circus. But Cirque is a destination for former Olympic gymnasts who want to continue doing what they love after they’re no longer competing, sometimes extending their careers by decades. Other acrobats come from circus families that run five or six generations deep, and still others were trained at circus schools. Cirque artists are on the road for 10 or 12 weeks at a time, doing six shows a week. Most of them specialize in one specific skill, such as aerial dance, ladder, or trapeze.
“To do the type of performances we do, at the level that we do, requires so much training and concentration that it’s difficult to do more than one thing,” Shaub said. “If you’re a juggler, you’re a juggler. It takes hours and hours every day, just juggling, and there is no time to do other things.” ◀
▼ Cirque du Soleil presents Corteo
▼ 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, and Friday, April 12; 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13; and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, April 14
▼ Santa Ana Star Center, 3001 Civic Center Circle NE, Rio Rancho
▼ Tickets $55-$110, 888-694-4849, cirquedusoleil.com; suites packages with VIP seating and private catering are available at 505-891-7338