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Editorial Review

'Corteo': Circus Maximum
Cirque du Soleil Show Is Eye-Filling, but Some Of the Thrill Is Gone

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 4, 2006

With Cirque du Soleil's "Corteo," the wide-screen, high-definition version of the circus has come to town.

This serene, Felliniesque fantasy of a clown's afterlife is visually spectacular, so sumptuously designed that its sheer beauty threatens to outshine its stunts. And the stunts are pretty good under the tent at City Center, the old Convention Center site in Northwest Washington.

The blithe "Corteo" prefers charm over awe, however, so it seldom blows you away. The acts tend toward such whimsies as childlike acrobats bouncing on beds, flipping high, cascading, even landing on the headboard with one foot.

This is death with a smile, the kind with benevolent angels hovering just overhead. When the poor dead clown gets fitted for wings, he jokes that he needs a pair in Extra Large. Learning to fly, he kicks his feet and flaps his arms, rising through the air like a happy swimmer through water.

Despite the live New Age music -- including the splendid hot-dog drumming of Kit Chatham -- and state-of-the-art stagecraft that makes things run monorail smooth, there is a throwback tone to "Corteo." The cast includes two dwarfs and a giant, and the jugglers don't use anything fancier than rings and clubs. A high-wire act, men springing each other heavenward off a teeterboard, even rubber-chicken jokes and a slapstick version of "Romeo and Juliet" -- this is the old-world vocabulary.

But this is Cirque du Soleil, so it's rendered in champagne style. (Cirque is where the money is, and where the money goes: The concession prices are predictably steep, and there seems to be no path in and out except through the merchandise tent.)

Every detail is deluxe, from the deep saturated colors, rich fabrics and pheasant feather wings on a flock of angels to the huge powder-blue helium balloons that waft the diminutive Valentyna Pahlevanyan over the crowd. The audience, seated on opposite sides of the occasionally rotating stage, gently buffets her like a beach ball.

The most satisfying routine in the show, created and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, might be its first. Four women in silk scanties dangle and twirl from three immense chandeliers, and nothing else fills the top-to-bottom playing area so well. Not that the rest is spartan, exactly; the performance is frequently awash with numerous people, whether they're making patterns in the air or forming a ragtag orchestra marching across the stage.

It is a cortege, a massive funeral procession for the late but still genial Italian clown. It's a long procession at more than 2 1/2 hours, and the audience didn't seem wowed late in Act 2 as Uzeyer Novrusov began doing tricks at the top of a slightly rubbery ladder with no one holding it for him.

Maybe that's a hazard of making so much tough stuff look abominably easy. Circuses often huff and puff, but Cirque -- the gold standard of big tops, even in a silver medal show -- never breaks a sweat.