TORONTO - Like some crew of latter day Columbuses -- Columbi? -- they've set out in search of a new way to get to the circus and and stumbled across theatre instead.
Corteo, the latest big top extravaganza from Cirque du Soleil is, in fact, as memorable for its often breathtaking theatricality as it is for its feats of crowd-pleasing derring-do.
Those feats are still pretty impressive, mind you. From the obligatory gravity-defying aerialists, through a whole stable of impressively agile acrobats to the mind-bending contortionists, Corteo has all of the elements that Cirque has always used to take an enthusiastic audience to the magical land of Ahhhhs.
But the images that linger have far more to do with the stimulation of the human imagination than they do with the spiking of the adrenal gland.
In Corteo, which opened Thursday in the Grand Chapiteau at Ontario Place, creator/director Daniele Finzi Pasca and his creative team have taken Cirque in a whole new direction, abandoning the alternate universe that previous shows have tried to inhabit in favour of one more anchored in our own reality.
From that anchor, they then attempt to touch the stars -- and if they don't succeed, they come so close it brings tears to your eyes.
The name Corteo is the Italian word for cortege, as in funeral cortege, and, not surprisingly, perhaps, the story it tells is shot through with melancholy as a clown imagines the end of his life and how his passage will be marked.
It's dark -- but not that dark. His imaginings start out sorrowful -- clowns weeping copious tears and old flames overcome with regret -- but as his coterie of circus friends gather, watched over by hovering angels, things quickly turn celebratory. And how better to celebrate the life of a circus performer than by throwing a circus?
The title may be Italian, but the feel is very Paris Left Bank in its glory days -- Toulouse Lautrec, with a pinch of Chagall , a soupcon of Magritte and a liberal measure of Fellini thrown in for good measure. Designers Jean Rabasse, Dominique Lemieux and Martin Labrecque create an Old World tableau delightful to inhabit.
But it is what happens in that world that enchants.
Clowns defy gravity to traverse the underside of a tightrope, a man rides a bicycle into the air through a flock of angels and a tiny ballerina dances on the fingertips of her audience's outstretched hands, seemingly born aloft as much by magic and good wishes as by the huge balloons to which she is tethered.
In Corteo, Cirque has taken all of the traditional circus material that has always been their medium and blended it into something that is so very close to art that you just might find yourself resenting it when the veil slips and the circus intrudes again.
Corteo runs through Sept. 11.
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