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Review: High-flying ‘Corteo’ finds Cirque du Soleil wrestling with somber themes

Review: High-flying ‘Corteo’ finds Cirque du Soleil wrestling with somber themes

The unbearable lightness of being buoys “Corteo” to dizzying new heights.

Dazzling in its sheer athleticism, artistry, and aching existentialism, the first Cirque du Soleil show to fly into the Bay Area since the pandemic will leave you moved and exhilarated.

Framed by the death of a clown, “Corteo,” which means procession in Italian, is part meditation on mortality and part heart-pounding celebration of being alive. Shot through with wild Fellini-style tableaus, this surreal circus dream kicked off a Bay Area run at San Jose’s SAP Center and is headed to Oakland and San Francisco. While it lacks the whimsy and intimacy of the troupe’s signature big top, writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca transforms the SAP Center into a theater framed by ornately painted scrims and dotted with bejeweled chandeliers from which astounding aerialists dangle and swing.

In this fantasy realm, a sad sack clown named Mauro (Mauro Mozzani) has his life flash before his eyes in a tragicomic blur, artfully written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca. You never quite know if he has died or is merely dreaming of what lies beyond. This ambiguity heightens the sense of mystery.

While this 2005 show engenders the usual oohs and ahs for its jaw-dropping physical feats and never-ending spectacles it also inspires some deep thoughts about how to spend your time among the living. The desire to examine how we approach the end of life has only been sharpened by living through a pandemic. Death awaits us all, not just Mauro.

To be fair, my daughter Daphne was blissfully unaware of the show’s elegiac poignance. The 12-year-old preferred the slapstick and pratfalls of the clowns, particularly the golf ball shtick and the puppet-show hijinks. She giggled and guffawed throughout the piece as only children, thoroughly unaware of their own mortality, can.

While she found the mix of English and Italian a tad confusing, the gags needed no translation. Laughter is a universal tongue.

To be sure we both adored the tiny woman (Valentyna Pahlevanyan) held aloft by gigantic helium balloons, floating above the audience, getting spiked like a human volleyball in an eerie number reminiscent of a David Lynch vibe.

Undoubtedly there’s no outdoing Cirque for the poetry of motion, a wondrous pageant of aerialists and acrobats who push their bodies to extremes, a sculpture forged in muscle and sinew.

In one eye-catching act, impossibly buff men rotate through huge metallic rings. In another, feuding gymnasts tumble and vault off a giant teeter-totter. Finally, a legion of acrobats pivot around a horizontal bar, swinging ever higher and higher, as the clown appears above them, flying off to the afterlife on borrowed wings.

Contact Karen D’Souza at karenpdsouza@yahoo.com.

‘CORTEO’

Created and performed by Cirque du Soleil

When & where: Aug. 17-20 at Oakland Arena; Aug. 23-27 at Chase Center, San Francisco

Tickets: $39-$145; www.cirquedusoleil.com