Memories Of A Clown's Life Shape The Story Of 'Corteo'

Apr 6, 2018

Cirque du Soleil returns to Rockford this weekend with a show called "Corteo." We spoke with the artistic director about the story behind the show.

Like many of Cirque’s shows, “Corteo” features larger-than-life performances and a variety of acts. But artistic director Mark Schaub says they’re centered on the story of Mauro, a clown approaching the end of his life.

"He’s either imagining his funeral or he’s dreaming about it or he’s actually there," Schaub said. "And 'Corteo' is really a parade of his life passing before this central character. It’s a celebration of that life in the circus.”

To match this theme, Schaub says many of the individual acts revolve around specific periods, such as childhood, represented by childlike actors bouncing on a trampoline-like bed.

"It’s very playful and very childlike. There’s another act that represents his past lovers, and they’re doing aerial work on these beautiful chandeliers. We have flying acts. We have a teeterboard act. We have a suspended pole."

Musical Director Roger Hewett says these moments are accentuated by an eclectic score.

“We’ve got everything from flamenco feel to some folk to some tango music and sort of like just about everything in between,” he said.

Hewett says working with this score can be challenging, because the show makes use of very few prerecorded tracks. As a result, he often has to adjust the band’s performance on the fly.

Mark Schaub (left) is Artistic Director for Corteo and Roger Hewett (right) is the band leader.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

“I’m the one that has the decision-making process of actually deciding which section goes with which music," he said. "Like, okay, we hold it here for a few measures because something happened or they’re taking time to prepare or they moved ahead and skipped something, so keeping everybody in order on that line.”

“Corteo” differs from Cirque’s other performances in that its makeup and costumes are much less otherworldly and fantastical. Schaub says this was a deliberate choice.

“It allows the audience to get into the drama and the comedy and the emotions that are taking place on stage, because I think it allows them just to relate a little bit more to it,” he said.

“Corteo” also is one of Cirque’s earlier performances, having been initially conceived in 2005.

“'Corteo' toured for ten years in the big top, and now we’re starting an arena tour that could go for five to seven years,” Schaub said.

Cirque switched to the arena format  to reach more cities. "Corteo" debuted in New Orleans in March. Rockford is the fourth city in this new tour.

Hewett says they managed to keep several elements from the big top performance.

“We still have the split stage, so the arena show for this particular performance of 'Corteo' isn’t down one end of an arena like it usually is.”

But on the musical front, Hewett says they’ve made a few adjustments.

“The music has changed quite considerably since the original creation in that, yes it is shorter and somewhat more dynamic, I find now," he said. "We have new musicians on the show as well, and some of the transitions between the acts are a little bit shorter; but they work extremely well with the new format that we have.”

The musicians also are in full view of the audience in pits next to the stage. Hewitt says this makes them part of the act.

“Whereas we see the personal aspects of the artists on stage, when it comes to the musicians, we do some pretty crazy heavy makeup actually. Very time consuming to put on, but it’s a lot of fun.”

But these grandiose shows aren’t without risk. On March 17, acrobat Yann Arnaud fell to his death during a performance of the show “Volta” in Tampa, Fla. It was the third such death of a performer for Cirque du Soleil in the past five years, and halted further performances of that show.

Asked how Cirque handles safety, Schaub emphasized that all performers are trained with the goal of preventing accidents before they even happen. He said Arnaud’s death rippled throughout the troupe.

“When something happens to one of us like that, it really affects us all,” he said.

Nevertheless, both Schaub and Hewett are enthusiastic about “Corteo” and say that the character Mauro’s remembrance of life pays tribute to the circus itself.

“I think that, by looking at the passing of a clown, it’s a chance to also celebrate the clown, to celebrate this character, to celebrate his life and all the different aspects of it,” Schaub said.

Hewett also assures fans the show has elements that will appeal to everyone.

“'Corteo’ has, despite the slightly deep context surrounding it, it is in fact a very, very fun show. We’re very close to the audience as musicians, and I can hear the response of the children close to me, really enjoying what they see. So it’s a good, fun, family show.”

"Corteo" runs through the weekend at Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center.