Cirque du Soleil is synonymous with bending the laws of possibility, as aerialists, acrobats, and performers occupy the space between reality and fantasy. Corteo takes audiences on a fantastical journey that celebrates the life of Mauro the circus clown. Each act represents stages of his life through childhood, his experiences in a small theatre troupe to the big top and beyond.
Artistic Director Mark Shaub spoke with EU Jacksonville about playing with scale, the value of a second act, and the beauty that exists between the spaces. Corteo is staged August 1-5 at the Veterans Memorial Arena.
“Corteo is a version of cortege which is an Italian word for a funeral procession. When the show opens, Mauro is on his deathbed and his funeral procession is passing by him,” says Shaub. “He’s seeing all the characters that he’s known throughout his life, and we don’t know if he’s dreaming this, or this [is] actually happening, and he’s participating in his own funeral.”
The contrast between dark and light enhances the dream-like quality of Corteo. Angels are prominent figures within the show to create the concept of life and beyond. The set curtains, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and the hand-painted central curtains create a grandiose environment that sets the tone for the poetry of Corteo.
“We play a lot with the idea of “on earth” and “in the heavens,” says Shaub. “We use angels throughout the show, some who are on the ground with him or other characters and at other times they are flying in the sky. At times, Mauro is flying with the angels and learning how to fly with his new wings.”
Created in 2005, Corteo is grand in both scope and scale. The show originated as a tented Big Top show, but it evolved into an arena production, allowing the performers to reach the audience on both sides of the stage. The proximity to the characters creates a level of intimacy and familiarity that makes audiences feel a connection to the show.
“It’s a big-scale production. There is nobody who is really far from the story. That’s the set-up we had in the big top and one of the reasons we wanted to bring that into the arena. If the stage is at one and you are sitting clear at the other end, the characters are very small. Corteo is a character-based show and it’s nice to be able to be close to them and see their expressions and their reactions,” says Shaub.
“Audiences come in with different expectations and different life experiences, and that’s all going to have an impact on what they take away from the performance. I think if someone goes into the arena to see Corteo with an open mind and ready to be transported, I can guarantee they are going to have a lovely experience because the show is going to take you on a voyage.”
As Artistic Director, Shaub is not only tasked with casting the 51 dancers and acrobats from around the world, he must also maintain the fluency of the production. “Corteo was created in 2005, and these shows are on the road for a long time. This toured for 10 years as a big top show, and now we’re in our first few months of the arena tour. My job is to work with the artists, work with the acrobatic coaches and new, incoming artists to help keep the show alive, breathing and evolving,” he says.
“Shows change when new people come in, and we try and take what people bring of themselves into the show and use it. While we are working with the same story that was created in 2005, it has evolved. It’s a very different show that tells the same story.”
When Shaub joined the Corteo family, he brought with him 20 years of previous dance experience and a working knowledge of the physical demands of such a large-scale production. He coordinates a team of performance medicine therapists, known in “Cirque talk” as the P-Med Therapists, who travel with the cast to minimize the level of risk and injury to the performers.
“They know the type of acts that we have, and they know what stresses that can place on the body and the acrobats that we have and what their strengths and weaknesses are. They, along with the coaches, work on developing preventative practices and exercise programs. If we know that we’re doing an act that puts a lot of stress on the knees, they will develop a program that keeps the knees as healthy as possible [to] keep the cast on their feet. They can also help treat smaller injuries and minor aches and pains that you will get when you do 300 shows a year. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body.”
Serving in the role of artistic director provided Shaub with a new outlet to express his creativity through the movement of the performers. “I think the one thing that I have in common with acrobats is my need to move. Dance allowed me to express my physicality and that need to be physically active. When I was performing, that was really important to me,” he says. “Going from the dance world into the circus was kind of a natural transition.”
Many performers within the Cirque du Soleil family are also enjoying a second act after retiring from the world of competitive gymnastics. Because gymnasts have such a limited timeframe for competition before they are considered “over the hill,” they are able to step into the circus performance world with several good years ahead of them.
“They are still physically [extremely] capable of using those high-level gymnastics skills. But they are also adding the other layers on to them of learning how to perform and be on stage. It really has provided career extensions in a way for a lot of people, because it’s still high-level performance and acrobatic complexity, but it’s certainly different from Olympic competition. The rhythm is very different,” says Shaub.
“For competitive gymnasts, they are focusing all their training on four or five competitions a year, while we’re doing between seven to 10 shows a week where they have to perform at their top at every one of those and entertain people in the process and hopefully have fun doing it. It can be much more fulfilling to make people laugh or cry or sit on the edge of their seats. It’s a whole other world. We deal in fantasies.”