Rearing up 27 meters on Nakanoshima in the center of Osaka, the huge blue-and-white striped tent looked like a spaceship that had landed among all the concrete buildings. But the massive marquee is actually the current home of Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo” spectacular, the magical circus troupe’s hugely successful show whose title means “procession” in Italian.
The circus company based in Montreal, Canada, debuted this show in Japan in Tokyo in February. Since then, more than 930,000 people have paid to see it there and in Nagoya and Osaka.
The day I visited in Osaka recently, that popularity was plain to see as some 3,000 excited people made for a sell-out audience even though this was a weekday show starting at 4 p.m.
In front of us all, the circular arena, some 13 meters across, was sliced in half by semi-transparent curtains on which there was a picture of a clown with angels welcoming him to heaven. Then, as the show started, the curtains were raised to reveal an old clown lying on a bed. The character — called Dreamer Clown — was calmly waiting for his final moment and imagining his funeral procession, with his friends all there bidding him farewell.
Gradually, along with the rest of the audience, I became captivated and transported by the clown’s touching and exciting reverie — all the more so when four of his former lovers visited him to share their sweet memories.
The young and beautiful ladies bedazzled the clown with their passionate, acrobatic dances performed while hanging by their hands or legs from huge chandeliers that seemed to float over us all, but sometimes span round propelling the women at astonishing speed.
After the ladies and their chandeliers disappeared into the darkness high above, angels in white dresses gracefully descended to teach the clown how to fly. Then, as his bed itself began to float upward, the clown — with angel wings on his back — also started to soar in the air.
“I can fly! Great!” he cried out excitedly, his voice lingering as he disappeared from view and the next scene of the “Corteo” procession came along in the shape of Cyr Wheel.
In this act, we were treated to the sight of four big, shiny steel rings with performers inside them holding on with their hands and feet and rolling around the arena until they formed a big circle. It was for all the world as if they were symbolizing the never-ending journey of life.
The acrobatics overwhelmed the audience, including Jun Terada from Hannan in Osaka, who was wide-eyed as he declared during the intermission, “It was incredible that the four wheels with athletes inside could spin in time together” — adding that he was also very moved by the dramatic music played on drums, guitars, violins and other instruments by musicians in four band pits set among the seating around the arena.
Etsuko Matsui, a kindergarten teacher from Shimane Prefecture, was another astounded spectator. From her front-row seat, she said, “I could even see the trembling muscles of the athletes as they did their acrobatics.” She was especially moved, she said, by one romantic scene called “Acrobatic Duet” played out by a pair of male and female performers.
Like Matsui, I was agape at what the human body could be trained to do — but also by the technical equipment that enables them to fly and spin so high above, and makes that huge chandelier seem to float.
According to Cirque du Soleil, the key to all that is some 7 tons of rigging high above the arena, including two huge beams from which all the fixed and rotating gear — and often the performers, too — are suspended.
After all the show’s 18 acts were over, I went backstage to a tent connected to the main marquee where the multilingual cast — variously speaking in French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, though English is their common tongue — were practicing their acrobatics or just relaxing after taking off their costumes and makeup.
One of the artists, Florence Tabary from France, had been one of the Dreamer Clown’s former lovers in that wonderful early scene. Though her acrobatics on the chandelier had defied belief, she said that it really wasn’t very difficult for her as she has been constantly training and practicing since she entered a circus school at age 10.
“We perform in 10 shows a week, so we don’t need much more practice,” Tabary said. “But we train on the chandeliers once or twice a week, and the rest of the time we do our personal training, such as running and weights, to help keep in shape.”
Later, Gerard Theare^t, artistic director of “Corteo,” elaborated a little on what else the performers need to do to stay at the top of their profession. “We give tango and ballroom dance lessons, and also drumming classes just to work on rhythm,” he said. “We also have a special vocal coach for all the artists who have to sing on the stage, which is not common in the other Cirque du Soleil shows.”
Founded in 1984 by recent “space tourist” Guy Laliberte, the circus company is currently presenting 18 different shows around the world. Nonetheless, Theare^t said that “Corteo” is unique because in this show “you can see the most complex rigging and flying.
“We are creating magic in a tent,” he enthused. “It’s the best of acting, clowning, gymnastics and acrobatics, visuals and music. It’s spectacular to see the lighting, too.”
Referring to “Vocal Aerial Silk,” an act premiered in Japan in which a woman dances and sings while hanging from two strips of cloth, Theare^t explained that this combination is unique to “Corteo.”
“It takes a lot of concentration, a lot of breathing and singing technique,” he said. “It is a very strong act and visually very beautiful.”
Indeed, the beauty of the acrobatics, together with the heart-warming story of the clown and the women he loved (conceived by Daniele Finzi Pasca, the show’s creator and director) all clearly gave so much joy to the audience that their applause rang out long and loud at the end.
But beyond giving such enjoyment to so many, Theare^t said: “I think the big message is ‘enjoy every day of your life,’ so that at your funeral you have many wonderful memories to look back on.”
“Corteo” plays in Harajuku, Tokyo, from Nov. 4 to Jan. 24, in Fukuoka from Feb. 11 to April 4, and in Sendai from April 21 to June 6. Tickets are ¥7,000 to ¥13,000 for adults on weekends and national holidays and ¥6,000 to ¥12,000 on weekdays. For more information, visit www.corteo.jp