‘Corteo’ offers a high-flying homecoming for Cedar Rapids’ Erin Cervantes

Cirque du Soleil: Corteo

U.S. Cellular Center — Wednesday-Sunday, May 1-5

The cast of ‘Corteo,’ including Erin Cervantes, takes a bow. — Mona D’Amours/Cirque du Soleil

The U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids will host Cirque du Soleil May 1-5, offering seven performances (including two matinees) to Eastern Iowans eager to experience the way that the world might be distinct from its everyday-ness. Tickets are $48-118. This particular show, Corteo, engages audiences with an imagined journey through the funeral and afterlife of a clown, opening into what performer Erin Cervantes, during a phone interview, describes as a “celebration of life.”

Corteo “moves through periods in [a clown’s] life … it revisits his life, the people and places he’s known,” Cervantes said, in a way that reminds audiences of the possibility of an otherworldly edge to our everyday existence. Cervantes appreciates the aesthetics of Corteo in particular: “It’s very theatrical,” she said. “The makeup is natural looking” — unlike the bugs or avatars of other productions — “and it has a nice vintage feel, and it captures the old Cirque du Soleil and the nice, vintage circus feel … we’re just ourselves.”

Cervantes grew up in Cedar Rapids — her last time at the U.S. Cellular Center, she said, was for her high school graduation. She was a performer from an early age.

“From when I was very small, 3-4, I started in dance lessons as many little girls do,” Cervantes said. “I continued with dance. My father is a theater director and acts [at Theatre Cedar Rapids] and other places — so I was always exposed to acting and performing.”

She went to Columbia College in Chicago, studying directing, and went to Los Angeles to work on the production side of the film and television industry. After struggling, Cervantes joined a dance troupe in L.A., eventually finding her way to a circus school where she found a mentor. She began to train for circus when she was 30.

Circus work is a unique blend of athleticism and performance, requiring talent and training in both worlds. Cervantes describes herself as “an aerial acrobat as well as an artist,” saying that the performance is “closer to dance in terms of athletics,” but noting that “you’re still acting on the stage.”

“[We] make up our own backstory of what our relationship was to the clown,” Cervantes said of the process of developing Corteo. “When we see him for the first time, the acting past can come out, and it comes out through the entire show. [My] dance background gives me the grace, fluidity, movement and awareness of my body. We’re dancing in the air.”

Cirque du Soleil started in the streets of a small town near Quebec City in the early 1980s. It was an amalgam of differently talented performers — jugglers, fire breathers, gymnasts. By 1984, the troupe, under the leadership of Guy Laliberté, decided to take their act beyond their hometown. This led to a 1987 tour of the U.S. called “We Reinvent the Circus,” which maintained an act grounded on human excellence rather than freakishness, grace and beauty rather than cruelty and ridicule.

The fearlessness that had been demonstrated through the use of force in the animal acts of older circus models was reincorporated into practiced acts of self-discipline. By 1993, Cirque du Soleil had made a permanent home in the United States, providing Mystere for those who found themselves in Las Vegas.

The company now performs a number of shows around the world, continuing to develop new kinds of productions and stories with a fidelity to its core values of engaged interaction and the beauty of embodied story telling opportunities. A majority of the shows center on the recurrent themes of human experience, translated into dynamic modalities: autonomy and volition, magic and imagination, freedom and fearlessness. Each of these translates the human experience into transcultural terms, whether framed as a dream or a death, as insects or as gods.

Training and rehearsals for the show is extensive. Corteo, which had an initial run from 2005-2015, is Cervantes’ first show with Cirque du Soleil (her first circus performance was with Troupe Vertigo in Los Angeles, 2012), and she notes that they’ve now been touring for over a year following five and a half months of rehearsal in Montreal. Three of the four women in her portion are new to their roles this time.

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“In the beginning, it was about getting used to the chandeliers — 275-300 lbs. each — getting used to how they move,” Cervantes said. “We learned the choreographed parts of the act … also getting to know each other and feeling how each other works, strengths, personalities — and then we could explore our solo roles within the piece. Once we got to know each other … we explored new movements for the choreographed parts that were already set … I’d seen [the show] before, but when you’re part of it, you learn things that the director was going for that you wouldn’t notice. You get to dig deeper.”

Cervantes performs on one of the chandeliers during ‘Corteo.’ — Kelowna Now/Cirque du Soleil

The performance, in other words, becomes a synthesis of muscle memory and knowing and trusting fellow performers — and oneself. It requires discipline and creativity, a connection within the body and with the bodies of others.

After undergoing all of this, Cervantes says that it becomes possible to find a deeper understanding of the performance through an emphasized investment in character beyond choreography: interacting with new people on the stage, resisting the possibility of making the performance into something more like a machine.

“It’s nice to talk to new people on stage, find new ideas,” she said. “No matter how sore or tired [you are], it’s quite magical; it all just goes away and we can focus and deliver the show to the audience.”

Even if Cervantes’ perspective on this circus production of a circus dream goes deeper than the audiences, it remains just as inspired and infused by magic.

Rather than seeing circus as a synonym for chaos, Cervantes emphasized its emphasis for order and precision — and a place that, behind the scenes, is characterized by support and care. Further, although it hadn’t been her intention to join the circus when leaving home, she’s been impressed with the ability of circus to convey complex human emotions as beautiful.

“You’re able to tell a story without words, to move a story from the beginning to the middle to a climax and the end — and the period at the end of the sentence — with movement. Whether or not [the audience gets] the story, [seeing] how a body can express movement and feeling is important and powerful, whether it is funny or dramatic, slow or fast.”

The performance of Corteo is a chance for the audience to witness the incredible storytelling potential of a human body as it whirls and spins in space.

If Corteo is a celebration of a clown’s life, then this particular act is a culmination for Cervantes, who is excited to see her old friends and her family, particularly her nieces.

“I’m shocked this is going to Cedar Rapids. I’m really, really excited … It’s going to be incredible … When I left, I was lost in terms of what I wanted to do with my life and I’m coming back knowing that I’m doing what I should be doing.”

The joy in Cervantes’ voice was an indication of the exuberance made available in the production. In the case of this circus clown, joy enters not as cheap laughs but as earned awe and the surreal spectacle of the human form at its collaborative, interdependent best.