Cirque du Soleil’s dreamy, thrilling ‘Corteo’

In “Corteo,” an Italian clown who imagines his death encounters ethereal angels. (Courtesy Maja Prgomet/Cirque du Soleil)

Cirque du Soleil has moved its 2005 show “Corteo” from under the big tent to the arena, and it’s a charmer.

Chandeliers play a big part in the thrilling opening of “Corteo.” (Courtesy Maja Prgomet/Cirque du Soleil)

Telling a surrealistic story of a dreaming Italian-speaking clown who imagines his own funeral (in Italian, “corteo” is cortege, or a festive procession, according to publicity material), the extravaganza displays the Montreal contemporary circus giant’s impeccable trademarks: classy style, glitzy production values, original music, evocative themes, and, most importantly, awesome stunts presented in unique ways.  

Onstage in Oakland after a stint in San Jose and before an upcoming San Francisco engagement, this 2023 arena production directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca puts audiences on two sides of the stage, evoking the mood of being in a tent. Yet the high ceiling allows for thrilling flying and flipping. As hovering angels often enhance the heavenly atmosphere, many of the most exciting physical feats are in the air.  

The show opens with a bang, with aerialists cavorting on giant, glittering chandeliers. Next, there’s crazy wild bouncing on massive bed-trampolines and belief-defying balancing on headboards. Performers then spin with speed inside large metal wheels, before a young woman with extraordinary strength and beauty climbs and hangs on suspended pole.  

A little person on a balloon ride is a particularly fun part of “Corteo.” (Courtesy Maja Prgomet/Cirque du Soleil)

Perhaps the production’s most charming bit, with audience interaction to boot, comes when the clowness, a delightful little person suspended from large helium balloons, goes on a flying adventure throughout the arena; the main character clown sweetly prompts folks in their seats to give her feet a little push as she floats into their airspace. 

More thrills come with flying teeterboard athletes; an acrobat who balances on a tall ladder that’s not leaning against anything and is truly mind-boggling; high-perched aerialists throwing and catching each other mid-air; and gymnasts swinging and flipping in incredible unison on high bars configured into a cube.  

As is routinely the case in circuses of all kinds, the clowning minus the stunts in “Corteo” is spotty. One truly funny and original bit involves a golf scene in which the ball is a person’s head sprouting from the floor. Less successful is the “teatro intimo” scene in which the clown-actors take a stab at performing “Romeo & Juliet” on a puppet-theater stage. 

An eye-catching old-fashioned European sensibility permeates “Corteo,” with songs sung in Italian, French and Spanish accompanied by live musicians, and characters in luxe costumes inspired by styles of the turn of the 19th century. As in all the Cirque shows, the care with which “Corteo” creators execute the design is matched by the skill of the performers. 

In “Corteo,” there’s something for everyone: audiences moved by the Federico Fellini-inspired setting, others satisfied by dangerous and stirring stunts, or, perhaps the biggest group—longtime Cirque fans captivated by both.  

“Corteo” continues at the Chase Center, 1 Warriors Way, San Francisco, from Aug. 23-27. Tickets are $39-$230. Visit

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