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Death's rich pageant

Acrobats soar, clowns flop at Cirque du Soleil

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For the first time, Cirque du Soleil pitches its familiar blue-and-yellow tent at Atlantic Station for its Atlanta tour. In terms of cultural influences, however, the famously modernized, animal-free circus act can be located at the intersection of Federico Fellini and Roberto Benigni. Despite the Canadian origins, Cirque du Soleil frequently seems to have its heart in a twee, distinctly European flavor of whimsy and in-your-face slapstick.

At least, that's what you usually find in the comedy acts. What redeems Cirque du Soleil from its tendency to indulge in grating Euro-silliness are the remarkable acrobatics, with their dazzling blend of theatricality and athleticism. Cirque du Soleil puts both sides on reliably lavish display in the touring show Corteo, in town through Jan. 21.

After some labored, fussy pre-show shtick involving a coffin and clownish mourners and undertakers, Corteo opens on an elaborately costumed deathbed scene. The makeup-free central character, "Le Clown Mort" (Mauro Mozzani) rises amid the attention of kitschy angels hanging on wires, and Corteo's loose framing device unfolds as the clown sees his life flash before his eyes.

Mozzani provides a beefy, ingratiating presence, particularly as a wide-eyed novice at such celestial practices as learning to fly. With skimpy, feathery wings attached, he flails his arms and legs like a clumsy swimmer. A friend of mine who's a connoisseur of Cirque du Soleil shows said she found Corteo more personal than its more abstract theatrics. With the point of view of an old-world clown, Corteo avoids Space Age spandex for more historically informed designs, such as the White Clown (Taras Shevchenko), a slightly bullying ringmaster figure costumed like the operatic clown Pagliacci.

That spirit of homage may explain why Corteo features such wheezy funny business, including rubber chickens and some pantomime horses. The latter look so corny and old-fashioned that you expect some kind of cool, surprising twist, but it never comes. Perhaps Cirque du Soleil suffers from the challenge of concocting comedy to appeal for all generations and global cultures.

Fortunately, the clowning doesn't diminish the splendors of the program's acrobatics. Corteo's first major act is its most astonishing, as three ornate, baroque chandeliers become swings for female trapeze artists. With the curved metal bars, the dangling, pearl-like strands and the graceful performers, "Chandeliers" provides a vivid, nearly miraculous display of beauty in motion, especially when the women dangle by one ankle or the backs of their necks. They also provide a quick reminder of the frequent sex appeal in circus acts, which display so many ripped, shirtless guys, leggy performers in tights, and lots of splits.

A sense of play infuses such routines, such as "Bouncing Beds," in which tumblers jump on bed-like trampolines like youthful child's play, until their moves become more intricate. One acrobat stood balanced on the headboard, fell backward, then bounced back into the same standing position. It was like watching a filmed sequence running in reverse.

Corteo features sights that even jaded audiences may not have seen before, such as the giant, hoop-like "Cyr wheels." Performers position themselves within and roll about the floor in gyroscopic formations. The climax, with all four going at once, resembles an eye-popping piece of kinetic sculpture. Perhaps the second act features more familiar bits, such as jugglers or the guy who climbs up and balances atop ladders with no visible means of support. But Corteo's 55 performers, backed up by live musicians, clearly have a keen sense of showmanship. They can make impossible feats look easy and, occasionally build suspense by making them look difficult, such as the tight-rope walker who stumbled just a bit while ascending a diagonal high wire.

You watch such performers and can only marvel at the discipline and physicality that their craft requires. If anything, circus acrobats seem underrated in a culture that routinely makes megastars out of, say, Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters. Not to disrespect Michelle Kwan, but can she hang upside down and spin a full-grown woman using only her teeth?

On a logistical note, you should definitely see Corteo if you want to spend at least a half-hour afterward trying to escape Atlantic Station's covered parking lot. Being imprisoned in your car snaps you back to reality after witnessing Corteo's performers and how they've freed themselves from the bonds of gravity and other earthly limitations.

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