Cirque-us LifeMay 01, 2023 ● By Lisa Sciortino
by Lisa Sciortino
Alison Crawford will tell you that she has “an amazing job.”
It is hard to argue with that claim: Crawford, a former professional dancer, is the artistic director of Corteo, a touring production by the famed Cirque du Soleil entertainment company.
The production stops in Frisco May 17-21 for performances at Comerica Center. (Ticket information is available at comericacenter.com/events.)
“I think I have the best job at Cirque du Soleil,” says Crawford, explaining how (among other tasks) she works with the company’s signature, awe-inspiring “artists” — including acrobats, gymnasts, aerialists, contortionists and dancers — and occasionally makes small updates to Corteo, which premiered in 2005 in Montreal, Canada. Since then, the show has been seen by more than 9 million people worldwide.
“I love being behind the scenes and being with the artists,” Crawford says. “I’m still artistic. I’m just not going physically onstage. … With the artists, it’s giving them notes and tools to grow.”
At Cirque du Soleil, she explains, “We say that our shows are not museum pieces, so they have to constantly move. We’re dealing with human beings.”
“What’s lovely with this show is the artists will often come to me and say, `You know, I think this could be better here,’ or, `What do you think if I do this?’ That’s wonderful because that means they’re inputting to it.”
When it comes to occasionally altering elements of the show, Crawford says, “We’re not changing it hugely. My job is the guardian of the concept, so making sure that … we’re following the show order and keeping each act of the highest quality, but within it we … change little things, tweak little things.”
A Theatrical ‘Amalgamation’
Founded in the early 1980s in Canada, Cirque du Soleil began as a small collection of circus-arts performers (jugglers, fire breathers and musicians among them). Over the past four decades, it has grown into an international entertainment sensation.
The company currently produces nearly two dozen touring and stage shows. Several of its best-known titles — including O, Mystere and Michael Jackson ONE — are performed nightly in Las Vegas showrooms. Others are set beneath elegant big-top-style tents as well as at arenas.
Crawford says what makes Cirque du Soleil productions so popular with audiences around the globe is an “amalgamation” of the show’s various elements.
“It’s not just the performance. It’s the costumes, it’s the makeup, it’s the sound, it’s the way it’s put together,” she says. “I know what’s very important to Cirque du Soleil is that we touch people, we make them feel something. … Corteo brings two hours of beauty and passion … to your life. It’s just very inspiring.”
Corteo (an Italian word that translates to “procession”) follows the story of an aged clown named Mauro “through his life,” Crawford says. “He’s showing us his life and he’s celebrating his life. We get to meet all the people who have touched his life.”
According to Cirque du Soleil, Mauro “pictures his own funeral taking place in a carnival atmosphere, watched over by quietly caring angels. Juxtaposing the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection, the show highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, to illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us.”
The family friendly show features “lots of humor,” Crawford says, adding, “You will be touched. You will be moved. It’s colorful. There’s live music. Its everything that you expect from Cirque du Soleil.”
Corteo also serves up a visual feast. It is set on a large, round, musician-flanked stage that provides audiences a nearly 360-degree view of the action that occurs before their eyes, as well as above their heads. The show features 53 cast members who hail from 28 countries around the world.
“We have a lot of automation in our show. There’s a lot of flying equipment, flying people, flying angels, flying artists,” and even “flying chandeliers,” Crawford explains. During the performance, “A little person … flies into the audience on helium balloons and (audience members) get to move her, like, push her. It’s a real experience, like any of our shows.”
While each Cirque du Soleil production “has its own DNA,” she says, Corteo may be slightly more challenging than others to stage given that it is “technically challenging because we travel with it.”
It takes the show’s nearly three dozen technicians, automation specialists, rigging crew members and others about 10 hours to erect the set at each of its tour stops. Then, all of the equipment must undergo “validation” processes prior to showtime to ensure safety.
The Corteo team stages around 250 performances annually, typically setting up in cities for several days to several weeks at a time. Looking ahead, the production already has a full slate of performances scheduled for 2024, and likely will tour throughout Europe the following year.
“We’re a huge family traveling together, and we know everyone’s ins and outs,” Crawford says of life on the road. “You know, as families it’s never perfect, so we have our moments, but it’s a great experience.”
On the RoadCrawford is a road warrior and travels as part of the 117-member Corteo touring company. Having worked with the show since its premiere nearly two decades ago, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “As it was my baby, it’s always in my heart.”
Early in her career with Cirque du Soleil, Crawford worked at its studio in Montreal teaching dance and exercise classes, among other duties. She climbed her way up the Cirque ladder and had a hand in several of its productions before eventually joining one if its touring productions (she gave birth to her son years ago while on the road with another show).
After deciding to give her child more of a “normal life,” she left the road and for a time returned to the Cirque du Soleil studio to work as a senior artistic director on as many as seven show — that was, before the pandemic shut down live performances in 2020. When shows resumed, she decided to go “back to my roots” and hit the road again, this time with Corteo.
Crawford says she frequently watches the show in its entirety. “I never get bored. Also, (working) with the artists who give so much, it’s just such a pleasure seeing how they can perform and get better at what they’re doing artistically and acrobatically.
“It’s a very artistic show. The artists are actually themselves on the stage, so for me, I’m in wonderment all the time when I see the show. It’s lovely.”
Lisa Sciortino is managing editor of Frisco STYLE Magazine.