Amaluna

by John Stoltenberg

Ardent fans of Cirque du Soleil attending the spectacular new Amaluna will recognize this as one of Cirque’s best tent shows ever.  Now in its 30th year with a track record of more than two dozen unique productions, Cirque is typically circumspect about overpraising its shows so as not to overpromise an audience’s experience. But as a longtime aficionado (a Cirque-head, if you will), I honestly cannot think of a Cirque touring show any better.

Before I say why, a few words to anyone who has never seen Cirque live: Think dreams, story, movement, music, fantasy. Picture dancers, singers, musicians, acrobats, clowns. Imagine beauty, colors, creativity, physical strength, virtuoso artistic feats.

Can’t do it, right? Can’t hold that much in your mind’s-eye all at once? Neither could I. Before I saw my first Cirque, all I knew was: Oh, that’s the circus without animals. Yay, PETA, blah blah. I had no idea what a wholly new art form I would find.

The origins of Cirque go back to the early 1980s with a ragtag troupe of Québecois street performers who did juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking, and other circus arts. In 1982 they created a street performers’ festival, which was so successful it led to a show called Cirque du Soleil (circus of the sun). Cirque du Soleil has since carved out a unique style of performance, completely reinventing and reconceiving the traditional circus. Cirque introduced dramatic themes, music, dance, and virtuoso performances that connect audiences viscerally through emotion. With but one exception (Zumanity, which is adults-only), Cirque du Soleil  is completely family friendly and genuinely appeals across generations.

At intermission I asked the parents of an eight-year-old how he was liking the show so far. “He’s enthralled,” said Mom right away as Dad nodded. Afterward I asked two ten-year-old boys for their views. “Amazing” and “awesome” they answered instantly. I did not happen to ask any girls, which was my oversight—especially considering the fact that Amaluna is a profoundly pro-female and female-centric theatrical spectacle.

“An ode to femininity and renewal,” says Cirque promo, with characteristic understatement. Amaluna Director Diane Paulus—the Broadway legend behind such award-winning productions as Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess—has said, “I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.” And wowza, did she ever.

Borrowing bits from Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest,  the extravaganza takes place on an imagined gynocratic island named Amaluna (a word Cirque coined to mean Mother Moon and a subliminal homage to menstruation). Amaluna is inhabited by the benevolent deities Prospera (Julie McInnes) and Moon Goddess (Andréanne Nadeau), a Caliban-esque creature named Cali (Viktor Kee), a beautiful ingenue named Miranda (Julia Mykhailova), Miranda’s clown of a nurse named Deeda (Sheeren Hickman), and a corps of fierce females who evidently aced martial arts class.

Scenic Designer Scott Pask and Lighting Designer Matthieu Larrivée have made a wondrous world of sea greens and blues beneath luminous foliage that looks like a rainforest canopy of phantasmagoric fiber-optic cable. Costume designer Mérédith Caron has adorned the cast—from clowns to creatures to aerialists and tumblers—with sparkle and sheen and endless ingenuity. As we enter the tent, we hear Sound Designer Jacques Boucher’s tropical birdscape; soon vivid and booming effects punctuate the drama.  Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (aka Bob & Bill) have composed a lush, lovely, and rockin’ score, which is sung gloriously by McInnes and Jennifer Aubry and played by turns tenderly and muscularly by an all-woman band (McInnes on violoncello and sax, Didi Negron on drums, Mireille Marchal on percussions, Cassandra Faulconer on bass, Angie Swan and Rachel Wood on guitars).

Off-stage there looks to be gender parity (among Amaluna’s creators are also Cirque Founder Guy Laliberé, Director of Creation Fernand Rainville, Choreographer Karole Armitage, Acrobatic Choreographers Karole Armitage and Debra Brown, Acrobatic Performance Designer Rob Bollinger). But onstage there decidedly is not. Besides the all-woman band, 70 percent of the cast are female. The overall effect is both powerful and nuanced, a thrilling theatrical experience like none other. This is a world run by women who are brave, strong, and self-possessed and who take up space without apology and own it without deference. Amaluna makes “leaning in” seem like child’s play on a jungle gym.

Into this imaginary world come some men and the plot thickens: A storm blows up and a shipwrecked crew washes on shore entangled in fishing nets. Among them are a hunk and a clown, and each becomes smitten with an indigenous maiden.

The hunk is Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin), who falls for Miranda. Classically, there are impediments to their romance. Miranda’s mother is the shaman Prospera, who arranged the storm and otherwise oversees her daughter’s arc toward love. Thus in the first act Miranda finds herself aswim in a huge see-through waterbowl   (I’m not sure why but it didn’t matter; the sight was stunning). Romeo leaps up on the lip of the bowl and takes off his shirt to join her. There were admiring oohs and ahhs from the audience (though this was carefully not played as a Chippendales moment), and their ensuing splash de deux was sweet and discreet.

In the second act Romeo athletically and longingly climbs a pole that reaches toward the flyspace where Miranda has been lifted by Moon Goddess—a breathtaking nod to the R&J balcony scene. At a point when his efforts fail to reach her, he heart-stoppingly plummets down the pole headfirst, stopping inches from the stage floor, as if so frustrated in his infatuation he flirts instead with death.  What struck me was the extent to which this acrobatic feat—astonishing in its own right—had been given a storytelling raison d’être, and the performer had been given a character motivation as credible and compelling as in scripted drama. In the dozen or so Cirque shows I’ve attended, I’ve never seen the like.

Nor have I seen an aerial duo go at it with the impassioned ferociousness of Vanessa Fournier and Maxim Panteleenko playing Goddess and God of the Wind. Suspended from straps in midair, they fling and fly about overhead, together-apart/together-apart, with such perfectly balanced yet vehement sexual electricity they could be Cirque’s backup power source.

The clown washed up on Amaluna is Jeeves (Nathalie Claude), Romeo’s bumbling manservant, and he falls for Miranda’s nurse Deeda, who’s giddy and a bit dippy. In the second act there’s a hilarious scene in which Deeda, now very pregnant (contraception apparently not a biggie on Amaluna), goes into labor. With Jeeves’s comically inept obstetric assistance, Deeda delivers a brood of…well, whatever kind of babies clowns have. Astoundingly Amaluna milks the comedy with utterly G-rated aplomb. At that and countless other moments, the thought came to mind: There’s a female director’s eye on all this. And that eye blazes with brilliance.

Throughout, the visuals beggar description, as they invariably do with Cirque. Near the beginning, in the middle of a ritual circle of islanders floats a big red silk, mysteriously, as if animated by ancient spirits. Near the end another such silk appears, now blue, blown aloft like an apparition. The evocative simplicity is gorgeous. Two solo acts are especially arresting for a similar reason: They focus attention on a singular human skill, not claptrap apparatus. Kee as Cali stands atop the water bowl juggling and miming simultaneously; his dexterity tossing and catching balls together with his gestural specificity  is riveting. Also on her own is Lili Chao-Rigolo as Balance Goddess, who assembles before our eyes, simply by balancing one wooden rib upon another, a huge mobile that looks like a fish skeleton sculpted by Alexander Calder. Her pace is slow and steady, precarious piece by piece. And as time seems to stop, the audience dares not breathe.

Of course the acrobatics must be seen to be believed; that’s quintessential Cirque. But Amaluna puts its own spin on the stunts. For instance, the first act closes with a troupe of eight women warriors on uneven bars performing gymnastic antics with a vigor that is unequivocally virile. George Balanchine ballets conditioned generations of upscale audiences to expect to see female strength disguised as fragility in toe shoes, decorated in tutus. Not so in Amaluna, where these performers’ brusque shouts and stern miens declare unabashed power.

Then cannily, Paulus opens the second act with four strapping shirtless men and a teeterboard. As they jump on it and bound from it, they turn somersaults in the air that would be idiotically daredevil but for the cohesion of trust and coordination that clearly unites them. And we see vigor on display that is exactly equal in virility to what we saw before intermission. The point could not be made more plainly. Nor, quite possibly, could a show celebrate gender equity more enthrallingly, awesomely, amazingly (to paraphrase those lucky unbiased boys).

Run away to this circus at once. You cannot imagine the extraordinary experience that awaits.

 

Running Time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

 

Amaluna plays through September 21, 2014, under the blue and yellow Big Top at National Harbor, 300 Waterfront Street, in Oxon Hill, MD. Tickets are available online or call 1-800-450-1480.

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