Caliban’s stealing me away. He gives my date a glance — ‘You with her?’ — then jealously whisks me away. This pre-show audience warm-up bit is a clown echo of his character’s role in the Shakespeare plot on which Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna is based. The show’s Caliban (Viktor Kee) is joined by a Miranda (Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan) and Prospera (Julie McInnes). But there’s a Romeo, not a Ferdinand (Édouard Doye). Director Diane Paulus hasn’t only mashed up Shakespeare: at the media preview she explained that she also threw in The Magic Flute—which she directed for the Canadian Opera Company last year—and Greek mythology for good measure.
Amaluna has a 70 per cent female cast. On average, CduS shows are two-thirds male. This is where the Prospera instead of Prospero comes in; Amaluna is CduS’s homage to women. Paulus decided to focus on motherhood in particular. Ama means mother and the theme is clear from the moment you step into the tent, which has giant baby mobiles hanging from its ceiling. Luna refers to Juno, the Greek goddess who protected women and was associated with the moon as well as the peacock. Both are visual anchors for the show as well as characters. Amy McClendon is a white/black peacock goddess echoing Swan Lake. She performs very graceful and haunting dance sequences. Marie-Michelle Faber displays some of the most startling stamina of the show as a moon goddess who sings while flipping around on an aerial hoop.
Paulus’s smartest move was casting two proven performers in new and expanded roles. Kee had an audience-wowing act in Dralion where he juggled six white and one red balls. Where can you go from there? Light the seventh on fire! In Amaluna, Kee not only performs this one-upped signature act—he also slinks around with a lizard tail as Caliban, often stealing the scene. Even more unconventional than promoting a juggler to star is promoting a band member. McInnes was a musician in KÀ and O. Here she’s a Prospera that sings and plays the cello and saxophone. This Prospera’s magic is her music.
Bayarsaikhan is a sweet, wide-eyed Miranda. Her hand-balancing and contortion waterbowl act looks like Zumanity’s but was more playful than sexy. She replaced Iulia Mykhailova as Miranda late in the game; Mykhailova’s apparent disappearance seemed also responsible for a missing and mysterious ‘cane’ act listed in the program. Doye makes a dashing Romeo; when he shed his shirt, the audience set off an audible wave of appreciation. The characters are rounded off by two clowns (Nathalie Claude and Pepa Plana), one in drag. Similar to The Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena, they enact a comic sidekick romance in parallel to the lead lovers’.
There’s also unicycle, aerial straps, teeterboard, water meteors, foot juggling, uneven bars, Chinese pole, and more. The two knockout acts, though, were a beautiful tightwire in the clouds act and Lara Jacob’s Rigolo’s bone balancing, and they had something in common: both were quiet, ethereal acts. See Rigolo’s act on Youtube, as I did before the show, and you might have also been unsure as to how it could fit into a CduS show without getting boring. Paulus resisted the temptation to fuss such an… umm barebones act up with exciting music, set, or other action on stage. Instead, there’s no set, simple spotlights, unobtrusive beats in the background, and Rigolo’s microphoned breathing. It sent the whole audience to its feet.
And that’s why Amaluna works. It marks CduS’s jump onto the post-‘nouveau circus’ bandwagon.
CduS used to be edgy. When they first reintroduced circus to the masses in the late eighties by injecting an artsy, modern feel to the genre, it marked the rise of a new circus tradition that was sexy and animal-free. CduS didn’t make rinky-dink sideshows. Circus, they argued, could be serious stuff.
But then, as often happens, what was contrarian became commercial. Thanks mostly to CduS’s success, circus became wildly popular. Circus schools popped up everywhere. And with the new kids came new ideas and styles. Their shows are fresh: they’re minimalist, contemporary, intimate. Often stage instead of big top shows, their aesthetic borrows heavily from modern dance and theatre. Rainbow bodysuits are rare. The latest CduS shows, on the other hand (including Ovo and Totem, the latter even with Robert Lepage’s touch), were well-financed and had pizzazz but no heart, little art. CduS, fattened into a multi-billion dollar industry with a brand, was starting to feel passé. It was mere entertainment, like all the other acts lining Las Vegas.
But Amaluna’s got the subdued, poetic acts. It has a rock pop soundtrack. It has bare-chested boys and Miranda in a bikini without body paint or a bodysuit, her hair up in an everyday ponytail. Yes, we’re talking about its $25- to $27-million budget shows. But, in many ways, CduS is catching up by stripping down. It’s been about time for at least a half decade. So why now?
Maybe it took a new gender in charge. Maybe the celebration of women shifted the focus just a little away from pure brawn and towards poetics, towards storytelling.
Crystal Chan is a writer and La Scena Musicale‘s managing editor.