Cirque du Soleil returns to Toronto with a show that places women in the forefront. Amaluna is Cirque's 32nd touring production, and it's a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart.
According to the release, the show's title "is a fusion of the words ama, which refers to “mother” in many languages, and luna, which means “moon,” a symbol of femininity that evokes both the mother-daughter relationship and the idea of goddess and protector of the planet." This New Age-woman-power energy is apparent throughout the show, even as various circus and gymnastic routines are seamlessly integrated within the storyline. The show is running at the Grand Chapiteau in Toronto's Ports Lands district through November 4th.
Amaluna distinguishes itself from other Cirque shows by maintaining a clear narrative that's partly inspired by Shakespeare and partly derived from comic books (notably Wonder Woman) to further its theme of female empowerment. Created in collaboration with the much-lauded American director Diane Paulus (who directed the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess), Amaluna offers all the tricks you might expect from a Cirque show - acrobatics, contortionism, juggling, a sweeping score -but adds a fascinating subtext that makes its lengthy running time (close to three hours) fly by in high style.
Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova) is the daughter of Prospera (Julie Andrea McInnes), a powerful sorceress who rules a mystical isle inhabited solely by women. When a group of shipwrecked sailors, lead by a clownish mustachioed captain (Josepa (Pepa) Plana Llort), wash ashore, Miranda falls for Romeo (Edouard Doye). During their courtship, we see Mykhailova perform a beautiful, poetic routine inside a giant, water-filled goldfish bowl; her character develops amidst the joyous splashes and stretches, her nascent womanhood bursting forth with eery joyous flip and backbend. Movement complements and reveals character here, with Cirque's bag of tricks at the service of character development. It's a refreshing switch, something that marks Amaluna as not merely another flashy, tumbling diversion, but as a more serious and involving piece of legitimate theater.
This is reflected not only with mainstage performers but musicians as well. The all-female back-up band energetically perform an uptempo mix of rock and pop that recalls the grandly symphonic soundscapes of Pink Floyd, Coldplay, and "Kashmir"-era Led Zeppelin. With long purple coats and spiky asymmetrical haircuts, theirs is a sharp, funky presence that moves past being merely background players, perfectly blending with the strong, urban design of the show (despite its fantastical island setting) and the noticeable androgyny of many of the performers. Amaluna may be 70% female performers (its band, 100%), but that doesn't mean it's filled with the jiggly, giggly, cutesy version of femininity so frequently presented in popular culture; rather, these are strong, smart, fully realized human beings with presence, talent, and charisma to burn.
Amy McClendon performs a captivating "Peacock Dance" in Cirque Du Soleil's Amaluna, combining grace, strength, agility, and theatricality in one powerfully poetic scene.
Mérédith Caron's costuming nicely accentuates these qualities. Many of the gymnastic performers are kitted out in patterned leotards recalling the urban whimsy of Keith Haring; others, like the captivating Amy McClendon (as a swirling, magnetic peacock), are in soft, flowing fabrics that nicely reflect their characters while showing off impressive muscle definition. During the courtship scene, Mykhailova, in a white bikini, slowly emerges from the glass fishbowl (pelvis-first, at that) in an intoxicating mix of sex, power, whimsy, and wonder. So too Doye, who, later on, kitted out in wide-legged trousers that cleverly integrate Japanese and b-boy styles, uses his bare hands in a Chinese pole routine, climbing and then plummeting, head-first, in a thrilling rescue attempt. Resembling a young Jake Gyllenhaal, Doye's brawny masculinity doesn't impose itself through sheer physicality but rather, through a clever mix of gesture, dance, and technique. He and Mykhailova share a palpable onstage chemistry that doesn't so loudly proclaim itself as it does whisper and giggle in a cute, youthful way that fits the personalities of their characters.
Amaluna offers its share of heroes and villains. Viktor Kee plays Cali in the show. His character is based on Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Paulus has incorporated well-timed vignettes that see Doye in inspired pairings with Mykhailova, and more grimly, with a lizard-like creature named Cali, presumably inspired by Caliban in The Tempest, and played with sinuous, sexy menace by Viktor Kee. Mykhailova's lovely freeing fishbowl routine gets turned into an ugly attempt at suffocation when Romeo is trapped by Cali, leading to the latter performing a leering juggling act that recalls elements of comic book culture (especially The Joker) and musical theater; Kee eerily recalls a demented version of Yul Brynner's King of Siam as more and more tiny white balls get added to his frenzied routine. Like earlier scenes of Amazon-like women performing high and low bar gymnastics, or the sailors' vaguely terrifying see-saw routine, there's an intoxicating blend of theatricality and circus craft at work in Amaluna, all nicely couched within the context of a strong, involving story.
However, not all the feats in Amaluna are spectacularly physical. One of the most effective sections involves performer Lara Jacob balancing what appears to be the bones of a wooly mammoth, picking each piece up with her feet and to create a perfect skeleton. Kudos to Paulus for including this gorgeously poetic section, and to Amaluna's sound design team for amplifying Jacob's every breath around the Chapiteau; the effect is both meditative and dramatic, while the result is a deeply satisfying piece of theater. The routine (which opens the second half of Amaluna) is one of the most visually simple in Cirque's entire canon, yet it is is easily the most hypnotic, and perhaps even spiritual. Proudly holding the completed skeleton aloft, Jacob smiles, and gently pulls a tiny "bone" away, leading to the piece's complete and sudden collapse; it's a powerful metaphor that both reflects on the piece's pro-woman themes and yet reverberates far past the blue and yellow tent's environs.
Lara Jacob performs the spell-binding routine "Manipulation" from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna, currently running in Toronto through November 4th.
Amaluna's Artistic Director, Mark Pawsey recently told the National Post, "“[Cirque founder] Guy Laliberté wanted to find a showcase for women and show how powerful women are, and if they were in charge of the world, how different the world would be.” Director Paulus noted in the release that "Amaluna is less about feminism and more about reconnecting to our world in a different way.”
While there's no exploration of pay inequity, glass ceilings, reproductive rights, or harassment in the workplace, Amaluna does offer plentiful, if fanciful, examples of female power, in all its forms: quiet, loud, meditative, aggressive, menacing, funny, wise, youthful. By the show's end, you'll be thinking less about "girl power" and more about womanly presence - and if it might be possible to have a pet lizard to call your own.