Amaluna is Cirque du Soleil's new sister act

With women making up more than 70 percent of its cast, Amaluna pumps fierce female energy, and a little Shakespeare, into the circus

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      TORONTO—Considering she has to soar more than six storeys above the audience while dangling from tiny straps, it’s somewhat shocking to discover Andréanne Nadeau is afraid of heights.

      For the new Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna, Nadeau flies higher than most acrobats in the iconic company’s tent shows. She and two other powerful Valkyries, wearing blond dreadlocks and sea-blue bustiers, swing out from the Carousel, a circular rack that rotates at the peak of the big top. It sends the young daredevils whirling like human cyclones right over the heads of the crowd as it turns.

      As a kid, the Quebec-born Nadeau started out as a modern, jazz, and hip-hop dancer, but the allure of choreography in midair was what drew her to Montreal’s National Circus School and its aerial-acrobatics program. That she is currently one of Amaluna’s featured attractions is a clear sign she’s become an expert at overcoming her fears.

      “Yes, I’m terrified of heights, but you get used to it,” insists the performer with a smile, wearing a stretchy tank top that reveals her spectacularly ripped biceps, abs, and pectorals. (Upper-body strength is paramount to her part in the show, which alternates from flying on the straps to aerial hoop and high-swinging pole acts.) The dark-haired artist is relaxing on a sofa in Amaluna’s backstage tent before a matinee on Hogtown’s waterfront, while other acrobats in ponytails and sweats stretch on mats and practise on a low tightrope behind her. “I mean, I don’t have vertigo. But it’s very uncomfortable. When they bring me really high to do something for the first time, I start sweating and get very serious. But then you get through it and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m fine. I can hold it and I’m fine.’ So the more you do it, the more you build your confidence. But for every new move or sequence, I have to slowly get it higher and higher.”

      Nadeau’s brand of fierce female determination and strength seems to be a driving force behind Amaluna. Making it unique among Cirque’s tent shows, it has a cast that’s more than 70 percent women. (Usually, the ratio is the opposite.) What’s more, the entire hard-rocking, guitar-slinging live band is female-powered.

      “I was superproud when they asked me to be part of it,” Nadeau says of her first Cirque production. “I thought, ‘A women’s show: this is going to be great.’ And that was confirmed as soon as I arrived: it’s like I’ve got 45 big sisters and little sisters. We’re all very dedicated to the work.”

      Despite her fears, the sensation of soaring over the audience is a high she can’t get anywhere else. “I love the music and I love when you see the musicians rocking out,” she says. “It really helps with the energy.”

      Amaluna may have that fist-pumping female force to it, but its behind-the-scenes creative team explains that the original idea was to show a range of female characters—while delivering a richer-than-usual, cohesive story line. So, yes, you see Nadeau’s muscular Valkyries jetting through the air and red-corseted Amazons swinging around athletically on uneven bars. But you also see the lead character, Miranda, seductively swishing through a giant, glass pool at centre stage; exquisitely beautiful peacock women dancing with eight-foot-wide fan tails; lithe high-wire walkers tiptoeing along the line in pointe shoes; and an earthy Balancing Goddess pulling off the slow, hypnotic feat of hanging long, bonelike palm ribs off one arm.

      Word has it that it was legendary Cirque founder Guy Laliberté himself who came up with the concept. “What we set out to do is represent strong, fierce, sensual women, with a range of body types and abilities on-stage,” explains acrobatic coach Stacy Clark in the backstage tent. “So it has this nice diversity; it’s not just warrior women.”

      Cirque brought in one of the most successful female theatre directors in the U.S. to helm the new production. Diane Paulus, who heads up the American Repertory Theater and works as a prof at Harvard University, has overseen everything from the off-Broadway megahit The Donkey Show (a disco rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to a Tony–nabbing Hair revival to opera, and she was eager to make her first collaboration with the circus company.

      “I came to Cirque saying I’d love to create a show that created an emotional arc for the audience—that hooked them in, in addition to being hooked by the other things Cirque gives them already, like the acrobatics, the costumes, and the visual poetry,” she tells the Straight over the line from New York City. “But there was no script, no lines. I said, ‘How could we increase the audience’s experience?’” And then Paulus did something unthinkable in the world of circus spectacle: she turned to the Bard and other classics. “Shakespeare and Mozart: they’re like secret inspirations,” she says with an audible smile.

      Look closely at the lush world of Amaluna and you’ll spot many references to The Tempest, as well as to The Magic Flute and even ancient Greek mythology. The fantastical half-human, half-animal creatures (including a menacing lizard-man whose moving tail and shimmering scales make him look straight out of Dr. Moreau’s lab) are a nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prospera, a magical, cello-playing maternal figure (a riff on The Tempest’s magician Prospero), lives with her daughter, Miranda, on a magical island ruled by women. When a thunderstorm blows some men ashore, Miranda falls for Romeo. A shirtless stud with a six-pack and shiny black jeans, he should have it easy, but he has to go through a series of trials to hook up with his beloved—including climbing a long pole suspended from the ceiling with the use of only his arms. That quest, and its emotional through-line, feels very different from Cirque’s often loose series of acrobatic spectacles.

      This required pushing the performers into more intense acting territory, Paulus recalls. “With me as a director, you could not just be an acrobat or an athlete,” she says. “Seeing it now, I feel there’s this power in the performances on-stage that comes from the mission of the show. There’s value put on the emotional expression in the show; that’s what we want when we go to the theatre.”

      A perfect example of how Amaluna turns sport into art is its uneven-bar segment—the first such act to appear in a Cirque show. As Paulus puts it, “It was about taking them out of the gymnasium and putting them in an artistic context.”

      Acrobatic coach Clark, a former gymnast and aerial dancer, was a talent scout for Cirque before joining the Amaluna tour. And she says she has always looked for something extra in the athletes she scopes out—especially for this show. “Number one is the technical skill level. But once we achieved that, we’d ask, ‘What’s the potential for stage presence?’ Athletes have to show the desire to be on-stage—otherwise it doesn’t provide the same connection with the audience.”

      So for acrobatic artists like Nadeau, performing in Amaluna means much more than overcoming her fear of heights. And it requires more than learning how to be hurled around by an automated device like the Carousel or pumping iron and doing Pilates to keep up her strength. It also means connecting with her character and never forgetting about the narrative. “I like that even without the program you get the story,” she says before heading in to do her makeup. “There’s a thread to Amaluna; there’s a harmony.”

      For Clark, as well, that means some extra responsibility, and going far beyond overseeing training sessions as Amaluna travels around North America. “I’m responsible to uphold the acrobatic integrity on-stage. But what’s more broad about the position is I often have to act as a mentor to ones transitioning out of sport—as well as just being a mother, friend, and connecting on a human level,” she explains. “For our artists to be in peak condition, it’s not just about their strength and conditioning; it’s about them being mentally healthy and emotionally healthy, so they can bring themselves as an artist to the stage.”

      In other words, you could call her the backstage Prospera, acting as the maternal figure to her “daughters” in the cast, and helping them conjure magic under the big top.

      Amaluna is at the Grand Chapiteau on False Creek from November 23 to December 30.