Cirque du Soleil Sends Women to New Heights

Sunday, December 8, 2019
The structure was almost complete.

As she balanced the near-finished creation on her head, the stage turned in a circle, allowing the audience to see her handiwork from every angle.

An enormous arrangement of criss-crossing palm leaf ribs, it resembled an arrowhead of bones, each one perched on top of one another with dangerously sharp precision.

And with one slight moment of inattention, or with one subtle wayward gust of wind, the entire thing could be destroyed in less than a second.

She knew this. Everyone knew this. They waited, breathed, watched in total suspense as she lifted the structure off of her head and held it in midair, turning her attention to the final piece on the floor. Assuredly, but slowly, she extended her leg forward and placed her foot on the end of it, tilting it upwards to form a stem.

With painstaking caution, she placed the structure up onto the tip of the stem,held it there for a few final minutes, and stepped back.

It stayed. After a few stunned moments of silence, cheers and whistles broke the tension, sending the place into a state of approving uproar.

Amidst the noise, the artist allowed herself a deep, congratulatory exhale as she stood by her creation.

Then, suddenly, she reached forward and pulled the tiniest piece out of the framework, sending everything to the floor in a cascade. The world was no longer in equilibrium. Trials were about to begin for the young couple.

But in the world of Amaluna — the most recent touring show of acrobatic production company Cirque du Soleil to hit San Francisco — such trials were more than a series of barriers for the two lovers to conquer.

Rather, they were facets of a story that celebrates the beauty and novelty of the female perspective.

“We have a lot of different touring shows in Cirque du Soleil, but Amaluna is the only one that focuses on the female,” said Mami Ohki, publicist for Amaluna. “We always create something different. For this one, you can see the entire story through the female eye.”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Amaluna reimagines the famous play through the female lens, placing women at the forefront as the artists, the storytellers, and the dreamers.

Goddesses reign over the enchanted island of Amaluna, nurtured by the cycles of the moon and the watchful eye of the peacock.

In a ceremony that marks the passage into womanhood, they celebrate the coming-of-age of Miranda, daughter of the island’s Queen Prospera.

After Prospera invokes a storm that brings a group of young men onto the island, Miranda and newcomer Romeo fall for one another.

Together, they endure multiple setbacks that integrate into a tribute as to how strong the human body, and especially the female human body, can be.

Women Reign

It is tempting for a circus to portray female strength in mainly one way — the fast-paced, technical way in which artists seem to manipulate gravity through death-defying stunts.

However, as is expected of Cirque’s high-caliber performances, Amaluna does not fall into this trap.

Rather, it conveys female strength as limitless, able to evoke various interpretations through different means of expression.

In one segment, for instance, Prospera summons the storm goddesses, who fly out over the stage on aerial straps.

With incredible timing and control, they perform feats of midair acrobatics tothe harmonies of Prospera’s cello, flipping themselves into rollups, launching themselves into continuous pirouettes, one of them even spinning upside-down like a centrifuge by a strap-anchored leg.

Later, near the end of the show’s first half, the lights illuminate the stage in deep red to signify the arrival of the Amazons, one of the fearless tribes of the island.

In full mode to conquer, they project a silent but formidable strength as they begin their routine on the uneven bar apparatuses.

The audience watches in awe as the women fly from bar to bar, looping themselves around in midair and landing in perfect handstands, puffs of chalk dust settling into the air from each risky maneuver.

In a particularly daring pass, one artist even stands up on the bar, holds herselfin position for a few seconds, and then catapults into a backflip before grabbing the bar again — an exceedingly difficult move known as the Korbut flip.

Her tribemates watch in approval, and all motion resumes, continuing the stunning acts of technicality.

Alongside the action-packed acrobatics, the female strength of Amaluna is also apparent in the slower, dreamier acts that offer a change of pace to the storyline.

At one point, the moon goddess slowly spins her way down from the ceiling in an aerial hoop, or Cerceau, that represents the moon.

Twisting her body around the hoop in graceful contortions, she alights upon a giant water bowl, where Miranda sits.

Together, the two intertwine themselves around the hoop, spiraling in midair for a few minutes, before the Moon Goddess gently drops Miranda into the water bowl.

After playfully finding her way around in the water, Miranda climbs out and begins a slow, challenging, hand-balancing act on the rim of the water bowl.

With practiced focus, she balancesherself in a one-arm split handstand while switching deftly from one hand to the other, showcasing the elegant lines of the female form. She then continues to manipulate her body in other intriguing ways, such as pushing herself from a planche into an arched handstand, or extending her leg up and behind her head in a standing oversplit.

Meanwhile, the audience watches, enthralled, showing that Amaluna’s female strength is apparent not only through fiery displays of technicality, but also through slower exhibits of grace and flexibility.

Above all, Amaluna celebrates female strength as projecting passion and confidence.

Whether it is the storm goddesses who stride towards the crowd after their stunning aerial performance, untouchable in the moment; the balance goddess who stands in proud solidarity by her structure; or Miranda, who playfully plunges into and slinks around in the water bowl throughout her act, one thing is certain: the artists of Amaluna are proud of what they do and can show the world.

And when they perform, they exude true happiness, honored to be part of a story that can touch the hearts of their audience.

It is the screech of tires as the two unicycle-riding Arielles brake suddenly and deliberately at the edge of the stage, laughing as a child in the front row jumps in surprise.

It is the pounding of the drums and the resonance of the instruments as the show’s all-female musicians work together to weave the music of the story. It is Amaluna’s appreciation of what it means to be a woman.

“Because we focus on the female, it’s really interesting to see all different types of women,” Ohki said.

“People think this is female empowerment, and that it means physically strong female, but women can be strong in so many different ways, like showing sensitivity, endurance, and happiness. And I think both men and women can see this in Amaluna.”

Always Striving

Creating the world of Amaluna, though, does not come by without hard work.

Every aspect of the show, ranging from stage design to training, requires time and effort to transform the story of Amaluna into a two-hour reality.

Connected to the masts of the big top, a 174-branch canopy casts tiers of shadows over the set, creating a mysterious but alluring aura of dusk.

Hazy washes of blue and green light, accentuated with pinpricks of gold, layer with the shadows to enhance the appearance of the stage as an enchanted island.

For the stage’s backdrop, slender filaments of green overlap to create not only the illusion of a bamboo forest, but also the image of a peacock tail’s eye.

An important motif of the show, the peacock eye figures prominently in legend as a watchful eye that protects women, thus connecting to the show’s feminine-centered theme.

Meanwhile, on a schedule that often involves consecutive show days and double, back-to-back showtimes in one day, artists train constantly to keep in top shape for each performance.

Honing their respective acts in backstage areas, they converge onstage to run over aspects such as staging and transitions, ensuring that each segment flows smoothly from one to the next.

Such onstage practices may occur a mere two hours before showtime, with artists running through scenes to scan for the minutest details that may require adjustments. 

Production staff are on constant standby to reinforce storyline cues and to offer comments or suggestions when needed.

Because Amaluna is a touring show, artists and staff mainly lead on-the-go lifestyles, never staying in one city for too long before moving onto the next.

Performing at cities all over the world such as Rome, São Paulo, and currently, San Francisco, they experience both the strains and rewards of the nomadic lifestyle that being part of a touring Cirque troupe requires.

Cast member Vladimir Pestov, who plays Miranda’s lizard playmate, Cali, points out the upshot of these circumstances.

“You kind of live on your suitcases,” he said. “But Cirque du Soleil gives all the opportunities for you to travel really easily, and there’s all the visas for you, depending on where you’re from. For example, I’m from Russia, and I don’t have a U.S. passport, so they give me a visa.”

Pestov’s character, Cali, is one of Amaluna’s first few figures to appear onstage during the pre-show. Playing a lizard-man hybrid, he slinks onto the stage before the show and assumes a dignified position, complete with elegantly curved tail, in front of Miranda’s water bowl.

Fittingly, when the show begins, he is Miranda’s childhood playmate and best friend, but as the story progresses, his character slowly turns ominous. In his segment, he performs a complex ball-juggling act on the surface of the 5,500-pound water bowl, manipulating the apparatuses in increasingly complex ways, such as bouncing them off of his foot and passing them behind his back.

An incredible display of motor skill, the act requires constant training to both perfect and maintain the level of precision needed for a show-worthy performance.

“Every day is a challenge. Everything is a challenge. Even waking up is a challenge, but here I am, and I have to do training,” Pestov said in regards to the rigors of training for his character.

However, despite the lifestyle’s demands, the rewards of being part of a troupe that connects to people of all ages, of all nationalities, and of all walks of life is what makes the experience more than worth it for Pestov.

“I can go on,” he said. “To me, it’s a job, but I love it so much, and it gives me a lot of opportunities. It’s everything to me. It gives happiness to people’s faces when I perform, and I just have the time of my life.”

And judging from the laughter and gasps of surprise as Pestov, in full character as Cali, somehow slithers his way onto an elevated platform to overlook the audience during the pre-show, it is safe to say that we have the time of our lives watching him, too.

Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna is currently performing at San Francisco’s Oracle Park and will be in town until January 12, 2020.