Diane Paulus (left) directs the female-centric Amaluna, which blends acrobats like the Aerial Straps performers and a literary/mythical story.
AMALUNA directed by Diane Paulus, choreographed by Karole Armitage. Presented by Cirque du Soleil at the Grand Chapiteau (Commissioners east of Cherry). Opens Thursday, September 6 and runs to October 21, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 1 and 5 pm, Saturday 4 pm, some exceptions. $58.50-$158.50, stu/srs/child from $43.50. cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna. See listing.
When theatre director Diane Paulus sat down to talk with Cirque du Soleil about directing one of their shows, it didn't take long to entice her.
"One of the first things they said to me was they wanted the show to be an homage to women," says Paulus. "So I was kind of sold right there."
It was a smart move by Cirque to pursue one of the most in-demand directors in the world.
Paulus broke onto the international scene just over a decade ago with The Donkey Show, an edgy, disco-inspired adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which left off-Broadway to tour the world for several years. Since then she's helmed acclaimed remounts of the musicals Hair and, still running on Broadway, Porgy And Bess. Last season she directed a visually stunning production of The Magic Flute for the Canadian Opera Company.
But the chance to create a female-centric show for the world's premier circus company was unlike anything she'd encountered before.
"Just in terms of endurance, it was the hardest project I've ever done," she says in her scratchy voice, first thing in the morning in a cab from the airport into Manhattan. "It's such a long process. And it's so demanding."
Demanding, yes, but also rewarding, especially since Paulus had artistic freedom and the pick of the world's top female acrobats, athletes and musicians (band members are female and take part in the show as performers, too). And she was also allowed to bring on her frequent collaborators writer Randy Weiner and choreographer Karole Armitage.
"I come from the world of theatre and opera, so I wanted to see if I could bring a powerful emotional through line to the show," she says. "It's hard to talk about story, because it's circus and acrobatics - we're not dealing with words. But I knew there was a way we could craft an arc to have the audience care as much about what happens to the characters as the wow of the acrobatics."
To construct the narrative, Paulus went to sources like The Tempest, The Magic Flute and Greek mythology.
"I love looking at these archetypes and seeing how we can mine them," she says. "I pretty quickly realized The Tempest's Prospero could be Prospera. And we could have a queen of an island of women. Central to The Tempest is the relationship between a parent and a child, so I thought of mothers and daughters, the life cycle, what we pass on from one generation to the next, which seemed a theme connected to women as well: women as child-bearers, representing the earth and the life cycle."
Casting from all corners of the globe contributed to the creation process.
"I was looking at hours of video and audition submissions from all these incredible women from Russia, China, Japan and Latin America," she explains. "There would be these ‘Aha!' moments. If we had this Russian contortionist who could maybe learn the water bowl, that's kind of like the goddess Diana from Greek mythology who bathes in private and is spied upon by a male lover. Which is kind of like Romeo and Juliet, and that could be our Miranda!
"So we built it going from image to image and finding ways to link acrobatics to these narrative hooks."
Rehearsing in a space the size of an airport hangar had its challenges, as did communicating in a number of languages.
"We had four simultaneous translations going," she laughs. "It was like a live United Nations session. I'd say, ‘Okay, people, let's take it from here,' and you'd hear it on a speaker in Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish."
But working with talented artists from around the world was also inspiring.
"To see this team from China, many of them under 18, interacting with Americans and Australians and French-Canadian boys and Russian girls...," she recalls. "We really got beyond cultural barriers and became one company. That was one of the most deeply exciting and rewarding experiences, a real tribute to the power of theatre."