The Cynical VS The Whimsical – AMALUNA by Cirque du Soleil
Me: “Are you crying?“
Kim: “I’ve been crying the whole time.“
Kim: “It’s awesome.”
I attended my first live Cirque du Soleil performance almost 20 years ago. The show was Mystère and I saw it in Las Vegas at the Treasure Island hotel, where it still has a regular run to this day. You may remember the scene from Knocked Up where Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd catch the same show, while high on mushrooms. It is the oldest one of the Cirque shows that’s still active and the first one to have its own theater, rather than being a touring act. Mystère was a huge success, helping to broaden the scope regarding the type of performances that take place in sin city and, over the next 20 years, 8 more Cirque du Soleil productions were introduced in various locations along the Vegas strip. It was also a hit with me; I can still remember brief bits and pieces of the show that I saw, but I mostly just recall a general, overwhelming feeling of awe. That being said, in 1994/95, I was about 15 years old and in Las Vegas, so the whole scenario was already tweaking my mind, as it was. Plus, I’m sure that I probably still thought that The Crow was a great film, so what the fuck did I know about anything?
It was about a decade ago when I took my ex-girlfriend to see Alegria, when it came to the Seattle suburb of Renton, Wa. For whatever reason, I don’t recall too much about that show either, except that there was a lot of tumbling and that I was mostly fascinated by their touring set up with the mobile tent and the impressive custom stage designed specifically for the needs of the troupe and for that specific stage show. I believe that, two decades ago, the Mystère tickets were around $80 a pop–not really out of the ballpark for a Vegas show–but I was able to pull off some free press passes for the last time that I saw them, by calling their contact in Canada, as writer for the Evergreen State College newspaper. [Remember: if you go to a college, you can probably contribute to the paper and you don’t have actually be “on staff.” Use this to your advantage; most people aren’t using their resources.]
Last year, the Cirque unveiled Amaluna, a new show that is loosely-based on Shakespeare‘s The Tempest. The traveling big top set up its residency at Marymore Park in Redmond, Wa back on January 31st of this year (it runs until March 24th). I had been thinking about contacting them, but it wasn’t until we received an email regarding the Amaluna soundtrack with the stage show’s contact included, that I decided to get my act together and fire off an email. Kim‘s birthday was on February 28th and, if I could lock down free passes for us, this wouldn’t be a bad surprise for the lady. Not only did I want her to be able to experience it with me, but I really wanted to see what I thought of this show, all these years later, and to discover if my teenage self had even the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Amaluna is only one of 31 different shows that the Cirque has assembled since being founded in 1984, and one of twenty since the new millennium. Over time, the Montreal-based performance company has mixed in some shows which relate more directly to popular culture, such as the Beatles-inspired LOVE and, more recently, two separate shows honoring the man who once bought the Beatles catalog right out from under Sir Paul MacCartney, himself: Michael Jackson. I had no idea what to expect anymore, especially after their poorly received collaboration Criss Angel: Believe, at the Luxor. As this show approached, I heard something about it being some form of love story that revolved around various goddesses. Needless to say, while I still anticipated an impressive demonstration of physical talent, my expectations and enthusiasm were substantially lowered. But hey, Kim would probably still enjoy herself and I’ve never been above writing a scathing review when warranted.
There was a long line of cars on the way up to the parking lot and Kim was becoming excited from the minute that we could first see the peaks of the big top from the freeway exit. We got inside, checked in at the box office, and got to the entrance with 6 minutes to spare. We had been supplied with the type of seats that you provide to someone that’s going to review your performance through a public outlet: uncommonly great ones. My press request was sent fairly last minute, but we were still seated within only 6 or 7 rows from the stage and right on the center aisle. The room is circular, as is the stage, to provide the best possible viewing for everyone in attendance, but still… these were really fucking nice seats (Kim looked them up later, and they were something like $133 seats a piece. Yikes!). If you’re a ridiculous baller and can afford to swing something like that, though, it’s definitely worth it. With over-the-top makeup and elaborate sets designed to remain visual to those in the back of the room, sometimes shows such as these have their aesthetic value slightly weakened by getting too close, because the minor details and imperfections in the construction, or simply the caked on makeup and magic “behind the curtain,” can affect it. Amaluna definitely does not suffer from such proximity issues; being closer just makes it even more impressive.
The stage had gigantic, curved greenish/gold reeds extending up in a manner that formed a backdrop emulating peacock feathers. In fact, much of the show followed a similar peacock-like color scheme. Little Rainforest Cafe noises seeped out from the soundsystem, crackling and hissing, as if we were out in an Ewok village on Endor. The only figure on stage was a bald, shirtless, half-lizard/half-man figure crouching with a prehensile tail. According to the press materials, his name was “Cali.” His tail moved around in a surprisingly fluid fashion and appeared to do so all on its own. As if bored with waiting for the show to begin, he crawled down the front of the stage and into the crowd, going up to one woman and taking her popcorn, before lapping up clusters of it with his tongue directly from the bag. Then he went over to a patron on the other side of the aisle and force fed them, by shoving a handful into their face. From there, the reptilian creature quickly “scaled” a large post supporting the structure of the tent (pun-intended). Sitting on a small platform, similar to a ship’s crows nest, he sprinkled popcorn down on the heads of the seated crowd. He let go of the entire bag but, instead it falling below, it was stuck to the tip of his tail, which simply waved back and forth overhead. It’s clear that he must do this same exact routine every night–he must have even done it at the set earlier in the day–and additional press images support that assumption, but it still felt fresh. How these performers can sustain enthusiasm from day to day, often with multiple shows, is admirable in its own right. How they can handle the physical demands is an even greater mystery. The sheer fact that I was already being prompted to consider such things and the show hadn’t even begun yet, speaks volumes about what they do.
It’s debatable how important the storyline truly is in a show like this. I’m only now beginning to discover some of the character names and specifics pertaining to what I watched, but it all unfolded clearly enough without any dialog, so that you never feel completely lost. It would be easy to argue that the only reason that there is any premise of any kind at all is for the sole purpose of setting up each of the stunts/acts, and maybe that’s true for some of the Cirque shows (I wouldn’t know), but for Amaluna, I believe that it really does help to create a cohesion and provide an added emotional investment in the entire performance. Knowing how to create that cohesion of separate elements into the final project is something that they’ve had almost 30 years to perfect, and it’s a strength that truly sets a performance such as this apart from just about anything else out there, anywhere.The show began with some cliche celebration in a whimsical village, where a young girl (Miranda) appears to be having some sort of coming of age ceremony. A slew of characters, who we would see throughout the rest of the performance, were introduced in this early segment as participants in the festivities. Off to the side of the action was a vocalist with a thin headset mic, and right in the middle of it was another woman who was supposed to represent Miranda‘s mother (Queen Prospera). I was getting a fairly heavy Fern Gully vibe, at this point. While it’s not an incredibly original concept and I may seem a bit aloof while describing this whole idea, the fact of the matter is that I was still only looking at a basic stage, but am now referring to them as being in a “village,” so, something about it must have been pretty affective to be capable of relating that information to me and to sustain that imagery in my head. Plus, I wasn’t aware of any of the fantastical, uninspired character names while I was watching it. And, surprisingly enough, the music managed to be big and cinematic, without containing any of the real annoyances of typical musical theater. The obnoxious gesturing was minimal, if present at all, and the lyrics weren’t in English, so they didn’t seem overly-explanatory–the narration was implied through feeling and presentation, above all else. There were all types of elders, goddesses, Amazon warrior women, and various characters popping up out of the woodwork and filling the stage. Among them was a pair of Asian twins, dressed in gold and riding unicycles. Around their waists were large, rigid, gold-leaf petticoats. For whatever reason, the first thought that came to mind when I saw them was of “the wheelers” from the uncomfortably dark 1985 Fairuza Balk vehicle, Return to Oz. Once the introductory fanfare ended, the duo was the first act to really take the stage and perform. With their cage-like hoop skirts removed, full gold ensembles, feathery accents, and faux hawks, they were twirling around like little parakeets on wheels. As to be expected, they could unicycle like nothing I’ve ever seen before–riding with the seats sliding across the floor, pogoing, holding hands and spinning around each other at 45 degree angles… what have you. These girls were like the Rodney Mullen of unicycles. Of course there’s more versatility on a skateboard, but I’d wager that, as far as unicycling twins are concerned, they are at the very top of their game.
The transition which brought them off the stage was as smooth as the one that brought them out. There is some manner of slight-of-hand with this show that involves having the viewer being focused on some crazy structure, contraption, and/or act and then, after turning their attention to whatever new is introduced, they suddenly notice that everything else has magically been removed right in front of their eyes without ever even recognizing it. In the first half of the show, the transitions were quick, allowing for a relentless amount of action to be fired at the audience with little time to breathe in between the acts. The layout and construction of the set aided in these segues, with ramp-like walkways leading down to the stage like bridges and performers regularly ascending and/or descending from the rafters and out of view. There are even key points in the show where holes appear in the stage, allowing performers to both climb in and out of them.After the cockatiel twins was a tumbling act referred to as the “Icarian Games and Watermeteors,” where men laid on their backs, feet up and flipped women around who were wildly swinging and tossing glowing orbs into the air in complicated fashion, bola-style. There was a live band designated to the confines of the background, out of view, but musical elements were also introduced by those on stage. Along with the flawless lighting, the music plays a major role in the transitions. Noticing the warrior women lined up, seated and playing what appeared to be (the elusive) Hang drums, two thoughts came to mind. The first was about how I would never own one of those Swiss contraptions. The second was about how being the best in the world at your respective craft didn’t seem to be enough in the Cirque; it was also necessary to contribute in additional ways, whether they are musical in nature, or purely based on manual labor, set construction, and tear down. The physical performances are what truly give Cirque shows their appeal, but the music and storyline were well thought out and incorporated admirably, in a manner that never made them feel like an after thought. Progressing forward, the character of a “moon goddess” was lowered back down from the rafters in a crescent-shaped metal structure. The performer playing Prospera was lifted up into the contraption with her, while playing a blue cello. Thunder and lightning were summoned up. A male and female performer were lowered down and performed one of those aerial strap routines where they hang from and twisted around each other, pulling dare devil maneuvers while dangling and twirling above the ground. Two guitar-wielding women came out from each side of the stage, tearing up vicious prog-rock guitar solos. One of them resembled a female version of Prince. Amaluna is the first Cirque show that features a 100% female band and they are all incredibly skilled. This whole segment was supposed to represent Prospera conjuring up a storm and resulted in a gang of men, who I had assumed were pirates, washing up onto the stage. Later the Moon Goddess had a vocal number where she demonstrated her range, belting out a song while performing an aerial hoop trick. She performed acrobatic stunts like being suspended from the swinging hoop with nothing but the back of her head/neck, or mangling her figure around it, as she soared through the rafters. If you’ve ever wondered how pop stars like Britney Spears are supposed to be capable of singing over their backing tracks with those little headset mics, as they go through complicated dance routines that take priority over musicianship, then this would really boggle your mind. How someone could “swing” such a labor intensive routine (pun-intended… again), while sustaining those equally trying vocal-duties, doesn’t seem like it should be possible. Of the men that were transported to the “kingdom,” dragged onto land and tangled in a net, their “leader” would become a suitor for barely legal Miranda. As the official website reveals, they’ve stuck with the Shakespeare influence and named him “Romeo.” Once he gets there, he witnesses a goddess doing some sort of peacock dance and then, later, encounters Miranda in a white, soaking wet bikini, writhing around in a huge majestic, crystal clear, glass bowl of water. After the moon goddess appeared and interacted with her through her own presentation, the young girl swiftly launched into a contortionist act, which involved her balancing around the rim and dropping in and out of the water. Part of this routine found her on the rim of the bowl, balancing on these crazy blocks at the end of poles. While upside down with her palm on the blocks, she would kick her body upward while turning, screwing the poles into the structure with each little hop. She even continued to contort her body while doing so. If running around a pool, while soaking wet, is dangerous, then this was really unsafe. Romeo watched her during her erotic display and eventually hopped in with her, real romantic like. Meanwhile, his crew was confronted with the Amazon women who crack out a heavily choreographed uneven bar routine. When one of the women fell, it was the one and only time that any of the meticulous work involved didn’t play out to a “T” in the show, but the fall was minor and it didn’t really detract from anything. If anything, it reminded me that the risk and the human element involved was very much real. The reason that I interpreted the men as pirates, was because of one specific absurdly-mustachioed character who was sporting one of those classic stereotypical Cap’n Crunch-style pirate hats. The details in the press release explain that he was supposed to represent Romeo‘s manservant,” Jeeves” and he quickly connects with Miranda‘s, clown-nosed “childhood nurse” “Deeda” for their own cartoonish love affair. Deeda was the initial narrator telling everyone to turn off their cell phones at the beginning of the show, and these two were supposed to provide the comic relief. Above all, this is the only thing that really agitated me at all, because I fucking hate clowns. However, I accepted the fact that these characters were targeted towards the small children in the audience and, having a small child now, I’m a bit more understanding of such things. Plus, there was possibly only one moment that they really got to me and, otherwise, I didn’t mind them very much. They added a necessary break from the non-stop action. It’s also important to note that, in the same way that Cirque shows aren’t like a typical circus, their clowns aren’t quite as obnoxious as the typical clowns. Well… at least, these ones weren’t. Not quite.
The second half of the show slowed the pace down considerably. It began with the squad of displaced men, fenced in like prisoners, and catapulting each other into the air on a teeter board, pulling off screwy aerial maneuvers. The show stopper of the night came next and it didn’t seem all that impressive at first. The “manipulation” involves a “balance goddess” using her feet to slowly lift one increasingly larger palm leaf rib at a time to create some crazy, gravity-defying, Calder-esque mobile contraption that she balances overhead and, ultimately, lets stand on it’s own, without anything adhering the individual pieces together. Her remarkable patience and focus are at a yogi master level and, once she was finished, she had a deeply intense, almost intimidating, Natasha Henstridge-Species look in her eyes. Of all the experiences to try and relate from the show, this is probably the most difficult. If you want to get an idea of what she does, you can look up the name “Lara Jacobs Rigolo,” but better footage can be found by clicking HERE to the routine performed by her father, who must have trained her in the first place. Either way, unless you witness it in person, the full potency of what she accomplishes will be immeasurably weakened.
As the basic storyline unfolded, the lovers work through different experiences and hurdles that both separate and bring them together. After witnessing a mesmerizing Indonesion-inspired dance that involved a line of women in dark attire, creating the illusion of one individual figure with multiple fanning arms, Miranda is abducted through a portal to the underworld. That turned into Romeo demonstrating his upper body strength through a Chinese pole climbing act. After a separate, somewhat disconnected, tight-wire number (complete with women in heels), Miranda‘s half-lizard pet, Cali, revealed his jealousy, trapping Romeo in the waterbowl. He then celebrated with a juggling act which involved balls falling from the rafters, catching them on his back, and even setting one on fire. Even when there’s juggling, it’s still the greatest juggling that one might ever encounter.
The final routine of the night are the Valkyries summoned by Miranda to free her shirtless love interest. The three women criss-crossed each other, swinging from the rafters, while attached to shifting, remote-operated, circular tracks above them, demonstrating a new approach to the aerial straps routine. With the benefit of our seats, we literally had them soaring directly overhead. Beyond the sheer daring, grace, and athleticism required to fly through the sky so effortless like that, their timing also had to be impeccable. This segment culminated in all of the performers returning to the stage in a finale, which involved them scattering across the stage spinning, twirling, swinging through the air, or whatever else their respective acts entailed. The music kicked in and it was one of those inspirational moments of resolution like at the end of The Never Ending Story when Bastian flies overhead on the back of his wish dragon and waves down to all of the characters that were introduced throughout the film.
Amaluna runs for about 3 hours with an intermission separating the two halves and, by the time that 1/2 hour break hit, I felt like a giddy tween-age girl. I tried to enter the show with a critical eye, but the pacing of the first half operates in such a manner that you’re already sucked in, before you realize that it’s even happened. It’s hard to pay attention to everything that is going on at all times; the audience is hit with such an intense barrage of visual information, and it all seems to defy one law of nature or another. Factor in the brisk fluid transitions from each mind-boggling routine to the next, and there is little to no time to become cynical; it’s too vital to remain focused and too impressive to scoff at. I’m not afraid to admit that I got swept up in this shit pretty hard and I can see plenty of junior high outcasts embracing this thing in the same fashion that they have Jack Skellington hoodies. That’s one of the most surprising parts, actually; the lack of merchandising. They had programs and some general Cirque du Soleil hats and what not, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of Amaluna-specific merch. Maybe it’s just because it’s such a new show for them, but they really could have cashed in by having a plush Cali doll, some unicyclist figures, a Valkyrie tiara, or maybe some masks. If they were able to draw me in that much, then they could have sold just about anything to the parents of a rich kid.
And the Cirque du Soleil knows that they’ve already got your number, by the midpoint, as well. While using the bathroom, I saw a large advertisement encouraging patrons to go purchase more tickets for up to 40% off, before heading home. I’m sure that plenty of people do just that. During the intermission, Kim actually turned to me and said that she could go to this show every single day. I could tell that she believed that too. It was before the end of the first half that I became aware that she had been crying throughout the majority of it, and I even recently discovered that she isn’t the only one that the show has had that effect on. It’s definitely a fairly intense experience and easy to get lost in.
Another comment that she made to me was that it was “like being in a Neil Gaiman, book.” The reason that this statement felt so potent to me is because, Gaiman is one of Kim’s favorite authors, and I began to realize that this show presented so many elements from things that so many fantasy enthusiasts, or even people that simply grew up through our generation, hold so dear. It harnessed the essence, and even utilized some similar aesthetics, of films like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Legend. When the Valkyries were flying overhead, I even had a quick flashback to seeing Captain EO, and the visuals were more brilliant and captivating than Avatar, but without the need to invest too heavily in that bullshit storyline. The other reason that the Neil Gaiman comment was so telling is because of the wording that she chose: “being in.” Amaluna has the extraordinary ability to pull the audience members into the environment and, by taking Kim to this show, it’s like she was actually transported into one of the worlds that she grew up imagining herself in. It’s a fairly powerful accomplishment, and it’s generated by a lot more than just having performers break the fourth wall, or walk around in the aisles. One of the key factors supplying it with its transcendent qualities is the brilliant and meticulous lighting. Each minor shift in lighting and color, fully and effortlessly transforms an otherwise static space into an entirely new environment.Most people seem to acknowledge that there are probably some respectable feats of athleticism in the Cirque du Soleil shows, but are likely turned away by what they might expect from a stage show built around “fantasy,” makeup, and fancy French-Canadian theater weirdos. What you’ll witness within the first half of Amaluna, however, is an unexpectedly condensed version of everything that you may assume are only random aspects that operate as it’s saving grace. The fact is that the show is actually being fueled by all of the amazing routines, and the costumes and characters simply provide little accents and a loose structure for it all to operate within. In other words, it’s almost entirely just the amazing stuff, with very little filler. If you’re expecting a show made up of glorified mimes tumbling around in sequined outfits and feathers, you’re completely off the mark.
Amaluna isn’t as one-dimensional or targeted toward a hyper-specific demographic as one might assume; these guys seem to have everyone’s number. I’m 100% serious when I say that I believe that ANYONE that attends this show should leave, not only impressed, but thoroughly entertained and inspired. Of course, if you’re into musical theater and magical wonderlands, then you’re going to be down with this, but, for those that hate that type of shit, the show manages to appease that fanbase without being wholey submerged by that need to do so. Imagine seeing just the elements that you’re really interested in, while watching Olympic gymnastics–just the insane flips and complex tricks. Parkour goons to fans of watching strong man competitions and arm wrestling, should be able to find something of worth in this show. Are you into the choreographed fight scenes and agility presented in Kung-Fu films? The acrobatic skills showcased are striking and, at some point, there were even some sort of ninja-like characters woven into the performance. Maybe you’re just a straight-up creepy perv that would rather be at the strip club? Well, there’s a soaking wet contortionist bending in all kinds of crazy directions, for chrissakes. If you’re a figure-skating enthusiast, then you’re probably going to really enjoy Amaluna as well, but after this, there’s a good chance that you’re not going to give a shit about figure skating anymore. Why would you?I try to take every single thing that I post on the site into consideration, and a Cirque du Soleil show is definitely a bit left field for us to cover–the last live review that I wrote was for a Tomahawk show and the last album review that I posted was for a Howling Hex release. Even more confusing is the fact that, based on much of the advertising and imagery that I come across, the Cirque du Soleil actually looks like some of the worst possible shit in the world to me. The makeup and costumes often seem corny, Halloween-like, and overdone in the stills, while the video footage can’t even sustain my interest. But I had seen these guys before and, even though it was so long ago, I knew better. I knew that there was something more to this… something worth writing about and, definitely, something worth experiencing again. The reality is that still photographs don’t do it justice, because it’s like the equivalent of seeing a freeze frame of someone break dancing. The video footage isn’t the same, because it’s like the difference between watching a concert video, and actually attending one live. The lighting isn’t working at full potential in those formats, and one of the most affective aspects of the show is how your vision naturally migrates around, while you’re lost in an incredibly visceral, overwhelming environment of sensory overload; video and photos are either shot too wide, or determine your focus for you, narrowing the entire experience. The Talking Heads and Jonathan Demme produced one of the greatest concert videos of all time with Stop Making Sense, but imagine if you could have actually witnessed that footage live; it would have been so much more than what we see on film. It would have been an actual experience, rather than simply a really cool movie that it’s fun to throw on in the background every couple of years. Unfortunately, no matter how much I write about the goddam show, my own words will never be able to do it justice either.
I’m not oblivious to the fact that a lot of the people who would generally read the type of content that we post on this site aren’t even going to want to read this article. Not only is it long as fuck, but it’s not “cool” to like this type of shit. If anything, the cool thing to do is crack wise about it. Maybe there’s a subconscious association that people create to Celine Dione that makes them hate on the Cirque du Soleil so hard–both perform in Vegas, have French Canadian roots, and have similar names. Who knows? What I did know was that, by covering this, I was either going to be wasting my time, marking up my site by writing about something terrible, or I was going to be in the position that I’m in right now: backing something that, on paper, I wouldn’t even be likely to support under other circumstances, while making a mostly futile attempt at convincing you that something like this is not only good, but it’s actually really amazing. This time, I just figured that I’d try to tackle something that most of our readers wouldn’t even consider going to… something that I might not even consider going to. The end result was, honestly, the most wholly engrossing live performance that I’ve witnessed since I saw legendary, core-rattling, bleak, industrial, experimental, post-rock, noise masters Swans play in Seattle last year.
I would be completely full of shit if I didn’t endorse Amaluna and suggest it to our readers. The residency at Marymoor is only scheduled to extend until March 24th, but I recommend getting down there to check it out, if you are in the Seattle area and can afford to so. After that they head to Canada and, eventually, to stops in the Minneapolis area, Denver, San Francisco, and San Jose. Alegria is currently traveling through Europe, but the Mystère show in Vegas won’t be going anywhere any time soon. On the other hand, I may have been lucky with the performances that I’ve caught so far, and I can’t make my assumptions too broad by endorsing any/every one of the Cirque shows that I haven’t, personally, seen yet. Besides being turned away by anything related to Criss Angel, I watched some clips of Zumanity and it seems to be an all-out erotic showcase, complete with male strippers shaking their junk around (no thanks). But even when there aren’t cocks flying around, I believe that women are more likely to embrace the idea of something like this, especially since Amaluna contains such an empowering female element. So, if you are a man and you still want to act like a tough guy about this whole thing, I’d suggest simply taking your lady and stocking up on some relationship points, because you’ll definitely earn them and you’ll definitely enjoy yourself. It’s true that I wanted to look into Amaluna and hoped that it would be an amazing experience for Kim, but the fact that I enjoyed it just as much as she did, makes it that much more rewarding. We were able to experience something remarkable with each other, and I’m not in a place in my life where I feel like I need to start eating 10-strips of blotter again to attain those types of bonding experiences.
The one thing that I can’t promise you is that you will leave this show believing in magic, because I certainly didn’t. This troupe puts on 10 shows a week, performing some of the most mind-bending, rigorous routines, and displaying the most graceful and impressive displays of physical strength and focus that you’re likely to witness anywhere, ever. One thing that you will leave believing in, however, is the potential of the human body, the human mind, and the value of perseverance, dedication, and determination. Most of all, you’ll leave feeling like a lazy, out of shape, dead beat. Whether that motivates you to go home and start walking on your face, juggling fire, or scaling a crag upside down by your toes is another thing, but there is still a comfort in knowing that there are people out there that are willing to dedicate themselves to mastering equally insane feats, just to demonstrate to us the level of what is humanly possible.