‘Amaluna’ puts Diane Paulus under the big top
NEW YORK — For quality control, Cirque du Soleil records every performance of its touring acrobatic spectacle “Amaluna,” just as it records all of its other shows. And once a week, the “Amaluna” crew sends the latest DVDs off to Cirque headquarters in Montreal to be scrutinized for any changes to the various acts, the vividly colored costumes, the intricate makeup.
Two years after the production’s premiere, that’s a lot of “Amaluna” DVDs. But the recording began even before opening night. At rehearsals in Montreal, a videographer was a constant presence, said Diane Paulus, the director of the big-top show, which runs Thursday through July 6 at Boston’s Marine Industrial Park.
“All of these artist-acrobats, they work like an athlete by analyzing video,” Paulus explained recently over bacon and eggs at a cafe on the Upper West Side, while “Amaluna” was playing in New York. “I’m telling you, I spent more time at the video monitor than I did probably anywhere else. Because the acrobats can’t do the tricks over and over and over. They’d do it full-out once, and then that was it. So you finish the rehearsal, and you roll the video. And you stand there with the acrobats and their coaches, and you analyze it.”
To aerial acrobat Vinie Canovas, 31, an “Amaluna” cast member who began as a gymnast in France, the habit is perfectly practical.
“As an acrobat or any kind of athlete, it’s always good to look at yourself on video so you can see what is good, what is not good, what you need to change or improve,” she said one afternoon under the 2,600-seat big top, which was set up across the parking lot from Citi Field, the Mets’ stadium. “Especially when you want to give the most beautiful show, the visual has to be perfect: all the details.”
But in the theater, honing a performance that way would be “complete anathema,” said Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. “You’re not even allowed to roll a tape,” she said. “The idea of an actor ever watching a playback would be just a horrific proposition.”
And yet unfamiliar ways of working seem to be part of what intrigued Paulus when Cirque du Soleil called her in 2010. By then, she said, she had already begun work on “Pippin,” the circus-infused musical revival that would win her a 2013 Tony Award, and she’d already discussed ideas for it with the the play’s circus director, Gypsy Snider. But they had to table that project until the rights were available. In the meantime, Paulus dove into “Amaluna.”
“I knew I would be exposed to new ideas, and my brain would be stretched in new directions from this experience,” she said. “So I jumped at the opportunity, especially when I finally had my first meeting and they said they wanted the show to be an homage to women. That was a no-brainer.”
The homage is implicit in the ratio of females to males among the 39 acrobatic artists in “Amaluna”: 70/30, the opposite of the typical ratio, Paulus said. The seven-member band is made up entirely of women, and the show’s acts include a female contortionist who swims in a water bowl and a woman who builds and balances an enormous mobile made of palm-leaf ribs.
“Literally, I would fly to Montreal and sit in a room for five hours and look at YouTube videos, because it was primarily cast from YouTube,” Paulus said. “I spent about two years looking at women from all over the world to cast the show. One of the largest aspects of the whole project was just finding the talent and building a cast of that many women.
“I looked at women shooting themselves out of cannons, women juggling machetes, women contortionists from all over the world. I was looking for acts where I felt there was a particular kind of expression or strength or freedom.”
And once she and her Cirque colleagues found them — or assembled them, as in the case of a team of uneven-bar athletes — Cirque used guidelines developed over its three-decade existence to shape “Amaluna.”
“When you work at Cirque, they have what they call an acrobatic skeleton, which is sort of an acrobatic formula of how to build a show,” Paulus said. “They have a whole system of how do you order a show acrobatically so that it works rhythmically and keeps an audience’s attention.”
Within that, Paulus layered what she called a “hidden narrative” made from a “mashup of ideas: a little Shakespeare, a little Greek mythology, and ‘Magic Flute’ mixed in.” Two of the show’s main characters are Prospera and Miranda, a mother-daughter pair more or less plucked from “The Tempest.”
“But the truth is it’s still a Cirque du Soleil show without language, except for some clowning,” Paulus said. “I always hesitate to say, ‘It’s got a story,’ because, you know, you just don’t want people to be frustrated. It’s a circus show. It’s more like a ballet, a story ballet.”
Figuring out how to direct within the Cirque parameters was “a huge learning curve” but also “a tremendous experience, a huge growing experience,” Paulus said. The Montreal rehearsal studio “felt like an airplane hangar,” so large that it could fit the whole big-top set. In that voluminous space, Paulus spoke to the company through a hand-held microphone.
“I think I had no idea what it was like to direct for Cirque du Soleil, as much as anyone was preparing me,” she said. “Until you do it, you really don’t understand what it means to work on that scale with that kind of complexity. It’s not only the acrobatic challenge, but it’s really an international situation. I had interpreters in every rehearsal with me because we had Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French going at the same time. And I speak a little French — I mean, my high school French finally came out when I was like, ‘I don’t have enough time to go through an interpreter. I’m just gonna try to say this myself in French.’”
Nonetheless, Paulus sounded effusive in asserting she was glad she’d had the experience: “I adored the artists and the company.”
Just a few months after “Amaluna” opened in 2012, she directed a workshop of “Pippin” — and approached it with knowledge she’d acquired during her Canadian circus foray.
“If I had gone into ‘Pippin’ when I originally started on it, I think I would’ve had a much higher learning curve there,” she said. “But I went into ‘Pippin’ knowing what a cerceau was; I knew what a Chinese pole was. I knew every piece of acrobatic equipment. I knew how the rhythms work in terms of training.
“And then ‘Pippin’ presented a whole other set of unique challenges of how to combine all that acrobatics with the choreography and the Fosse and singing,” Paulus said. “That was stuff we weren’t really doing in ‘Amaluna.’”