In their latest big-top extravaganza Amaluna, the old circus dogs at Cirque du Soleil show off a new trick, a dazzling stunt the Quebec-based troupe has never been able to pull off before: storytelling.
Sure, most of Cirque's shows have some sort of nebulous theme linking together the impressive acts, but none of their nonsensically titled spectacles (at least the dozen or so I've seen) has had as coherent a narrative as this one.
Amaluna was created in collaboration with American director Diane Paulus, whose most famous work before she started reviving musicals such as Porgy and Bess and Hair on Broadway was a disco-themed A Midsummer Night's Dream called The Donkey Show.
Here, she's drawn inspiration from Shakespeare again, delivering a twist – perhaps "contortion" is the better word – on The Tempest.
Prospera (Julie Andrea McInnes) – a cello-playing wizard who casts spells with a bow, rather than a staff – rules an enchanted isle that is about half the one "full of noises, sounds and sweet airs" that Shakespeare describes, and one half the all-female Paradise Island from the Wonder Woman comics, if it was peopled by superhuman circus performers instead of Amazons. (Amaluna's cast is about 70 per cent female.)
As in Shakespeare's tale, Prospera has a wild daughter named Miranda (the mesmerizing Iuliia Mykhailova) who encounters menfolk for the first time when the mother of all storms – conjured by an tempestuous aerial-silk routine performed by Bozyan Suren and Karyna Konchakivska – shipwrecks a gaggle of sailors on her shores.
Miranda's love interest here is not Ferdinand but Romeo, played by a rather ripped fellow named Edouard Doye, who, my circus companion for the evening informed me, carries himself with the quiet, confident sex appeal of a young Patrick Swayze, which the women of the world been waiting to see again ever since Dirty Dancing. Just FYI, ladies.
Oh, and rather than dealing with a monster named Caliban, Miranda has a pet lizard named Cali, who later rips off his tail and turns into one of the most pleased-with-himself jugglers I've ever seen. And instead of a sprite named Ariel, we just get lots and lots of aerial routines. Cirque de Shakespeare!
The plot of Amaluna concerns the budding romance between Miranda and Romeo – and naturally the course of true love does not run smooth. Indeed, en route to their wedding presided over by Prospera, they (and their circus friends) must soar to great heights on swinging rings, then fall swiftly toward unpadded ground; keep their balance on a tightrope and navigate the ups and downs of giant teeter-totters. In short, it's not that much different from most courtships, give a unicycle act or two.
Another thing that distinguishes Amaluna from other Cirque shows is that the main characters, instead of being clowns or mimes, are stunt performers themselves. Mykhailova's Miranda has a fantastic and flirtatious balance routine performed in and around a giant water bowl, while Doye's Romeo performs a breath-taking display of strength in pursuit of her, climbing up and down what looks like a bendy fireman's pole, often just using his hands. He wraps his legs around the top, then lets himself plummet, regaining control just inches before having his head bashed in.
Composed by the duo known as Bob & Bill, the music for Doye's solo act is a plaintive, Coldplay-styled tune. In general, the music – played by an all-female band, full of Prince look-alikes and asymmetrical hairdos – is a little hipper than a Cirque show generally allows, with some riot-grrl punk rock for an uneven-bar routine and trip hop that sounds like early Portishead for an artistic tightrope act that involves lots of tripping and hopping (and walking en pointe).
As in classic comedies, the main lovers have clownish, satirical counterparts – played by a bright and cheery Natalie Claude and the mustachioed Josepa (Pepa) Plana Llort. Some of their schtick drove me up the wall, but a sketch in which they give birth to a dozen football-shaped babies and then make men in the audience rock them won me over.
One highlight from the acts: Lara Jacob's hypnotic manipulation routine in which, with the help of a dextrous pair of feet, she picks up what look like the ribs of a giant wooden animal and slowly balances them on the end of each other. In one of the show's many brilliant sound-design elements, we hear each breath of hers amplified, and the concentration and effort she puts into this is palpable.
The question I was left with at the end: Do we really want Cirque to be telling stories rather than conjuring dreamscapes? I'll take it, this time around anyway.