Royal Albert Hall; 6th February 2016
Amaluna is a fantasy storybook whisked into life with twinkling lights, colourful costumes, a sea of acrobatic performers, and a rousing rock band. It’s not the story of The Tempest, but Shakespeare’s tale of magic, shipwreck, fear and love is a recognisable influence in the Cirque Du Soleil characters who, here on the parallel universe Isle of Amaluna, take a different journey.
All the CDS shows I’ve seen begin with the classic circus opening of clowns in and among the audience as we take our seats. In this case, the matronly, caretaker-type figure of Maïnha (Gabriella Argento), who I take to be the show’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s Ariel – although this one seems content in her position of service – who is then joined by a collection of spirits and creatures. One of these is Cali (Viktor Kee), a half-man half-lizard derived from The Tempest’s Caliban but again, without the anger.
Miranda is contortionist and handbalancer Iuliia Mykhailova, and the pre-show announcement tells us that it is her Coming Of Age. Her mother is Prospera (Amanda Zidow), who rules the island, and can conjure charms and torments by the playing of a shimmering blue and gold cello that appears to float in front of her body. Her appearance is signalled by ring of warrior women and a wafting red silk, contained within a circle of fans that remind me of Phia Menard’s work with air currents; we are introduced to an atmosphere of pride, power and threat.
The tone shifts to signal a mother’s fear at her daughter’s potential sexual activity, as Cali and a troupe of scale-crotched lizard-men exhibit the lure of excitement, danger and masculinity in a hoop-diving routine. They are banished with a storm that also brings a shipwreck to the island, along with admiralty clown Papulya (Pavel Mikhaylov), a troupe of khaki-trousered crew, and Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin), who is destined to be Miranda’s love.
The storm is an energising blast of three aerial straps perfomers who dart in and out of exquisite synchronisation and individual gusts, twirling their blue straps like ribbons, then launching out above our heads in bursts of force from a revolving rig.
I may sound like a stuck record, regularly bemoaning the lack of performer credits available to circus reviewers, but you’d think the global powerhouse of CDS would offer up at least their artists’ names in their extensive online press pack, which devotes two whole pages to Mérédith Caron’s costumes – admittedly gorgeous – and provides substantial biographies for 13 members of the creative team. But unfortunately not. Sorry ladies, I can’t praise you by name. A Twitter source tells me that a team of seven rotate the roles, but a printed cast list for press representatives at each show is surely not too much to ask, so credit can be given where it’s due?
Anyway, the story is progressed by the lowering in of a final straps performer, who dives into the ocean and causes the wreckage, leaving the survivors of the shipwreck to make their fumbling ways ashore.
Papulya and Maïnha indulge in gag-filled flirting that, to those of us with sexually tuned minds, is lewd enough to raise a laughing response and, to those too innocent to notice, is absurd enough to still tickle in its ridiculousness.
Romeo reaches Miranda (despite attempts from the dancing Peacock Goddess to bewitch him en route), after she has received the gift of womanhood from the Moon Goddess (Marie-Michelle Faber). Above a giant crystal bowl of water, Faber manipulates her body around a counterweighted aerial hoop, while singing a husky tune of extended, unwavering notes vitalised with percussive breathing.
A series of dynamic spins threaten to dunk her but, instead of a climax, she passes her power to Miranda, who tests her new self with a series of slow and flexing handbalances atop a single cane, then thrusting herself willingly into the pool beneath, which is lit so we can see her triumphant underwater tumbling. As Romeo joins her, we move away from symbolic female power into traditional boy-girl romance. As in the Shakespearean precedents of The Tempest and Romeo & Juliet, there is no courtship or ‘getting to know you period’, just an immediate decision to be together fueled by the first flush of teenage desire.
The other members of the ship’s crew encounter the island’s warrior tribe, and are chased off by a forceful display of uneven bar-style gymnastics, warningly lit in flashing orange and yellow.
During the interval, I join the inevitable queue for the Ladies, and am able to take in the art being exhibited in the Albert Hall’s circular corridor to mark the 20th Anniversary of CDS playing here. Photos from each of the shows have been reproduced with added filters by Russell Marshall, a reminder of how a distinctive aesthetic to the company’s work has solidified over time.
That said, the Korean teeterboard number that opens the second half shows the sailor boys lost in the jungle in a light that seems more in keeping with current trends of contemporary circus, allowing their personalities and real relationships to shine through the team work and extreme play an ensemble act of this sort requires. Their camoflage-patterned trousers look modern, and their faces appear free of make-up. In the context of this show, it seems to be delivering a stereotypically masculine gender comment, ‘This is what men are, this is how they behave.’
Prospera intervenes again between her daughter and a potential sexual partner, this time offering a lesson: the Balance Goddess (Lara Jacobs Rigolo) performs the Sanddorn Balance act invented by her real-life father, showing the importance of taking time and care to build the fragile structure that can be destroyed by a mere breath out of place. The hidden snare drum highlights the organic sounds of tension, commenting on the act from outside as it floats isolated, a universe in its own right. The ending that allows all to crumble at last to dust still gives me shivers, even though I know it’s coming.
It’s one challenge after another for the young lovers. Romeo has to prove his love and worth by rescuing Miranda from Cali, who has snatched her off into the air. The Chinese pole is used to show Romeo’s pursuit, and he emotes clearly between set pieces, communicating the story easily.
The dual high and low romances that characterise Shakespeare’s works are kept in play here with intercut scenes between Maïnha and Papulya, now on a boat that, without much imagination, is also a pre-marital bed.
When we return to the leading players, we find things have taken a turn for the dark, with Romeo imprisoned in the water bowl by Cali. If Caliban in The Tempest is a symbol of jealousy and thwarted entitlement, this is where we see it, and the sense of risk that surrounded him in the first half of the show has ramped up to danger as he strips away tail and skin, transferring all the sinuous energy of his lizard self into a series of juggling balls that weave around his body as it waves and oscillates. Fire fans produce a flaming ball that is used as a seventh as his act concludes with Miranda’s arrival, now her turn to rescue her beau (although, in the end, it’s Romeo who sees Cali off for good).
The pair are finally given the acceptance of the Isle, which is celebrated by a Risley Troupe of 10 who create conveyor belts flipping their flyers from the feet of one base to the next, and finishing with a tower built of prone bodies that allows for some somersaulting exchanges of position and a finale of spins as one performer flips around upon themselves landing time and again with their bottom on their partner’s feet, and ultimately standing on them.
Watching Amaluna feels similar to watching a classic ballet, a more grandiose scale of physical performance aside. The story is told in broad brushstrokes as a classic fairytale form that doesn’t challenge anything in the way of societal convention, but allows me to sit back and enjoy not having to use my brain for a while.
This is, however, more than a little at odds with much of the show’s PR, which makes a big deal of it being about the power of women. I can see why audience members, coming on this premise, might feel a little ticked off to realise that, while some moments do indeed celebrate womanhood, it’s all done within a frame of relationship to men. There’s nothing wrong with men. But they are not the defining feature of womanhood as is suggested in so many of the scenes here.
This is a glossy children’s picturebook of a show and, feminism failures aside, gave me a relaxing couple of hours of escapism. A top-notch example of how circus skills can be used as illustration within a simple story, which guarantees a happy ending after the familiar tumult of star-crossed lovers.