The last day of summer is quickly approaching, and with it comes the end of Cirque du Soleil’s Washington run. The new touring production Amaluna closes Sunday, September 21, and for Cirque fans it’s well worth the trip to National Harbor—both because the show is highly entertaining, and because it’s the company’s first to feature a majority female cast and an all-female band.
Created by Diane Paulus, the Tony Award-winning director of Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the work is set on a mystical island ruled by goddesses, whose tranquil environment is shaken up by the arrival of a crew of shipwrecked male sailors. The story borrows some elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest—the main character is Prospera, who supervises her daughter Miranda’s coming of age and romance with one of the sailors, Romeo; and the mischievous Caliban becomes Calli, a human-lizard hybrid whose love for Miranda drives him to wicked acts. But the story takes a back seat to Cirque’s usual highlights: elaborate costumes (by Mérédith Caron), original music, and awe-inspiring feats of physicality.
The focus on women performers was decided early on, says the show’s artistic director, Rachel Lancaster. “Circus shows tend to be around 70 percent male, so quite early on, reversing that ratio was one of the primary ideas Diane wanted to promote within her creation.” The next step, she says, was to find acts that required a large number of female performers, and the search turned up not just aerial artists and acrobats but also a transfixing balancing act that made for the most suspenseful part of the show. There’s even a sly hint of male objectification: Romeo, attempting to reach the captured Miranda, performs a routine with a Chinese pole that elicited gasps from the audience—and then successfully ascends the pole only after removing his shirt, earning a smattering of chuckles.
Perhaps one of the most impressive elements, though is the band. Led by Julie McInnes, who plays Prospera, and including a spiky-haired guitarist who looks straight out of Rock Band, the musicians showcase skills every bit as extraordinary as the other performers, and provide the heartbeat that keeps the show alive. If Amaluna is any measure, here’s hoping Cirque du Soleil carries the female focus into future productions.