A goddess guided by the cycles of the moon rules a mysterious island. A queen called Prospera (played by the fabulous Julie McInnes)magically interprets the central character and plot from The Tempest, with an all-female ensemble as her backup band. Peacocks and acrobats also abound in Amaluna, the newest touring show by Cirque du Soleil, written and directed by Diane Paulus, artistic director at American Repertory Theatre and the Tony Award-winning director of the revival of Pippin on Broadway.
Amaluna, with its 70% female cast, premiered in Montreal in April 2012 and has been touring since then, with its blue and yellow striped big top currently in Queens, New York through May 18. New York-based set designer Scott Pask, who frequently collaborates with Paulus (including on Pippin), has imagined a forest of bamboo-like branches to embrace the audience as they visit the magical island to witness a young woman’s coming of age (Miranda, daughter of Prospera). In his first outing for Cirque du Soleil, Pask wanted to provide a “supportive structure and a home for the show, using natural elements based on indigenous cultures from around the world,” he indicates.
“Because of the 70% female cast, we wanted the environment to have a sensuality to it,” explains Pask. One of the sensual scenic elements is a glass water bowl large enough for two performers, while the overall environment recalls an 18th- or 19th-century take on the natural world. “The set is a home base, a spiritual chapel for the show,” says Pask, who created a dramatic, yet somewhat abstract canopy of branches that has tentacles out over the audience, and adds a transformative quality to the stage, which has room for Amaluna’s dramatic rituals and ceremonies as well as acrobatic rigs. “There is a lot of aerial work,” notes Pask. “Some of the acrobats almost touch the branches overhead.”
These branches are crafted in aluminum with paint treatments, glazing, and gilding to add texture and the echo of bamboo. In addition to the canopy, which is attached to the four masts that hold up the big top, a screen of gnarled branches rises to indicate another, more wild section of the island, while upstage, a growth of scenic vegetation forms a tunnel-like grotto.
A stylized peacock feather decorates the stage and is echoed in Mérédith Caron’s iridescent costumes, as a reference to the magnificent bird that accompanies Hera, the Greek goddess of women, marriage, and fertility. The moods shift throughout the production, especially in a number featuring “the bone lady” or “the balance goddess,” where the audience is silent in amazement as she balances a series of palm-leaf ribs that look like bleached bones into an enormous sculpture in the center of the stage.
"The challenge," says Pask, "is working with the acrobatic equipment. There is an order of importance for a Cirque du Soleil show, and the performers come first. Aesthetic concerns are secondary. I worked closely with the acrobatic designers, as the vision needs to be complete. It was an amazing collaborative team."
Lighting designer Matthieu Larivée of Luz Studio in Montreal (who previously worked on Wintuk for Cirque du Soleil) added layers of visual texture to augment the set, and visually tell the story, strictly with lighting, as there are no projections in Amaluna. “Diana Paulus wanted many of the other characters to remain on stage during the acrobatic acts, as if watching, so there was often more than one area to light,” he explains.
One of his challenges is the weight restriction on the tent masts. “Everything has to hang from these masts, so the size of the rig is limited,” he notes, adding that he only has two Robert Juliat Manon followspots, which makes things interesting if there are three performers flying around. Additional fixtures can hang on some additional trusses, but again the weight is limited.
Programmed on an MA Lighting grandMA2 console, the lighting combines automated and conventional fixtures, with gobos in the Philips Vari-Lite VL3000 and VL3500 Spots providing texture on the set, as well as on the dark, interior surface of the tent, which Larivée used as a large circular cyc to add to the immersive feel of the environment. All of the lighting gear was purchased for the tour, and Larivée was able to select the individual gobos, which also add texture to the floor.
In terms of color, Larivée uses a lot more here than he is usually wont to do. “I am more of a monochrome designer,” he admits, but to help create the immersive environment for Amaluna, his colors are more saturated and more intense, adding another layer of interest to the natural settings that embrace both performers and audience on a magical island where female ingenuity, nature, and love prevail.
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