We weren't quite sure what to expect entering Cirque du Soleil's big top behind AT&T Park on Friday, having only ever seen the Canadian-born troupe on television two decades or so ago. Their new show that just opened in San Francisco over the weekend, Amaluna, is one of over a dozen that they're currently performing, and in this one Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté wanted to develop a show that was all about celebrating women and femininity. For the first time in the troupe's history they're performing with a cast that's 70% female, backed by an all-female rock band that looks like they just left a Joan Jett lookalike convention and found some funky Renn-Faire robes along the way.
Which gets us to the first point about Cirque du Soleil: Expect no irony. The troupe brought in acclaimed Broadway director Diane Paulus to help with this one, but we can't say we can identify her stamp on it, exactly. These are, despite some new-age sheen, old-fashioned spectacles created in part for families with children, and the costuming and make-up are pretty over-the-top. That's not to say it doesn't add to the fun, given all the amazing feats of strength, balance, flexibility, and acrobatic agility displayed by every performer. But when you're taking on a "celebration of femininity" as a narrative framework, forgive us if we had to snicker a little at the Moon Goddess descending from the ceiling and make some jokes about the mid-air scissoring by a pair of performers to the friend next to us.
The highlights of the show come in the form of several totally mesmerizing and quiet acts, including a Chinese pole climbing act performed by the character of Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin) in which he inverts, contorts, and generally shows off his astounding strength by making his body totally horizontal in mid air almost effortlessly, then dropping upside-down to the floor within inches of hitting his head before clasping the pole between his legs and stopping himself. He then climbs up again, rips off his shirt, and does it again. Another terrific act involved a woman they call the Balance Goddess (Lara Jacobs Rigolo) who slowly and methodically creates an enormous mobile using only her arm and a series of ever-lengthening dried palm ribs, the soundtrack to this process only her breath while the audience sat in stunned silence. And we also loved the hand-balancing act, on a single suspended block, by the bikini-clad leading lady Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova) which ends with her dropping into a pool of water; and the lively, utterly impressive teeter-board act by the troupe of shirtless "castaways" in which they each send one another flying, flipping 40 feet into the air on a see-saw, only to stick every landing back on their end of the board and send the other guy flying.
In addition to this onslaught of wonderment, much of it unquestionably riveting and delightful, there is some interstitial clowning by the Germanic character Deeda and her newfound love interest Jeeves. This kind of stuff comes with the Cirque territory, we understand, but for those over the age of 8 it got a little tedious. There's also an impish half-man-half-lizard guy they've called Cali (Viktor Kee) who spends much of the show just flipping his tail back and forth until he gets to shine, in one of the final acts, doing an impressive juggling routine.
We could have done without the vague narrative framework, which was lost on us until reading the program the next day basically a feminized mashup of The Tempest and The Magic Flute with some other stuff thrown in, and a mother figure named Prospera doing a lot of Sarah McLachlan-esque chanting. But again, this is how Cirque du Soleil differentiates their shows, so maybe there's no escaping it.
Suffice it to say, if you're less jaded than us, you're going to love it in all its earnestness and goofery. If you're a fan of clowning, all forms of acrobats, and the music of Enya, you'll be in heaven. And if you have Sapphic desires or a penchant for woman warrior costuming, you might literally orgasm in your seat a couple of times.
Amaluna runs through January 12, behind AT&T Park. Get tickets here.