A Cirque du Soleil moment: ‘Amalŭna’ under the big top

Sabrina Aganier, acrobat and contortionist, high above the stage in Cirque du Soleil's “Amalŭna,” now inside Cirque's Big Top constructed in Oaks, Montgomery County. (Photo courtesy of Yanick Déry for Cirque du Soleil)

Sabrina Aganier, acrobat and contortionist, high above the stage in Cirque du Soleil's “Amalŭna,” now inside Cirque's Big Top constructed in Oaks, Montgomery County. (Photo courtesy of Yanick Déry for Cirque du Soleil)

At some point in almost every Cirque du Soleil production comes The Moment, when a performer barely hanging onto something flies high above the stage and, embellished by lighting and music, resolves into an image so beautiful that it’s a prayer for the human body.

For me, that moment in Cirque’s touring show “Amalŭna,” now at the start of a month-long run at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, comes in the first half. The Canadian acrobat and contortionist Sabrina Aganier is playing the Moon Goddess. High on a huge hoop, dressed in a crystal-studded outfit, bathed in blue light and accompanied by bounding music, Aganier holds on by the back of her neck and then by only her toes.

I always wonder, while watching Cirque’s performers, where do they learn to do this stuff? To wriggle up and around a tall pole, then slide upside-down at heart-thumping speed, stopping precisely when the nose touches the floor, as the Russian Evgeny Kurkin, who also plays the story’s hunk, does? To juggle six balls at once, standing atop a giant covered bowl of water— and using the back to catch a couple of them, as Vladimir Pestov, also Russian and a character in the show’s storyline, does? To pick up perhaps 20 oar-like pieces with the feet and build them into a large structure supported only by one hand, as the Balance Goddess, played by Lily Ciao from Switzerland, does?

The answer, of course, is circus school, and probably from an early age. Aganier came to her aerial hoop 10 years ago at circus school, only after sensing that not everyone had her flexibility, she recently told Upscale Living magazine.

“I did not realize that I was a contortionist,” she said. You surely will.

“Amalŭna” opened in 2012 in Montreal, Cirque du Soleil’s home, and is one of its 28 shows currently roaming the globe or playing in long-run houses. It’s every inch Cirque. Clown Kelsey Custard (from the United States) and her clown beau Thiago Andreuccetti (from Brazil) spike the extreme acrobatics with romantic shenanigans and very little real language. A terrific high-octane six-piece band, all women, punctures the proceedings with music running from tense to toe-tapping. The spectacle seems unending, and by the time it’s over, you may not remember that your bottle of intermission water cost $5.

It is, in a word, an experience. Although I’ve seen enough Cirque shows to stop counting, for me it never gets old. Neither do the routines, which also include unicyclists, dancers, women jumping and flipping from uneven bars, and guys who seemingly take their lives in their hands catapulting wildly from an oversized seesaw called a teeterboard.

Somewhere in all of this, there is a story — in this show, more of a story than in others. “Amalŭna” is staged by Diane Paulus, the artistic director of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre. A year after directing this particular circus, she turned the Broadway revival of the musical “Pippin” into a circus-themed show, winning acclaim and a Tony Award for her direction. (She’s currently represented on Broadway by the musical “Waitress.”)

Paulus has loosely — key word here — modeled “Amalŭna” on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and if you know that play and want to spend time guessing who in “Amalŭna” is supposed to be who in “The Tempest,” be my guest. (Unlike the island in “The Tempest,” the island called Amalŭna is controlled by goddesses, and most of the cast is female.)

I know “The Tempest,” and I didn’t much care about the plot — I’ve never met anyone who goes to a Cirque show for the story, which is generally so questionable you could weep. I’ll say this much: Paulus ran with a good idea, and in the context of tumblers, flyers and daredevils, she makes it work to an unusually high degree for Cirque. Consider it a side dish that sometimes clashes with the main course.

That course is rich enough for me. Cirque’s 62-foot-high big top in Montgomery County, with about 2,500 seats, took about eight days to set up and fill with the contents of 78 trailers. That’s the reality.

When the lights go down and an international cast and crew take over, that’s the magic.


“Amalŭna,” produced by Cirque du Soleil, runs through Aug. 25 at the Cirque tent on the grounds of the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, 100 Station Ave., Oaks, about seven miles northwest of King of Prussia. 1-877-924-7783 or cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna.

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