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Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.EXPAND
Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.
Martin Girard

Go Behind the Scenes With Us for Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna

Hearing crowds cheer inside the Cirque du Soleil big top, it’s easy to imagine the spectacle of ancient Rome, back when massive crowds watched gladiators fight to the death. There’s an infectious spirit, fueled by a pair of clowns doing aisle-side antics steeped in blowing kisses and other romantic gestures.

As guests trickled in for Tuesday night’s performance, a character named Cali boosted the circus-like vibe, playfully snatching popcorn from someone sitting front and center, then throwing kernels into the air so they’d rain down on audience members. Cali is a bare-chested lizard-type creature, whose impish, slightly sexualized antics – including juggling red apple-sized balls – hark back to biblical serpent mythology.

It’s all part of Amaluna, the Cirque du Soleil show that runs through Sunday, April 14, inside a big top at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. Conceived and directed by Diane Paulus, it premiered in Montreal in 2012. Paulus won a Tony Award in 2013 for directing a revival of the musical Pippin on Broadway, another show that included stunning aerial hoop performance.

It’s a flashy, polished production, with spectacular lighting and a driving rock soundtrack performed live by an all-female band. But before people see the sparkle, there’s plenty of preparation that has to happen behind the scenes – from refreshing crystal-laden costumes to practicing gymnastics routines. In Glendale, it all started when 75 trailers carrying 2,000 tons of equipment rolled into town on Friday, March 8.

It takes eight days to set up the site, which includes the big top with blue and yellow swirls, which measures 167 feet across and 62 feet tall. That job falls to more than 60 people, using more than 1,000 steel poles.

Last Thursday, an air of laser-focused calm infused the big top, during something Cirque calls validation day. Technicians checked various elements for the physical space, and safety element for myriad apparatus used in the show. Amaluna performers use several types of equipment, including aerial straps, unicycles, teeterboards, and more. This is their first production to feature the uneven bars, by the way.

Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.EXPAND
Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.
Matt Beard

Chris Houston, the artistic director for Amaluna, sat ringside Thursday afternoon, chatting with Phoenix New Times about the show’s inspiration and storyline. “It’s loosely based on The Tempest by William Shakespeare,” Houston says. “But it also has elements of Norse and other mythologies.” It’s the first Cirque production to feature a predominantly female cast, and an actual storyline.

The cast includes 48 artists, including Canadian Sabrina Againer, who rehearsed portions of her aerial hoop performance wearing black dance shorts and a pink tank top Thursday afternoon, demonstrating athletic prowess and meticulous attention to detail. The cast and crew hail from nearly two dozen countries, and the artists range from 19 to 50-something years old.

Amaluna is set on a mythical island ruled by goddesses, where Prospera is shepherding her daughter, Miranda, through life and love. There’s an elaborate coming-of-age ceremony in the first act, and a storm that shipwrecks a small group of men on the island. They’re captured under a massive net, in the show’s most obvious nod to the Bard.

Naturally, a young man named Romeo is among them. And his love-at-first-sight encounter with Miranda is followed by a series of challenges posed by Prospera, which comprise most of the second act. At one point, the couple frolics in a giant bowl of water meant to signify wisdom. It’s the dominant set piece, and weighs 5,000 pounds.

Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.EXPAND
Scene from Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna.
Martin Girard

While some cast members rehearsed onstage Thursday afternoon, others perfected their moves in a large practice area filled with thick royal blue mats, gymnastics equipment, an exercise bike, and other equipment.

Nearby, costumes hung on garment racks, near open trunks turned on their sides to reveal shelves filled with various accessories and supplies. Larry Edwards, head of wardrobe for Amaluna, ran through a long list of materials used in the show, including leather, denim, tulle, lace, metallic fabric, and more. Amaluna includes more than 130 costumes, made with nearly 1,000 different items. Here, Edwards' costume shop is anchored by a large table, where he's working on a black corset near an alcove dotted with sewing machines.

Mérédith Caron did costume design for the show, which includes using thousands of Swarovski crystals worn by characters including a moon goddess. “Her idea was to show the different strengths of women with fabric,” Edwards says of Caron. Wigs with long, blonde braids sit on mannequin heads lining high shelves over mirrors where artists get their makeup done. Some characters wear elaborate face paint, or colored contact lenses.

When it all comes together, it’s a visual feast.

Whether you embrace the mythology at play here, or Cirque de Soleil’s framing of Amaluna as a tale of women’s empowerment, there’s no denying that pulling it all together is a massive undertaking. Amaluna is escapism par excellence, well-timed for an era when American politics has become its own three-ring circus.

Cirque du Soleil: Amaluna. Through Sunday, April 14, at State Farm Stadium, 1 Cardinals Drive, Glendale. Ticket prices vary. Visit cirquedusoleil.com.

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