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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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Women are the stars in Cirque’s new ‘Amaluna’

Cirque du Soleil returns to Redmond’s Marymoor Park starting Thursday with a new show directed by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus that puts the emphasis on female performers.

Seattle Times theater critic

Performance preview

Cirque du Soleil: ‘Amaluna’

Thursday-March 17, Marymoor Park, 6046 W. Lake Sammamish Parkway N.E., Redmond; $40-$133.50 (800-745-3000 or www.cirquedusoleil.com)

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Diane Paulus is in high demand. She’s a leading director of operas and Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals, and serves as artistic head of Boston’s American Repertory Theatre.

But until Cirque du Soleil came calling, this prominent stage artist had never run away with the circus.

When the invitation came to direct “Amaluna,” a new Cirque du Soleil show coming to Marymoor Park this week, Paulus was surprised and intrigued.

“I’d seen many Cirque shows but never thought I’d be directing one,” Paulus said by phone from the East Coast. “What excited me was that Cirque was interested in doing an homage to women. And they were inviting me aboard to help shape a vision for the project.”

“Amaluna” is a departure for Paulus, but also for the prolific, Montreal-based circus outfit, a top-selling touring attraction in its many visits to the Seattle area.

“The basic idea was that we’d have a predominantly female cast,” explained Paulus. “A typical Cirque show has a ratio of 75 percent men to 25 percent women. This one is the opposite — about 75-25, women to men.”

Though it features the expected aerial and gymnastic dazzle and musical derring-do of Cirque’s other big-top and Vegas circus spectacles, “Amaluna” also has a narrative through-line — with nods to William Shakespeare and ancient mythology.

Cirque co-founder and honcho Guy Laliberté “told me he wanted something new, a real story to drive the show,” recalled Paulus. “He wanted acrobatic excellence but also real emotions and characters.”

A tall order — Cirque shows have little or no spoken dialogue — but it was a challenge Paulus welcomed. Visiting Montreal for brainstorming sessions was “a profoundly creative experience for me. In a very European way, everyone was seated at the table, all the staff and the artists, and we talked and talked over a year to build something out of nothing.”

What they devised, in “Amaluna,” is a fantasia that interweaves feminine archetypes with elements of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” among other influences.

“From Greek mythology there are a mother and daughter based on Demeter and Persephone as a central motif,” said Paulus. (“Ama” means mother in many languages; “Luna” is Latin for moon.)

Prospero, a character in “The Tempest,” is transformed in “Amaluna” from an exiled male aristocrat and sorcerer into Prospera, “an exiled woman artist-musician who rules an island.” Her teenage daughter Miranda’s first love is a shipwrecked hunk named Romeo — who courts her with a daring Chinese pole-climbing act.

Some of the physical logistics of creating a Cirque show were new to Paulus. “I had to scout and cast women at the top of their field as acrobats, contortionists, gymnasts. I looked at tapes of performers from all over the world — Africa, Russia, Spain, China, women who could shoot themselves out of cannons and do archery feats.”

Rehearsals of “Amaluna” took place in a Montreal studio the size of an airplane hangar, a stand-in for Cirque’s giant show tent. “I had to direct using a microphone. It was like being at the United Nations — I’d say something in English, and all the interpreters would simultaneously translate it into Japanese, Chinese, Russian.”

Paulus found she had to take into account the special needs of the acrobatic performers. “We have a number with Amazons, the first Cirque gymnastic act ever on the uneven bars, and it took a whole year to create the synchronicity and teamwork.

“I also learned that some performers need a 20-minute warm-up right before they do their thing. Our Miranda is a contortionist, and I had to figure out how to get her offstage for her warm-up. How could I make that a dramatic moment?”

“Amaluna” opened in Montreal last year, and Canadian critics extolled it as a “sexy” and “richly poetic” extravaganza that “moves with a seamless brilliance.”

Back in the theater world, Paulus is currently readying a new revival of the musical “Pippin” for Broadway.

But will she run away with the circus again sometime?

“I have two little girls who totally want to be acrobats now,” she replied. “Doing ‘Amaluna’ was an enormous amount of work, but so rewarding. I’d certainly do something like that again.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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