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Originally published Monday, August 5, 2013 at 5:15 AM

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The Cabiri’s new show: were-cats and creation myth

The Cabiri, a Seattle aerial troupe, with a little help from Cirque du Soleil veteran Marshall Garfield, unveils a new production, “Ailuran,” at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center Theatre on Aug. 8-10, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Performance preview

The Cabiri: ‘Ailuran’

8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Meydenbauer Center Theatre, 11100 N.E. Sixth St., Bellevue; $18-$35 (information: www.cabiri.org; tickets: 800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/400463 ).

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You might call it a Neolithic aerial-butoh dream vision.

“Ailuran” — the latest production of the Cabiri — imagines prehistoric creation myths, inspired by archaeological findings at Çatalhöyük, southern Turkey.

The show marks several firsts for the Seattle aerial troupe. They’ll be collaborating with local butoh artists Alex Ruhe and Vanessa Skantze (Seattle performers who’ve put their own spin on the Japanese postwar dance form). They invited former Cirque du Soleil head acrobatic coach Marshall Garfield to spend 17 days with them in July to fine-tune the production’s dramatic potential. And the Aug. 8-10 show will mark their debut on the Eastside, at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center Theatre.

Çatalhöyük, 8,000-10,000 years old, is the biggest and best-preserved Neolithic site known to archaeology. Cabiri artistic director John Murphy has been fascinated with it for decades, he says, and was lucky enough to visit it in 2001.

He believes the concept of angels (“vehicles between the celestial world and terrestrial world,” as he puts it) may have originated at Çatalhöyük. In prehistoric art, he explains, terrestrial animals generally don’t go up into the sky and underworld entities don’t come up onto the Earth.

“But there’s this odd thing that starts happening at Çatalhöyük,” he says, “where sky divinities come down to the earth, and there’s this interface.”

In “Ailuran” those sky divinities are called “Watchers” and are played by aerialists. The rest of the action is more earthbound, as it chronicles a showdown between a stealthy band of hominids (proto-humans) and a slinky band of “ailurans.”

What, you might ask, is an “ailuran”?

The full term for the creatures is “ailuranthropes”: were-cats.

“At Çatalhöyük in the cave paintings,” Murphy explains, “you see transformation figures of people essentially possessed by the spirit of leopards.”

“Ailuran,” he adds, is just the prequel to an ambitious planned trilogy that will span 9,000 years of human myth: “It’s hands-down the most challenging work the Cabiri has ever done.”

Garfield, a former competitive gymnast from Montreal, now directs Montreal’s Lab in Motion, described as an “incubator for new performance concepts” on its website. His involvement in “Ailuran” is clearly thrilling to Murphy and Cabiri managing director Charly McCreary.

McCreary met him while participating in Denver’s Aerial Acrobatics Arts Festival. When Murphy and Marshall scheduled a quick Skype talk to go over scheduling logistics, their conversation wound up lasting three hours.

“It was just instantaneous,” Murphy says. “He understood the mythopoeic nature of our performance better than anyone else I’ve worked with in the contemporary circus.”

Garfield himself was drawn to Murphy’s phrase for what the Cabiri do: “performative mythology.”

The butoh element intrigued him, too.

“As soon as I saw that,” he says, “and saw where it could take place in the show, I just grabbed the opportunity and made it work for the show. ... It took me a couple of days to discover it. But when I discovered it, I went: Oh, OK!”

Murphy and McCreary say it may be the first aerial-butoh collaboration ever done — that they know of, anyway.

“John and Charly are visionaries in what they’re trying to set up,” Garfield says. “Just the fact that a production with acrobatics and physical theater would go and get something as obscure as butoh and try to incorporate it into it — it was a brilliant idea.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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