What is Diane Paulus, the celebrated opera and theater director, doing staging a Cirque du Soleil show? ¶ “My whole life has always been about directing a show in a circus tent,” she said recently as she continued to bask in the glow of this year’s Tony win for “Pippin.” “I’ve wanted to break the fourth wall. I’ve wanted to use my skills in one dynamic work.” ¶ That work is “Amaluna,” Cirque’s first female-focused production. The show, which opens Thursday in a giant tent outside the Mall of America, follows an unspoken narrative that draws on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” ¶ “Amaluna” is set on an Eden-like island of women deities presided over by the queen, Prospera. ¶ “I come from a background of theater and opera, so I bring a sense of theater and narrative,” Paulus said. “I was clear that this is a Cirque show. There’s no script or language, but I aimed to create a sense of arc and character.”
Paulus, who heads the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, has become known for fetchingly contemporary productions of everything from Shakespearean romances to grand operas. Her imaginative work has drawn praise and consternation. Composer Stephen Sondheim took her to task for the changes she and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks made to the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”
But the show was loved by Tony voters, who gave it the trophy for best musical revival in 2012. (“Porgy and Bess” comes to St. Paul’s Ordway Center in March 2014.)
In 2009, Paulus’ revival of “Hair” also won the Tony before launching a North American tour. In June, she won best director for her revival of “Pippin,” which made a star of Tony-winner Patina Miller and remains one of Broadway’s hottest tickets. “Pippin” bested heavy favorite “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and a well-regarded production of “Annie.”
Before she became a Broadway darling, Paulus broke into the mainstream with “The Donkey Show,” her disco adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that ran off-Broadway for six years. In 2007, she directed “Fashion 47” at the Children’s Theatre.
Almost pursued politics
Like her idol, Julie Taymor, Paulus has become a major-domo in American theater. Yet she almost ran away from what seems today like her obvious destiny.
Paulus grew up in Manhattan immersed in the arts. Her father was a CBS executive. Her mother was a Japanese émigré. Her parents met during the American occupation of postwar Japan.
“He was in his 50s when I was born,” she said of her father. “There’s that nature-nurture argument. He would make me read the New York Times out loud and would correct me. He dragged me to the theater starting at [age] 3.”
She danced in New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at 8 and George Balanchine’s famous suite, “The Firebird,” at 9.
Despite such early excitement, she thought her dream job lay not in the arts but in law and politics.
“I wanted to be mayor of New York,” she said.
She rethought that goal after her freshman year at Harvard, when she interned with Manhattan political leader Ruth Messinger.
“I was at this meeting with the Coalition for the Homeless and I started making diagrams of how they’re going to get the food out in the vans,” she said, adding that it dawned on her that she did not want to be a politician.
“I wanted to be in that van, delivering food,” she said. “I wanted to be in the trenches.”
Theater provided that sense of rush, of doing things.
“If you ask me to stay up all night rehearsing a play, I would do it willingly and wouldn’t even be aware of the time passing,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have such a moment in college. I got to do ‘Hair.’ I just had this deep realization that I loved the theater. Why not do what you love, because if you do, you can pour everything into it, all physical and mental and psychic energies.”
Two years in the making
Cirque was an answer to a prayer.
“I was interested in working for Cirque. I admired their work and I knew that I’d have many more new muscles stretched,” she said. Paulus led the development of the show over a two-year period, starting in 2010.
Typically, in Cirque shows, a quarter of the cast is women, she said. In “Amaluna,” which has a cast of 50, the ratio is reversed.
“I spent two years scouting talent — contortionists from Africa, twins from Spain,” she said. “I wish I could’ve traveled to all those places. But in the age of the Internet, you sit in a room and look at five hours of YouTube videos. When Cirque selects artists and they sign on, they bring their skills and in certain cases, their acts.”
Acrobatic Ukrainian juggler Viktor Kee was already was well-known before he was tapped by Cirque. In “Amaluna,” he plays a half-human, half-lizard character inspired by Caliban.
“He has his act and he juggles, but the personage, the costuming around him and his place in the narrative were all developed for the show,” she said.
Cast from 17 countries
Paulus wanted to make clear that while this show celebrates the strength, beauty and power of women, everyone is welcome.
“The biggest challenge working on a show like that was the fact that we’re working in an international setting,” she said of a cast of 117 that hails from 17 nations. “There are artists and performers from Spain, China, Russia and Japan who spoke no English. You’re directing in a space the size of an airplane hangar, so you have to be on a microphone. Anything you say gets translated in four languages simultaneously. It’s like the United Nations going on.”
She bonded with the interpreters because, she said, “If I’m speaking passionately but if the interpreters did not understand or translate that passion, then you lose a lot. In the end it was extremely rewarding to see a cast of young kids from China who’d never left the country performing side by side with French boys and American girls and Russian contortionists and clowns from Spain. They all take care of each other.”
“Amaluna” underscores the larger ethos of Cirque, said company manager Jamie Reilly.
“Back at headquarters, we have 4,000 company members from 50 different countries,” she said. “We celebrate difference and use that to create mesmerizing shows.”