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Diane Paulus Flips for Cirque du Soleil

The Tony Award winning theater impresario and American Repertory Theater artistic director takes a creative lead role for Cirque's new production, "Amaluna"

Twenty two years ago, Diane Paulus walked into a big, bold, blue and yellow tent, where the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil was performing “Saltimbanco.”

“It was an introduction to a world I’d never known before,” says Paulus, who became the artistic director of Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater in 2009.

Paulus, who was visiting San Francisco at the time, knew little about Cirque du Soleil, but the site near the wharf drew her to the Grand Chapiteau. She bought a ticket and was swept away, dazzled by high-wire magic and music. 

Over the years, Paulus has been relentless in her pursuit of mixing music, dance and narrative. She won a Tony Award last year for directing a circus-like re-envisioning of “Pippin” on Broadway. She also earned directing nominations for two plays that have won Best Musical Revival: 2012’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and 2009’s “Hair.”

“As a director, I’d always been interested in directing the circus in a theater, breaking the fourth wall and making an environment that felt like a circus but acknowledges that an audience is present.”

But she hadn’t directed a circus proper until Cirque du Soleil approached her in 2010 with an idea that has become “Amaluna.”

“I’m a huge fan of their work, and I immediately said yes. Then I found out they wanted a show that was an homage to women and that really piqued my interest,” says Paulus, on the phone from New York. “To direct a circus, with a big top, a tent and the incredible resources and talent a Cirque show brings, is a dream.”

“Amaluna,” which began touring in 2012, is finally opening in Boston and runs May 29-July 6 at the Marine Industrial Park in South Boston.

Putting together "Amaluna" was a collaborative process. “I brought a lot of theatrical ideas to the table, using aspects of ‘The Tempest,’ of Greek mythology, Persephone, mother-daughter imagery, a little ‘Magic Flute’ in terms of young love being tested and put through different trials,” she explains. “And then sewing that all together in a [production] that has no words. We built a narrative, but this is not a Broadway show with book, scenes and lyrics. It’s a very specific challenge of how you get character, a through-line and an arc in a show.”

Because the performers are not actors so much as aerialists and acrobats, the rehearsal process was quite different. “Acrobats are athletes, and they can’t repeat things too many times,” she says. “With an actor you can say, ‘Try it this way! Try it that way!’ [They] have got maybe two or three in them at a rehearsal. [But] the athletes at Cirque are also here as artists. They have made a decision to be in a theatrical space, and they understand this is not just about getting a 10 from the judges. This is about moving an audience and communicating. The cast members want to be performers, they want to connect with an audience.”

The "Amaluna" cast is 70 percent female, converse to usual, says Paulus. “Often women tend to be the icing on the cake, and the idea here was to put the female virtuosity that exists in the world on display. So there was a real commitment on the part of the Cirque casting department to scout, recruit and bring women together for the show. That alone was a thrilling process.”  

Audiences flock to Cirque shows for the amazing derring-do, the impossible-seeming feats, the athletic mix of grace and danger. Yes, there are stories, but this is not what people tend to take home with them.

“I really wanted to bring something new to Cirque,” says Paulus. “To have an audience care about the action in a way that you would care about characters in a narrative. The emotional journey, for me as a director is really what I’m interested in. You can just go so far with thrills and chills.”

That may be, but Paulus' career is not without her own thrills. Most recently, Time magazine named her one of 2014’s top 100 influential people.

“I am deeply honored by this recognition, which for me, is a tribute to the incredible collaboration I have enjoyed over the last several years with the many artists, audiences, producers, and advocates of the arts. It has always been my goal for theater to have an impact on the world we live in, as I know it can and should, and to be represented on this list is a thrilling sign that we are on our way.”

May 29-July 6, with possible extended run. Boston Marine Industrial Park, 6 Tide St., Boston, 866.624.7783