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Amaluna by Cirque du Soleil Soars Under the Big Top

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The Setup: A person could give a host of reasons to try and explain the appeal of Cirque du Soleil productions, but at the end of the day it really all comes down to this: The human body is a fascinating machine. We tend to forget this in our mundane, day-to-day existence unless we just happen to have someone really special in our Crossfit classes or are obsessed with Ninja Warrior.

Watching humans do impressive, borderline reckless things with their bodies is fun, and when you add some fancy costumes and makeup to the mix, it becomes the kind of spectacle that, at its best, can stir real emotion in you.

Amaluna arrives in Houston almost three years after it debuted, the final stop of its North American tour before the show travels to Europe. Under the big top you'll see bodies soar, the elements toyed with and some slapstick comedy. Cirque gonna Cirque.

The Execution: It starts with red fabric floating in the air. The humans show up quickly enough, but this image conjuring itself out of the dark is an evocative one, its grace and weightlessness a solid metaphor for what's to come.

The story of Amaluna fits nicely in the middle ground of Cirque storytelling; some Cirque shows seem like a hodgepodge of bits smashed together for no clear reason, and others pack in too much plot for things to make sense without a Wikipedia recap to follow. Amaluna keeps things broad, and the individual performances do enough to push the story forward. If you've ever experienced Shakespeare's The Tempest, you'll be fine.

This may just be the most graceful of all the Cirque productions. There are certain acts that seem to exist in every Cirque show: Boys will try to out-flip each other; there will be a clown-type character who wanders through the crowd; someone will fly. But unlike most Cirque productions, this one shies away from having any strength-centric acts.

Not that the performers aren't strong; they're incredibly gifted athletes. But the focus here is on movement, on bends and curves, on gliding and soaring and rolling and spinning. It's about flowing like water and floating like air as opposed to the hardness of rock.

Although it's not the climax of either half of the performance, the most striking part of this production is the waterbowl/hand-balancing act. The waterbowl work is playful, flirty and an excellent use of props. The hand-balancing, on the other hand, borders on unreal. It's yoga on steroids, and the performer playing Miranda manages to bend herself in ways that don't seem quite possible. Watching her perform, you understand why Romeo falls head over heels for her.

The act before it is almost as strong. As the Moon Goddess, Andreanne Nadeau hangs high above the stage, sometimes only holding on by the back of her neck. The real magic is that what she's doing clearly looks dangerous, and yet you never doubt her control of her body.

See Also: Andreanne Nadeau, the Moon Goddess in Cirque Du Soleil's Amaluna

Those two bits are from the first half of the production, which is stronger than the back half. There are two missteps in the second half of Amaluna that hurt it just a bit. The first is the manipulation act, which sees the Balance Goddess balance increasingly larger palm ribs on top of each other. It's impressive, but on the whole it goes on too long, and really, after she balances the first five palm ribs, you get the point.

The second is a bit where a couple performs tricks with each other while hanging on a trapeze. The work they do together is really nice; there are some really remarkable flips and tosses they perform. The problem is that they go through the routine so fast that the audience doesn't really have time to appreciate what they're doing. Before you can clap to show your appreciation, they've already done three more crazy tricks you want to celebrate. It's good stuff but needs room to breathe.

On the production side of things, Amaluna is a winner across the board. The outfits and makeup are all great. The staging, along with the talented performers, manages to make a big production feel intimate.

And then there's the music. Amaluna may have the best music of any Cirque production that doesn't involve The Beatles. When the songs rock, they're as good as anything on modern radio, and the guitar players in the band can really rip a solo. It's actually worth giving a listen on Spotify.

In the end, love finds a way and everyone is happy. It's the Cirque way. All that's left is for one last giant production number that ends not with humans but with a blue piece of fabric floating in the air before darkness. Nice.

The Verdict:

If you've never been to a Cirque show but always wanted to check one out, Amaluna is a great dip into their world. If you're thinking about sitting Amaluna out because you've seen Cirque before, don't. There's enough going on here to remind you why you were ever interested in Cirque in the first place. It's a top-notch production, one that raises the bar for the company.

See Amaluna at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Through March 8. Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 North Sam Houston Parkway. For information, visit cirquedusoleil.com. $35 to $495.

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