Berklee Alumni Back in Town with Cirque du Soleil
Ensconced in a set of bamboo shoots just offstage, Nellyris "Didi" Negron and Angie Swan listen to instructions coming via their in-ear monitors as they keep an eye on the acrobats before them. Following the gymnasts’ movements as surely as they would a conductor’s baton, Negron and Swan sound their instruments in time with the feats, not missing a twist, roll, dive, or vault.
“You have to be on your toes at all times because anything can change at any moment,” Swan ‘05, a guitarist, says. An acrobat could decide to take another try at a missed maneuver, or there could be a prop malfunction. But the band needs to stay tight, keep in time, and make the show seamless, never letting the audience suspect a flaw.
“It’s like jazz,” Swan said of the improvisation.
She and drummer Negron ‘09 are cast members of one of Cirque Du Soleil’s newest touring shows, Amaluna, a dazzlingly beautiful and impressive production that plays under a big top in Boston’s waterfront until July 6.
As part of Amaluna’s eight-woman band, Swan and Negron have been on tour for two years. Though they play six nights a week most weeks, no two performances are the same. It’s this ever-changing nature of the show that keeps the gig fresh.
“My favorite thing is the versatility of the music,” Swan, who was a professional music major at Berklee, says. “I’m able to take a couple of jazz solos, and this really comes from Berklee, which I appreciate—having the diversity, being surrounded by all those different students and being able to learn and study different types of music.”
Negron also feels that jamming with her fellow students at Berklee, where she was a performance major, helped her cultivate the skills that landed her the Cirque job. She also credits her mentors Dave DiCenso, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Kim Plainfield, with helping her take her playing to a higher level.
After leaving Berklee, Negron worked with top gospel artists, gigged at churches, and toured with her endorser, Roland V-Drums, before being scouted by Cirque du Soleil. She’s the first female drummer to perform in any Cirque du Soleil show.
“Didi would have to be one of the most amazing drummers I’ve ever worked with,” bandleader Janine De Lorenzo says. “She has a passion that is one of a kind, and is incredibly technically able and very musical.”
And Swan is a “great guitar player,” who has a freshness and spark that grabbed De Lorenzo’s attention in her audition tapes. “It’s not just about playing your instrument. It’s about being on stage and trying to connect with the audience,” De Lorenzo says.
Swan credits Livingston Taylor’s stage performance class with helping her overcome stage fright. She remembers how Taylor would make students stand on stage and recite the alphabet.
“I remember getting on stage, just shaking. And, you know, you have to get past that hump, get over your nerves, and realize that this is what you love to do. And performing is so much fun. I don’t get nervous anymore. I get pumped up. So I really think that class helped a lot,” Swan, who rocks out at the front of Amaluna’s stage several times throughout the show, says.
Swan had plenty of performance experience before joining Amaluna’s cast two years ago. Since leaving Berklee, she's played with will.i.am, Macy Gray, Prince, Courtney Love, and many other high-profile artists. She’s also played for several television shows, including Glee, The Tonight Show, Ellen, and more.
But there’s something Cirque du Soleil offers her that those jobs never could: stability.
“There’s this weird thing called health insurance that a lot of musicians aren’t familiar with. It’s true,” Swan says. “I’ve worked on TV shows and tours with these huge artists and it’s great but it can end in a month. After that, you don’t know what you’re going to do. With this, I can tell you where I’m going to be a year from now. That’s pretty rare and we’re very fortunate to have that as a musician.”
As was the case for Negron, Swan was contacted by Cirque du Soleil. Though she doesn’t know who recommended her for the gig, she knows that it came through a Berklee connection. “If I hadn’t been in that school then I don’t think I would’ve been back here with this show. I was able to make so many connections at Berklee … it’s just a whole community.” While back in town, she and Negron reconnected with that community at Berklee's first alumni reunion on June 14.
Amaluna’s organizers say the show will probably tour under the big top—next going to Europe—for as long as another decade. Then, it could tour arenas for a decade more. While touring, Swan finds time to work on her EP and both she and Negron pick up local gigs as much as possible.
"Boston's been great. I play at Wally's on Tuesday nights, just because it's my old stomping grounds," Swan says.
But she and Negron have joined the circus and are leaving town.
Members of the Berklee community are eligible for a discount to Amaluna.