Tour Review: TOTEM (Cirque du Soleil)

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by Milo Shapiro on May 1, 2012

in Theater-Regional,Tours


What’s a circus without lions, tigers, and elephants?  In the case of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, their eleventh major production in 26 years, it’s a marked improvement, proving that animals acts are strictly for the birds when it comes to grand circus entertainment.

Press materials tell us that “Totem traces the fascinating journey of [the] human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly.”  As with modern dance, understanding the creators’ intentions may be fascinating, but queries to numerous attendees after the performance in San Diego showed that no viewer saw this thesis about evolution materialize on stage.  Nor did they have any idea that the program was named Totem because “the word ‘totem’ contains the idea of the order of species; we carry in our bodies the potential of all species, all the way to our desire to fly – like the thunderbird at the top of the totem pole.”  Spectators unaware of this information did not feel slighted, however, because that’s not why one attends Cirque du Soleil.  One comes for the jaw-dropping exhibition and riveting effects that this show delivers in spades.

Milo Shapiro San Diego Review of Cirque du Soleil Totem

Certainly the acts themselves are triumphant, but Carl Fillion’s set itself is a technical triumph.  Video effects occur upstage on a 30 degree ramp, setting characters in a field, a lake, a volcanic island and more.  Infrared cameras positioned above the stage detect movement and create effects accordingly, allowing the stunning creature to make ripples in the water exactly where and when he put his foot down.  The ramp also opens up in the center to allow a variant of wild (and sometimes enormous) mechanisms to emerge.

Milo Shapiro San Diego Review of Cirque du Soleil Totem

Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (oddly, known professionally as the duo “Bob and Bill”) create masterful ambiance with their tremendously atmospheric music.  Live singers and instrumentalists add a great deal to the robust soundtrack, especially in a flamenco-infused acrobatic scene.  The focused lighting by Étienne Boucher is impeccable, and Kym Barrett’s costumes transform players into amphibians and apes, as well as simply adding beauty to the human characters.  One of the most notable and incredible costumes belongs to the ever-suspended Crystal Man, who looks something like Spiderman, but is covered head to toe with 4500 reflective components on a stretch-velvet leotard.

Despite the resounding technical achievements, it is the glorious performances that are remembered most: those incredible, daring, inconceivable contortions and movements of the human form that had the crowd roaring. Words will not convey why a unicycle act − something performed from the earliest Ringling Brothers days − was so gripping; trust that Cirque’s addition of synchronization and riders tossing items back and forth with their heads made it astonishing.

Milo Shapiro San Diego Review of Cirque du Soleil Totem

Think you’ve seen all that can be done with a few hula hoops?  No, you really haven’t.  And what’s a backflip on a trampoline really worth?  Well, a lot, when it’s a five-inch wide trampoline being held by two other acrobats.  You’ve seen roller disco for two?  Ho-hum?  Not when it’s on a tiny raised stage about the size of a plastic kiddie pool; that she did not fly into the audience, and he never fell off that tiny platform as they spun, is dumbfounding.

While the themes of evolution and science may have been clearer to the designers than to the audience, no one can argue that their concept sparked brilliant ideas.  How else might we have ended up with a juggler in a transparent ten-foot laboratory funnel, and learned more about centrifugal force than we did in Physics class?

Milo Shapiro San Diego Review of Cirque du Soleil Totem

Cirque elevates the art of clowning with fresh new characters (an Italian tourist or a cavemen) instead of the standard Bozo-types, ensuring that the evening is full of laughs as well as cheers.  The success of the entire extravaganza can be credited to writer/director Robert Lepage, artistic guide Gilles Ste-Croix, and director of creation Neilson Vignola.

The magnificent event may take your breath away, but the price tag might have you gasping before you ever make it to the fairgrounds, with some seats selling at well-past the one hundred dollar mark. Don’t give it a second thought: spectaculars like Totem must be experienced, and it is clear why people return to every newly-created Cirque show that comes to town.

photos by OSA Images

Cirque du Soleil
reviewed at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego
open-run tour continues
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Cirque du Soleil/Totem

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