Cirque du Soleil continues its evolution with the Toronto production of Totem.
Last night Totem premiered under the Grand Chapiteau, custom-designed blue and yellow tents located in downtown Toronto’s industrial Port Lands.
Inspired by the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, this iteration celebrates the evolution of mankind from its amphibian state to its aspiration of flight and the cosmos. Renowned Canadian director Robert Lepage, who previously worked with Cirque on the show KÀ at the MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas, collaborates once again with the circus company to create this new visionary performance.
The show starts with an enormous turtle shell, a creature commonly found in Native American creation stories. Performers in skintight amphibian costumes use this shell frame as an acrobatic mechanism, and the warm mist in the tent transforms the venue into an early microcosm of a tropical rainforest. Throughout the show, projections of real-life nature footage from shark-infested waters to hot flowing lava appear on the surface of the stage.
Totem takes its influence from a multitude of world cultures – Balinese kecak dances, Native American hoop dancing, didgeridoo sounds, Spanish flamenco, Bollywood dancing – and even an Italian clown. The overarching theme of mankind is present throughout most
of the acts, though a specific story with a conclusion is never relayed.
Unicyclists playing fetch with metal bowls, musclemen showing off their strengths with the added fear of height, and Crystal Ladies juggling with their feet are just a few of the acts that astonished the crowd. An enthusiastic, appreciative audience gave several standing ovations throughout the night.
The highlight acts of my night revolved around intimate couples. The first is a trapeze duo that incorporates a blossoming love story into their act; the second, a Native American couple who death-defyingly dance on roller skates together atop a drum. Both acts showed depth, emotion, incredible technical skill and great choreography.
The totem is an Amerindian symbol for an ancestry or tribe. Certainly, Lepage’s vision incorporates Native American culture and traditions. He cast First Nations performers Nakotah LaRance, a champion hoop dancer, and Christian Laveau, a musician and actor from Wendake Quebec, in the show. The notion of ancestry is extended not only to this indigenous culture, but also others, and is eventually extended to the ancestry of mankind itself.
The Darwin-like scientist’s manipulation of lights and the musical concert performed by the monkeys naturally pale when compared to the incredibly dangerous stunts of other performers. Lepage’s inclusion of surfer dudes and a tacky Italian tourist are also curious, but they do provide comic relief and juxtaposition to the more mature acts .
One aspect that caught me off-guard was the amount of futuristic, alien-like themes. I had come in expecting something focusing solely on the earth’s ecosystems, and it had never occurred to me to think beyond into the unvierse.
The eclectic musical choices and costumes are both on point, adding flavour and intrigue as the show goes on. Was there a moral point
or suggestion depicted in Totem? Not really. That was okay with me. The night was not meant to be a scolding or a call to action, but a night to celebrate and appreciate the wonder and capability of humankind.
I actually preferred this travelling show to the resident The Beatles LOVE I saw in Las Vegas two years earlier. A Cirque performance in my hometown adds that special touch to the evening, knowing you are surrounded mostly by people who live in your city. Of course you should see this show, no question about it – it ranks high on indigenous and cultural traditions, intellectual artistry, and plain old fear factor.
Totem is eclectic, breath-taking, and just feels right. Cirque shows have this innate ability to produce a harmony with their performances. The show expresses not only an evolution of mankind, but its limits as well. A couple of the performers stumbled, and my nail-biting is a physical testament to prove this. It is great to know that even these Cirque performers – who are marvels of humankind in their own right – are indeed still human.
– Cirque du Soleil’s Totem runs from August 10 to October 9, 2011
– Playing at the Grand Chapiteau in Toronto’s downtown Port Lands (51 Commissioners St)
– You can order tickets online or at 1-800-450-1480
– Tickets range from $45 to $365