Beholding Cirque du Soleil’s spectacle of the senses I had the sensation Dorothy had when, after being tornado-tossed from the black and white Midwest skyward, she crash lands and glimpsing the Technicolor land of Oz, gasps and says to her dog: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Totem is one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever had to review because Cirque’s out-of-this-world lollapalooza, now under the Big Top at San Pedro, California, staggers the imagination and defies description. I’ve simply never seen anything quite like this colorful combination of costumed acrobatics, aerial athleticism, aural expressionism, cinematic imagery, live stagecraft verging on witchcraft, derring-do, dance and daffiness. The closest facsimile I’ve encountered is the equestrian extravaganza Odysseo by Cavalia, the psychedelic circus/cabaret production Teatro ZinZanni and Philip Glass’ operatic Einstein on the Beach.
So your humble reviewer is not really sure how to write about writer/director Robert Lepage’s Totem, wherein all the stage is a world a-whirl. According to press notes it is a high-tech theatrical evocation of evolution, sort of Darwin’s Origin of the Species on Purple Owsley acid, as humanity climbs from the primordial slime to the sublime. A series of filmic vignettes that mix movie-like projections with live action express this theme, as opposed to telling a story per se.
Totem’s theater in the three quarters round is beneath a blue and yellow 66 foot high tent-like pavilion 167 feet in diameter called the Big Top, or le Grand Chapiteau (Cirque was created by French Canadians), that seats 2,600 gobsmacked spectators. On the oval-shaped stage is a turtle-like pod with reeds in the rear, where singers and musicians playing string, woodwind and percussion instruments lurk in a jungle-y ambiance. Upside down, with arms outstretched, the Crystal Man, in a skin tight silvery outfit and suspended from a cable, languidly, lithely descends from the Big Top’s apex towards the turtle, and its “shell” is removed. From out of the turtle’s skeletal structure, like so many clowns emerging from a Volkswagen, springs much of the cast of up to 47 performers from 15 countries. Amphibian-like performers launch into a parallel bars act, and Totem is off and running.
Two hours-plus of jaw dropping, death defying agility and mirthfulness ensue, with one intermission (complimentary Cuppies’ cupcakes and popcorn were served on the nearly sold out opening night). There is hand balancing by a sinewy yet rubbery man atop an hourglass framed platform. Female foot jugglers twirl swathes of glittering spinning material atop their tippy toes. A Mongolian quintet precariously balances atop five elongated unicycles, unerringly tossing and juggling metallic bowls precariously perched upon their skulls.
A male-female duet enact a kind of aerial eroticism, performing a stylized Kama Sutra of sorts on a trapeze, with the greatest of ease — and tease — as they give the term “swingers” a whole new meaning. Ten jumpers go Cape Canaveral as they nimbly launch upwards, ever upwards, from what are called Russian bars.
As the title Totem — which can refer to an emblem invested with spiritual significance by “primitive” people — indicates, the Cirque show references traditional tribal cultures. This includes comical Cro-Magnon male entertainers who, among other things, have a droll bit wherein they encounter a 21st century man with a smart phone, and as culture clash ensues all hell breaks loose. My favorite acts featured Eric Hernandez of the Lumbee tribe who, clad in stylish aboriginal apparel and so-called “war paint,” performs a rousing, age-old Hoop Dance. In 2012 Hernandez told DCMetro TheaterArts he “got interested in the hoops dance at 10 years old. I come from L.A. and never lived on a reservation, so I got interested in learning more about my ancestors’ culture. I started attending Native American events and quickly participated in competitions.”
Hernandez went on to say: “I am happy I can share a part of the Native American culture with them and make them discover a new discipline they have probably never seen before. Also, I want them to have a positive image of the first nations, to see that we are out there, that we can be successful and are beautiful people. I also want to share with them the story of the growth of the eagle, although everybody can have a different interpretation of the story of our dance.”
In another very sensual number, through a combination of projected imagery, special effects and stagecraft wizardry Hernandez arrives via canoe and woos Shandien Larance, a female Hopi Hoop Dancer. The duet perform a rollicking roller skating routine that involves a striptease wherein Ms. Larance sheds much of her buckskins. Totem’s troupe includes at least one other North American Native, lead singer Christian Laveau, of Canada’s Huron-Wendat tribe.
Given all the controversy about the name of Washington’s NFL team, the so-called “Redskins,” I’ll leave it to others more knowledgeable than I regarding tribal customs as to how culturally “correct” and accurate these Cirque numbers (one involving skates) are. But I will say that as a general rule it is up to the people who are being depicted and identified to determine whether or not a portrayal and identification is insulting — not up to members of the dominant majority culture and other ethnic groups. Self determination is when the self — not outsiders — determines how it is portrayed in public. Call it totem and taboo.
In any case, another important element of Totem are its clowns, who warm up the crowd prior to show time and then enact a series of comic skits that involve motor boats, waterskiing and other visually inventive vignettes. Along with the free floating devil-may-care athleticism above and onstage the overall sensation is one of sheer playfulness. The phenomenal Cirque du Soleil pageant epitomizes the sensibility of what another Flying Circus — Monty Python — used to refer to as “And now for something completely different.” Indeed. A splendid time was had by all the ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages in the enthralled, enraptured audience. Bravo!