When you think of Cirque du Soleil, you probably immediately picture acrobats soaring through the air in brightly coloured leotards, or unicyclists covered in crystals zipping across the stage. These elements are definitely present in its touring show Totem, but its most distinguishing feature is that it is the legendary Quebec-based circus’s first production to draw on Native influences.
Totem tells the story of humankind from the beginning of evolution all the way to our desire to fly. Throughout the show, various Native myths about human creation help tell the story.
“Totem focuses on First Nations as a whole,” says Amanda Balius, head of wardrobe for Totem, speaking at a media preview event. “There are little pinpoints for certain nationalities. For instance, before our roller-skate act we have what we call World Tribe, and we have someone representing African First Nations, someone representing Arabic First Nations, someone representing American First Nations.”
Along with the hand-to-hand act, the foot juggling, and the fixed-trapeze act, one dance in particular, the Native American hoop dance, appears consistently throughout the show.
Eric Hernandez, a 22-year-old member of the North Carolina–based Lumbee tribe, is one of these hoop dancers. Clad in Lycra and leather, with beads that rattle and patterned furs adorning his legs, Hernandez skillfully swings up to five hoops around his body, alternating between jumping through them and linking them together to create shapes that resemble those of animals. At one point in the dance, he spreads the linked hoops across his back, waving his arms up and down like a flying bird. It looks like he’s been doing it all his life, and that’s because he has.
“I learned it when I was 10 years old,” he says, resting at the side of the Orpheum Annex after his media performance. “I always like to give credit to my uncle, Terry Goedel, who taught me.”
The Native American hoop dance comes from New Mexico’s Taos Pueblos tribe, who traditionally used it as a wedding-ceremony dance. The circular shape of the hoop is symbolic of the never-ending circle of life. Dancers can use up to 30 hoops in any given act. The art form has spread from ceremony to competition, and is now being performed by tribes across North America, incorporating themes from popular culture, such as hip-hop.
Goedel, who was raised on Washington state’s Tulalip Reservation, is a world-champion hoop dancer, and when he realized that his nephew was interested, he seized the opportunity to teach him more about his Native culture. Hernandez quickly realized he had an affinity for the dance, and went on to compete at places such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Hernandez’s run-in with Cirque du Soleil was truly a surprise for him. He was in the third year of his undergraduate degree, studying sociology at Brigham Young University in Utah, and got a call from the circus. “They said that they had seen a video of me on YouTube and that they wanted to offer me a contract,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in school.’ I didn’t really know much about Cirque du Soleil. So I thought about it, and I told them, ‘Okay, I’ll finish my semester and then I’ll come.’ So I went, and I’ve been on tour for the last two years.”
These last 24 months have been packed with tours, performances, training, and meet-and-greets. Cirque has become Hernandez’s life, and he admits that the rigorous schedule can get a little difficult.
“I Skype my family a lot and I’d say that’s the hardest thing. You know, being away from family,” he says. “It’s like running away with the circus, you know? It’s like kind of almost putting your life on hold.”
Regardless of the difficulties, however, Hernandez feels fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to get involved with Cirque du Soleil, mostly because it is allowing him to teach the beauty of hoop dance to a wider audience.
“It’s amazing to share my culture on this huge Cirque du Soleil stage, in front of almost 3,000 people, with almost 10 shows a week,” he says. “So it’s amazing to be able to share who I am and what I come from. I kind of just… I don’t want to say fell into it, because I was hoop dancing all my life, but umm, yeah, it’s crazy.”
Totem runs from next Thursday (May 15) to July 6 in the Big Top at Concord Pacific Place.