A Cirque du Soleil production. At the Grand Chapiteau at Concord Pacific Place on Thursday, May 15. Continues until July 6
Blend the theatrical vision of Robert Lepage and the acrobatic spectacle of Cirque du Soleil and what do you get? A free-association flow of origin myths, amphibians, apes, and scientists.
And don’t forget the cartoonish Guido greaseball and the roller-skating First Nations couple.
Where you might have expected a more structured story from Lepage, you get dream logic in Totem. The loose theme is the evolution of humankind, but there is not the conceptual unity here of, say, Cirque’s carnivalesque Corteo. But that is likely not going to matter to the Cirque-hungry public—especially when the show is serving up some of the most ambitiously choreographed acts that the Quebec ringmasters have ever staged. This, despite the fact the numbers are smaller duos, trios, and quartets, giving Totem a more intimate feel than the stage-filling extravaganzas of Varekai or Alegría.
A high-swinging rings act mixes forms with giddy abandon. Its gymnasts Gael Ouisse and Olli Torkkel become preening beach beefcakes in metallic bathing suits and shiny runners, with matching wraparound sunglasses. The rollicking act, which sends these two insanely cut dudes hurtling out over the crowd, contrasts with Cirque’s earnest acrobatic numbers of the past: these guys have to be clowns as well as athletes, and the choreography is an audacious mix of breaking and flips—a kind of cocky midair hip-hop.
Charismatic Sarah Tessier and faux-hawked Guilhem Cauchois have to do more acting than usual, too, turning a fixed trapeze sequence into a playful, tautly choreographed dance of flirtation and rejection. High above the ground, she alternately wraps around him and then drops to dangle precariously from his ankles.
Other acts are simply breathtaking in their odd virtuosity. The crowd-pleaser of the night has four Chinese circus performers not only balancing on top of two-metre-high unicycles but then repeatedly flipping little bowls from their feet onto one another’s heads. And Belarusian twins Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova spinning heavy, jewelled carpets from every limb is a dizzying blur of sparkles.
That also goes for two hoop dances with Eric Hernandez and Shandien Larance, riffs on the awe-inspiring traditional tribal art form: the performers throw the rings high and then jointhem at warp speed into shapes that look like wings and shark jaws. The authenticity of another “First Nations” number is a little more questionable, though, despite containing the single most impressive physical feat of the night. (Let’s not blow the surprise here.) Roller-skating non-Natives dressed up in white beaded tribal regalia, spinning away on top of a giant, sacred drum? Yikes.
Fortunately, the clowning here is strong, though—and not a fake red nose in sight. Jon Monastero’s scrawny macho beachgoer, with his slicked Elvis pompadour, is the perfect foil to Mikhail Usov’s hilariously deadpan, Peter Lorre–faced fisherman.
The other star of the show is the costumes. Designer Kym Barrett outdoes herself here, drawing on tribal body art and indigenous textile patterns from around the world. The finale’s big, dazzling Russian bars act is amplified by performers wearing glowing-print bodysuits and diver helmets that light up eerily in the dark, the unicyclists wear everything from cabbage leaves to lichen as skirts, and an army of amphibians sports shimmery, bulging-eyed creations.
The sets aim to emphasize the natural world too, with characters appearing and disappearing into tall reeds that form an on-stage marsh. The video projections, spread across the stage’s raked surface, are a favourite of Lepage’s, who’s used them to vivid effect in his stagings at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, they conjure everything from rivers to lava, but the only time they reach their full creative potential is near the end, when performers seem to swim. The “scorpion” ramp that curls up to reveal characters? Pretty damn cool. Yet, overall, the production design is less immersive here than in other Cirque shows.
Still, nothing drags here, and almost every act has a jaw-dropping new twist that should delight Cirque regulars and newcomers alike.
What does it all mean? It’s unlikely anyone who saw it could tell you. But there are much less exciting places to travel than along Lepage’s stream of consciousness.