Like the other Cirque shows I have seen I can’t necessarily relate some of the acts to Totem’s storyline, but that doesn’t make the show any less spectacular. Similarly, like other productions, there were some acts that amazed and captivated me more than others – on reflection these always seem to be the acts which appear to have the greatest degree of danger! That might be being unfair to other performers, who are no doubt just as skilful, but the cheers from the audience for each act on the opening night in Melbourne suggest many feel the same way. As has always been the case with Cirque, those acts that leave me in awe outweigh those which seem more routine.
Created in 2010 and written and directed by Robert Lepage, Totem is said to “trace the journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. Inspired by many founding myths, Totem illustrates, through a visual and acrobatic language, the evolutionary progress of species.”
The production features a cast of 46 acrobats, actors, musicians and singers from all around the world. Like all Cirque productions they perform under a huge blue-and-yellow big top.
I found the first act of the show the most spectacular – it starts with a giant turtle at centre stage which is said to represent the origins of life on earth. The creature’s shell is whisked away to reveal a community of amphibians and fish. Artists embodying frogs launch themselves into the air from a power track and leaping from one bar to the next, cross-cross in mid-air with centimetres to spare.
Another of my highlights was the Unicycle and Balls which sees five unicyclists juggling, tossing and throwing metal bowls with their feet – sometimes over their shoulders – before catching them on their heads without using their hands.
Then there’s a roller-skating duo who skate atop a large circular drum, and two Crystal Ladies who, wearing sparkling costumes that mirror a Crystal Man, spin squares of glittering material on their hands and feet before coming together to create a display of coordinated high-speed motion.
The Russian Bars sees 10 artists performing feats of strength, balance and acrobatic movements leaping from one bar to the next.
There’s plenty of action `above ground’ as well including the ‘Crystal Man’ who comes spinning down from the sky at the start of the show. The Fixed Trapeze Duo sees a man and woman tease, play and sulk in an game of seduction while the Rings Trio sees two men compete against each other on the rings – until a woman arrives and shows them how it’s done.
Another highlight is the staging – from the giant turtle at the beginning of the show to a marsh lined with reeds near an island (the stage), on which images are projected. Tilted slightly forward, the image marsh acts both as a stage entrance and as a projection surface. Through the use of moving images it becomes a virtual swamp, a river source, a marsh, a lake, an ocean, a volcanic island, a pond and a starry sky.
It’s this mixture of staging, the skill of the artists together with some stunning costumes that ensures Totem is likely to play to packed houses around Australia.
*Jenny Burns attended the opening night of Totem in Melbourne on January 21 as a guest of Cirque du Soleil.