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Performers go for a spin during a performance of Totem from Cirque du Soleil in Toronto, Ont., on August 10, 2011. (Michelle Siu/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
Performers go for a spin during a performance of Totem from Cirque du Soleil in Toronto, Ont., on August 10, 2011. (Michelle Siu/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Review

Cirque du Soleil's Totem is a dazzling history of humankind Add to ...

How do you gauge the success of Totem, the new Cirque du Soleil’s touring show? Before the first act was even over, two of the acts had already received standing ovations. The reception during the final curtain call was rapturous.

Totem opened in Montreal in April, 2010, and toured in Europe before coming to Toronto. What makes this show of particular interest is that Quebec’s iconic man of theatre, Robert Lepage, is the writer/director. His director of creation is Neilson Vignola.

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Their concept for Totem is grandiose. The show presents the evolution of humankind, from our amphibian ancestors to our desire to fly. Each of the acts supposedly says something about our historical progress. The title is inspired by creation myths.

Now let’s be frank: Does anyone attending Cirque du Soleil actually care about the artistic vision behind the show? Granted, the concept would clearly have an impact on the sets, costumes and music, but in reality, we’re there for the thrills, chills and performers’ skills.

Break down a Cirque show and you will find circus acts (non-animal, of course) interpolated with clown shtick. In other words, there is a formula at play, and the basic structure is easily recognized.

Some of the acts are of the super-duper kind, the ones that leave you gobsmacked by the performers’ physical prowess. Take Unicycles and Bowls. Five winsome Chinese lasses are on very tall unicycles. While they keep the cycles balanced with one foot on the pedal, the other foot is used to throw small metal bowls onto their own heads, or onto the heads of the other girls.

The two big male acts are Perches and Russian Bars, both performed by, what else, Russians. One ended the first act, and the other ended the second. Perches includes a series of pliable, metal poles linked together. One man balances these poles on his shoulder, and later on his head, while a couple of men scale up to the very top. The most dazzling variation has one top man holding the second man who is swinging on rings.

Russian Bars are flexible planks. There are three in the act, and various men jump from them high in the air, do somersaults and then land back on these planks. The big deal here is that the planks keep changing levels and placement. The plank they jump from is not necessarily the plank they land on.

The smaller acts of Totem are showy in their own way. For example, Hoops Dancer is a solo performed by aboriginal artist Nakotah Larance. As he dances, various hoops are arranged in shifting patterns about his body.

In Fixed Trapeze Duo, Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme are supposedly having an argument, which translates into a physical fight in which he is holding her in very dangerous partnering as she rapidly keeps changing her positions.

On a visual and aural level, Totem is one of Cirque’s most beautiful creations. Carl Fillion’s set evokes a marsh with a large rock surrounded by reeds. Stunning videos of nature, be it the pounding surf or a quiet lily pond, are projected on the rock.

Kym Barrett’scostumes are things of beauty, and they all keep to the theme in some way. The score by composers Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (known collectively as Bob & Bill) is filled with gorgeous riffs on native rituals and world beat.

One can certainly try to match theme to act, but why bother? This is Cirque du Soleil, after all. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Totem

  • Cirque du Soleil
  • Written and directed by Robert Lepage
  • At the Grand Chapiteau, Port Lands until Oct. 9

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