“Totem” from Cirque du Soleil
Review by Larry Murray
The swirl of Cirque du Soleil performers and costumes in their new show, Totem, provides plenty of eye candy. The company’s accomplished feats on the ground and in the air – even over our heads – reliably evokes oohs and aahs night after night.
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As much as I enjoyed the show, something was different, slightly off about Totem. At first I couldn’t put my finger on. The parade of circus acts that appear between the clown interludes was of the usual high quality, the setting superb, the technical details amazing. Looking at the program it popped out at me: the photos are all amped up. Rather than being happy with actual images, they put them in the computer and created highly stylized, color saturated photoshopped or airbrushed images that lost all of their reality. I suppose that is what you go to see on a Cirque stage, things that are far from everyday life. But what is in the program is far from the actual look on stage. And what is on stage has become increasingly polished – to beyond perfection – which is good. But in the process the show seems to have lost some of its earthy, dusty funkiness in the process.
Cirque du Soleil is evolving, and not in a good way. I think those Arena shows they do with Clear Channel Entertainment has begun to distract their focus from the continuity and flow of the “show” to the revenues. They have grown to a billion dollars a year in income. You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive for a bunch of former street buskers, eh?
With that sort of overhead comes the need to create new companies to send out on the road at a fairly rapid pace. What was once a unique evening of circus acts, fantastical costumes and ingenious music has become far too slick.
While Cirque has always had charms for the young and the old, there seems to be a new urge to appeal to the jaded and easily distracted. The former subtle surrealistic qualities of the Cirque experience have become more common, and while some – like the hilarious speedboat scene above – work on all levels, much of Totem’s comedy – like the Italian character – simply falls flat. When their comedy was based in traditional clowning, it was a delightful change of pace. Now a lot of it is just tacky, grab-your-crotch-for-a-laugh hi-jinks with Grotowski-like grunts and raspberries, and it insults those of us who have followed Cirque for a decade and seen a dozen or more of their shows.
Traditionally it has taken from one to three years to create a new Cirque production, depending on whether it is a touring or resident show. The technical parameters for touring shows are different than those for resident shows. Touring shows must take into account the set-up and tear-down of structures and all the elaborate rigging, for instance. Resident shows, on the other hand, have inspired whole theatres to be designed and built based on specific artistic parameters. Mystere, O, and KA in Las Vegas are good examples, while La Nouba in Orlando is a hybrid, a permanent tent show.The length of the process varies according to these parameters.
Without exception every show contains some amazing circus stunts being performed, often of high artistic quality, but opening night, the opening unicycle act couldn’t get their bowls tossed correctly and quite a few came crashing to the floor. The highlight of the evening was the fixed trapeze act where a man and woman played intimate cat and mouse games on a bar set high above the stage. It was simply stunning to watch, the intricacy of the interplay and the suggested humor had the audience mesmerized.
The circus acts included bungee board and roller skating acrobatic flippers, fabric and hoop twirlers, and some high bar and pole climbing acts. The aerial acts always caused the heart to stop, one never seems to tire of them. There was also a very strange Spanish, flamenco like act that never seemed to go anywhere,but was mainly a foil for some clownish style bullfighting.
The story, what there is of it, revolves around the evolution of man. Now trying to find a play-like narrative in a Cirque show is not what you go to see, but some semblence of a story line really helps to thread all the elements together. As a general rule Cirque’s tales are never made idiot-proof, they are always more impressionistic than expository. Even so, less attention has been given to the story thread in Totem than in Cirque’s other shows.
After seeing Totem, I wondered about the lowest-common-denominator quality of those comedy interludes. What did the typical ticket buyer think? I checked some of the internet’s review sites and forums.Those who responded usually had both praise and criticism. Most of the comments on the clowning and comedy said much of it missed the mark, that it was too dominant, a sort of filler that could be cut, that they looked at their watches as it droned on, and that many were reminded how small the seats (all 2600 of them) were as they squirmed around trying to get more comfortable. These are things that an audience should never be allowed to do and sure signs of serious lulls in the show.
Currently Cirque du Soleil is producing some two to three new shows a year, and has taken to hiring some of the finest creative people they can find. Diane Paulus of American Repertory Theatre has just finished directing o new show for them, for example. And Robert Lepage, the designer of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle Set and Special Effects had his hand in Totem with two giant set pieces like the flying jungle gym which transformed from one thing to another. The use of projections in the upstage water feature was an especially dazzling effect. My admiration for Lepage has grown since he and his associates have perfected ways to make surfaces shimmer with waves or ripples in real time response to the movements of the performers. Though the technology is stunning, the human connection has not received the same level of attention to detail.
Totem is is Robert Lepage’s second Cirque du Soleil show following KÀ (2004). “Inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples, Totem explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel,” he says. “The word totem suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living species, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the totem.”
Previous shows were able to touch the heartstrings of most onlookers with the joy and pathos of the human experience. But in Totem, they came across as more contrived than genuine.
While first time attendees will almost always be dazzled by a Cirque show, everything being new and different, the core audience, those who go to each show as it comes along, present an ever higher bar for Cirque to reach with each new show. And like the unicycle jugglers who missed a few of the marks in Totem but did it again and succeeded – it is a given that Cirque will recover.
No team wins every game every year.
Totem is in Boston at the Marine Industrial Park in South Boston. Cirque du Soleil announced two additional weeks of performances (July 5 – 15, 2012) for the Boston engagement of TOTEM. Following Boston, it moves on to Washington, D.C.
Tickets can be purchased online via www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem</a
Tickets for Totem can be purchased in person at the Cirque du Soleil box office, located inside the Big Top’s entrance tent. Regular box office hours are from 2 hours prior to show time to 30 minutes after the beginning of the show from Wednesday through Sunday.
Performances are Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; Thursdays – Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. (No performances on Mondays and Tuesdays)