Cirque’s ‘Totem’: A world tour of acrobatic anthropology


Foot juggling in the Cirque du Soleil show “Totem.” (Cirque du Soleil)
August 16, 2012

Leave it to the Canadians to turn the theory of evolution into wholesome family entertainment. “Totem,” the Cirque du Soleil show that has pitched its tents at National Harbor through Oct. 7, traces Homo sapiens’ development from grunting apes to grunting men who turn flips wearing neon spandex. Humanity has never looked this superhuman. Unless you’ve been watching the Olympics lately.

There’s a lot of impressive gymnastics in “Totem,” the 28th show in the Cirque franchise. Since the original no-animal circus debuted in Quebec City nearly two decades ago, the troupe has grown both more sophisticated and more commercial, tackling themes that include entomology, Elvis and the Beatles. Now, “Totem” imagines how humans evolved from the primordial ooze, with an emphasis on amphibians and aboriginal aesthetics.

A 20-yard turtle shell is at the center of the tent, and proportionately tall marsh grasses obscure the audience’s view of a band at the rear of the stage. The music is heavy on the pan flute and traditional percussion. Once it starts, the “shell” flies off the turtle, revealing an oval jungle gym and a menagerie of men in glittery green, all ready to ricochet from the high bars to a hidden trampoline down below. They swing, flip, catch and release.

The show’s title suggests that in some cultures, acrobatic skills are akin to native arts. That’s certainly true of two First Nations hoop dancers, who skim across the stage at a smooth heel-toe skip, looping the hoops around their arms as they go. Then there’s a quintet of women, wearing snow-leopard-meets-Shang-Dynasty leotards, who toss bowls at each other’s heads while pedaling unicycles. And the climax of the whole show is the “Russian bars” routine, a combination of balance beam and trampoline.

Nine men wearing brightly patterned spandex costumes, such that they resemble psychedelic Russian nesting dolls, take turns stabilizing the flexible beams. The Olympic commentators in your head will provide narration as the men turn layouts, pike-position flips and tucked somersaults with 2.5 twists. They do this two at a time, each leap taking their feet a good 10 feet off the beam.

At some points of the show, however, “Totem’s” world tour of acrobatic anthropology takes inexplicable detours. A second pair of performers, dressed as Native Americans, perform death-defying spins on roller skates. Very “Dances With Wolves” meets “Xanadu.” There’s a also a beach scene, where two buff guys wearing only sequined board shorts perform on a pair of still rings. This routine and a sketch comedy act featuring water-skiing clowns seem more like promising prototypes for a coming Cirque du Soleil update of “Beach Blanket Bingo.” (Perhaps set to Beach Boys music?)

Much more germane to “Totem’s” survival-of-the-fittest theme are the gymnasts dressed as apes, Cro-Magnon men and Neanderthals who monkey around between acrobatic acts, throwing popcorn at the audience and pretending to steal cellphones. The live music gets cheesy at times but never stops; it’s clear that as Cirque du Soleil evolves, production values only continue to rise. The bodily skills in “Totem” are amazing, but so is the technology, allowing performers to sync their movements with the music, lighting and photographic projections.

The performers hail from nearly 20 countries, but the design team is almost entirely from Quebec. You have to wonder whether Canada could have improved its medal haul by naturalizing a few Cirque du Soleil performers. The country took home just one gold medal, in trampoline. American Gabby Douglas may soon grace the cover of a corn flakes box, but for so many other athletes, there’s no shame is celebrating global human achievement by running off to join Cirque du Soleil.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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