Editorial Review

REVIEW: Striking gold in acrobatic anthropology
By Rebecca Ritzel
Friday, August 17, 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.

PREVIEW: Turning athleticism into artistry
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug. 10, 2012

After all the anticipation and celebration (thanks to some shiny medals), the end of Olympics gymnastics competition can trigger a hole in hearts, if not in schedules. But those going through withdrawal might find some relief at National Harbor, where feats of flexibility and aerial artistry will be on view in the Cirque du Soleil show “Totem.”

The man behind the traveling show is writer-director Robert Lepage, perhaps best known as the boundary-pushing Canadian artist who mounted a controversial, visually daring reinvention of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” for the Metropolitan Opera. “Totem” draws inspiration from creation myths and evolution and marks Lepage’s second entry into the Cirque compendium; he also concocted “Ka,” which has a permanent home in Las Vegas. High-brow opera and circus shows might seem like two very different beasts, but Lepage sees a number of commonalities, which made crossing over that much easier.

“An acrobat and an opera singer are pretty similar in the sense that what they do is larger than life,” Lepage says by phone before heading into rehearsals for an opera version of “The Tempest” in Quebec. “They don’t move or sing or speak in a regular fashion. It’s very extreme, very Olympian.”

In some ways, the reasons people love to watch opera and Cirque shows may have something to do with why so many camp out in front of the television every fourth August. It’s a way for mere mortals to stare in awe at demigods capable of seemingly superhuman achievements.

“That’s what the circus is also about,” Lepage says. “You see regular people onstage, but because of their physical abilities and because of the extreme nature of what they do, they can only play larger-than-life characters.

“We see divers, and for a short moment there, they look like birds. Or people go faster than a human being is supposed to go. So that whole extremity, I think, is actually very similar.”

The work process at Cirque du Soleil also is similar to Lepage’s work at the Met, not to mention at the multidisciplinary company Ex Machina, where Lepage is artistic director. The biggest difference -- and challenge -- is the creative freedom.

“Usually when you want to pitch an idea for a film or a TV series, you would always refer to something that already exists to assure the producers or the presenters that what you’re doing is not too avant garde and you’re not taking too many risks,” he says. “But at Cirque, they despise that, they hate that. They don’t want you to say it’s a cross between this and that. They just want to do something that’s never been done . . . it’s a very different approach.”

With that in mind, the director dreamt up “Totem.” The show was crafted around the time of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, but Lepage says the production wasn’t designed to make a statement about evolution vs. creationism. Rather, he looked at origin myths from around the world, blending them with artistic vignettes meant to mimic a human’s progression from the tadpolelike state of conception to our compulsion for flight. But in the end, traveling “soft circus” shows (as opposed to permanent “hard circus” varieties, such as “Ka”) are less about a concept or narrative. The main event is beautiful movement.

“Whatever the story, it’s really about giving the best performance possible,” Le­page says. “So you get really in­cred­ible moving machines, these incredible athletes. And a lot of the people that are hired on the soft circus, the people we present in the shows on tour very often -- I’d say at least half of the cast -- are not from an artistic background. They’re from an Olympian background. . . . It’s really about athletes meeting up with poetry.”