Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Man Oh Man - TOTEM - Cirque du Soleil Review

Cirque Du Soleil's TOTEM - Le Grand Chapiteau - Quays of the Old Port of Montreal - Montreal, QC - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written, and Directed by Robert Lapage
Runs in Montreal until Jun. 27th 2010. Tour continues to Quebec City starting July 22nd 2010, Amsterdam starting Oct. 7th 2010, etc.

Boy, Cirque du Soleil sure is pumping out the shows these days. Viva Elvis just opened as Cirque's 7th show in Las Vegas. Banana Schpeel is attempting to restart itself with it's New York premiere (after a bumpy start in Chicago). Now, Cirque du Soleil is fast tracking its usual every-2 year schedule and presenting a brand new touring show a year after the excellent OVO (Review ****1/2) began life last summer as Cirque's latest traveling show (currently in New York City).

Cirque's 2010 traveling entry is called TOTEM, with an obvious ode to the imagery of First Nation's Totem Poles and the animals and spirits that formed the iconic symbols that defined each First Nation's tribe. The posters even shows a young First Nation's man in the midst of his rings dance, mimicking a large bird. The show, written and directed by esteemed director Robert Lapage (who also did Cirque's Ka in Vegas), takes its cues from humans and our connections to nature and the spirits, but like all Cirque shows, have this ethereal story where you're never sure what it's really about. Except in this show, there are more literal things than ever. A pair of hunky beach dudes, a cheesy Italian sunbather, a bunch of monkeys and gorillas, some business men, some spacemen (?) and some salamanders (?) intermix with the First Nation's people in a show that is probably about the evolution of man (and includes a literal depiction on parade) and our connection to nature. Or something like that.

Anyways, again, it's all an elaborate set up for the true stars of the show, the actual circus acts, but maybe Lapage got into the Canadian Olympic spirit from this year, because many of Totem's acts seem to be a play off of Olympic sports. There's a roller skating act that looks similar to Figure Skating, the two beach hunks and a beautiful woman play around on sets of Gymnastic Rings, and the whole show starts off on a set of High Bars (hidden within a turtle shell shaped web).

Of course, this being Cirque, those acts are taken to the extreme. Some may not seem that astounding at first due to its familiarity, but on closer inspection to their intricacies, a set of High Bars becomes a playground for 4 simultaneous acrobats swinging in perfectly timed rotation.

The acts themselves, like a set of girls on unicycles who toss bowls onto their heads, or the ladies who spin carpets, are familiar (I've seen the unicycle act in Chinese circuses many times before) but are dressed up nicely within the Cirque world. Still, while a professor dazzles us in a sort of reverse juggling act using lighted balls in a cone, or bowls are spun on the floor, many of the acts don't have the expected Cirque WOW factor the company is famous for.

It's only the aerial acts that we've come to expect that really... well... soar and give us the wow factor we associate with Cirque. And this time, with more buff guys than ever! (I haven't seen Zumanity but usually everyone is disguised in some strange and beautiful costume) The two buff beach dudes that fly around on the rings is pretty gnarly! They're joined by a mysterious (and super buff) woman and the three whisk back and forth in the air in what is almost like a swinging set of rings.

The best act of Totem belongs to a young pair on the trapeze, as the male tries to woo his female cohort. It's seducing and thrilling as their mating ritual flits and flirts around high up in the air.

The big Act 1 climax has a group of Eastern European men building a huge pole, balanced on one of the more burly guys, while smaller guy climbs up and swings about. On the evening of my performance, there seemed to be a freak accident (based on the performers reaction) when a piece of the pole flew off onto the stage (and luckily went into the 1/4 side where there wasn't an audience) but the show amazingly continued with barely a beat missed (and done so smoothly we weren't sure it was a mistake at first).

The show ends with a Russian Bar act with a team of spacemen bouncing around the bouncy Russian Bars in a sort of moving balance beam act. And then it all wraps up in a fun dance choreographed encore that sort of gathers all of Totem characters, but the hodgepodge only reinforces the scattered attempt to unify the show with such literal characters.

Coming off OVO, the most unified and cohesive Cirque show that I have seen (and the most literal I had seen up to this point), Robert Lapage's Totem seems to have a grand idea in looking at man's place in the world, but somehow the circus acts and the overall story don't stack up properly. Too much time is spent with the clowns (the Italian buffoon), and while the acts are individually amazing, even the big climax pieces fail to meet expectations for that truly spectacular act we've come to expect from Cirque (like the wheel of death in Kooza or the finale in OVO or the entire concept of Ka or O).

While the show has officially opened, it's not unheard of for Cirque to continue tinkering away at the show until they are satisfied (Zumanity, Wintuk, and Banana Schpeel as recent examples) and lets hope Robert Lapage hones in the show to a tighter, sturdier experience.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com


krishnaindu said...

This show was a complete waste of time. There was no innovation, ferocity or substance. Money wasted and will not recommend to anyone.

Celeste said...

I loved that show! Having seen 'Corteo' a few months before, I thought that 'Totem' was more coherent while spending less time on theatrics (I personally prefer more circus acts and less acting). I had read the programme beforehand which greatly helped understand the premise. I adored the costumes, the Native inspirations and the wink at science and evolution (my husband, a juggler himself, absolutely loved the scientist's glass cone tricks).

It's true that for someone looking for a cohesive narrative, it wasn't the best, but aesthetically, it was a gorgeous show.

I totally agree with too much time spent on the comedy act (the Italian dude got annoying quickly), but I admit I'm not big on clowns in general... and they got to eat ;)

Ben said...

I was pretty disappointed with Totem. The acts are all so disjointed it's hard to get into the atmosphere. For example you watch this mystical opening of all the costumed acrobats on the shell, then get whisked away to some "beach" setting to watch the two modern guys perform some strange homoerotic ring dance. It's hard to enjoy the performances when you're constantly thinking "what the **** does this have to do with the theme?"

And while I'm usually a fan of clowns in a small role, the italian tourist was just annoying and way too drawn out. Again, it really contradicted the great earthly fantastical theme I thought Totem would provide.

There were some very cool circus acts, the towel / mat dancers and the finale in particular, but it all felt so forced and out of place. And the floor "juggling" of Ikea salad bowls and the devil sticks act? Technically I'm sure they're incredibly difficult, but honestly I felt I was paying money to watch performers you see at your city park. I was half expecting a hacky sack guy to come out after that.