“Midgets in body paint doing hand-stands.” That’s how one disillusioned patron described her Totem experience as she left after the first half. I wouldn’t go that far. Most performers looked pretty tall to me. But the newest addition to Cirque du Soleil’s oeuvre, written and directed by theatrical superman Robert LePage, is not quite the mind-blowing fiesta one would expect from such a luminary, with such a company.
Totem charts the evolution of man, from his amoebic floundering in the primordial soup, to a species gazing skywards attempting to comprehend its place in the universe (i.e. from Mr. Molecule, to Professor Brian Cox).
…a carnival atmosphere and a carousel of acrobatic skills.
The artists are capable of tremendous feats, as they should be, being trained acrobats and all. Cirque presents a pageant of dazzling costumes, a carnival atmosphere and a carousel of acrobatic skills. But Totem needs fine-tuning.
The sequence of the acts is not harmonious. The show does not gather a momentum which builds to a satisfying climax, but jerks along in stops and starts like a bad Tube journey, giving you time to get fidgety. Several energetic acts begin with a bang but go on for too long, and the pace is constantly killed by the interspersion of slow acts that ruin the buzz. Like the clowns. The very, very unfunny clowns.
Cue fights, flirtations and frivolity.
The acts that leave an impression are the ones with self-contained storylines, where the act is complimented by the specific skill of the performers. In the Lovebirds Trapeze, the balancing act that is love is given full sway: boy meets girl, girl isn’t interested, boy gives chase. Cue fights, flirtations and frivolity. With the Juggling Scientist, an old man is hit by inspiration in his laboratory, whips up an experiment, plays around with his compounds and emerges from his chemicals young again.
These self-contained gems make other segments, such as the Russian Bars and the Lilac Ladies which lack this narrative element, look like standalone acts rather than part of the greater whole. They don’t seem to contribute to the evolutionary thread.
…Totem is a cheap jigsaw, nothing really fits together well…
For me the best thing about Totem is the music, which draws from as many cultures as makes up the troupe. You can’t help but move, and as for the finale number, well… Knowing that I will never be able to request Ome Yo Kanoube on a night out grieves me awfully.
Insider’s tip: get the cheap seats. Cirque is notoriously expensive, but the cheaper seats higher up are the better ones for a show where much of the action occurs in the air, and what doesn’t is best seen from a bird’s eye view anyway.
LePage should have given his show more time to evolve. In its current state Totem is a cheap jigsaw, nothing really fits together well, and it is too meandering and drawn-out. A more coherent narrative between segments and the elimination of the clown sequences would tighten it as a whole. Still, it has a good party atmosphere. But somehow I don’t think the music was supposed to be the most memorable element.