In Cirque du Soleil’s new “Totem,” Mankind’s Evolution Unfolds…Aided by Crystal Man and a Giant Turtle
With “Totem,” Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil again prove they are a match made in heaven. Lepage’s endless imagination and Cirque’s deep pockets have led to a stunning new production that opened in San Francisco last Friday under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) in Cirque’s Village on Wheels near AT&T Park. Even if you’ve seen a Cirque production lately, this is a show worth seeing with lots that’s new, especially in Lepage’s signature area of technical wizardry. Inspired by many founding myths, “Totem” loosely traces the human evolutionary journey through a series of mind-blowing specially choreographed acrobatic acts performed by elite athletes in gorgeous costumes. A backdrop of stunning video projections bring a new dimension to the stage. “Totem,” explains Lepage, “is inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples and explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel. The word suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living beings, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the Totem.”
“Totem” is Lepage’s second Cirque du Soleil show. It follows the immensely successful jaw-dropping “KÀ,” which took a whopping $165 million to launch and has been running in an enormous 1,951-seat theatre at the MGM Grand since late 2004. “KÀ” traces the epic journey of Imperial twins who embark on an adventurous journey to fulfill their destinies and is the most technologically sophisticated show I have ever seen. It features a giant rectangular 150 ton stage that floats and rotates in the air and can pivot from horizontal to vertical and transform into several landscapes, making things like battle scenes come alive as actors scale and rappel a vertical battlefield.
For San Francisco audiences, “Totem” also falls right on the heels of Lepage’s highly publicized and controversial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera where some of his ingenious and expensive technology failed to perform as expected. In the Ring’s first installment, Das Rheingold (September, 2010), the video technology, which was supposed to project imagery on 24 planks operated by a hydraulic system—the 45 ton “Valhalla machine”–failed during the climactic scene in which the Gods walk across a rainbow into Valhalla. That problem was resolved but others emerged in Die Walküre (April, 2011), the second installment, including leading ladies Deborah Voight and Stephanie Blythe both slipping on the planks of the $16 million machinery. “Totem” is not as spectacular as “KÀ,” nor does it carry the weight of Valhalla, but it makes for a wonderfully entertaining afternoon or evening and it is perfect for kids.
Where “Totem” really excels is in the use of video projection and special effects, all masterminded by Pedro Pires, Image Content designer, in conjunction with Set and Props designer Carl Fillion and Lighting Designer Etienne Boucher. In “Totem,” the projection screen is a virtual marsh at the rear of the stage. The images projected are all drawn from nature and Pires shot most of them himself on travels to Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala. Throughout the show, these evolve in long mixes or morph to create an ever-changing tableau of gorgeous eye-popping color. Way way cool factor—infra-red tracking cameras positioned above the stage and around the marsh detect movement and produce kinetic effects that interact with the artists’ movements in real time. The results are poetic—water flows across beaches, molten lava streams, projected swimmers swim across the stage while real time swimmers emerge at the side. As performers wade across projected water, projected ripples swell out from under their feet.
Kym Barrett’s creative costumes have ingenious attention to detail and look fabulous on these well-toned athletes. Barrett explained in the press kit that, in brainstorming with Lepage, the idea was to create a real world that evolved into a fantastical world─from a documentary style to fantasy, keeping the human body and its possible transformations in mind at all times. Her designs emphasize themes of evolution, nature itself and
changes of the seasons, traditional cultural and tribal designs and sophisticated surface treatment of fabric to achieve costumes that constantly interact with and adapt to the show’s ever-changing lighting.
Most striking is Crystal man—a recurring character—who represents the life force. He descends from space and sparks life early in the show and dives into a lagoon at the close. His dazzling costume is covered with about 4,500 crystals and reflective mirrors and when he twirls and drops down from the sky, he glistens like a falling star. The ten performers in the Russian bars act also stand out in their vibrant op art unitards—each is different but collectively these costumes have a harlequin meets the lost civilizations of South America vibe. Humans, scaly fishes, clowns, a toreador, cosmonauts—whatever the costume, Barrett has designed it to accentuate the bodies and all the possible movements of these outstanding performers.
For all its wizardry and outright coolness and camp, “Totem” doesn’t really present any clear-cut thesis or timeline about where mankind has come from or is going—the approach was to throw in everything and anything and mix it all up in a series of vignettes with great stunts. It’s an environment where Planet of the Apes chimps, Darwinesque explorers, Native Americans, clowns, businessmen, Cosmonauts, and Bollywood players all meet up. At the end of it all, my favorite act was a male female trapeze duo cleverly enacting a romance─from an innocent game of seduction to gradually intertwined bodies enthralled in a vertical dance of unusual movements and lifts.
Cirque Facts: The cast of “Totem” comprises 51 artists from 17 countries.
The “Totem” hybrid show is the first Cirque du Soleil show to be created in such a way that it can be adapted to the reality of arenas and other venues from the very outset.
As part of the celebration festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Quebec City in 2008, Robert Lepage created Le Moulin á images─the largest architectural projection ever produced─on the walls of the Bunge, a massive grain silo.
In January 2012, “Totem” will travel to London to the Royal Albert Hall.
Details: Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” takes place under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), AT&T Park, Parking Lot A, 74 Mission Rock Street, San Francisco. Tuesdays and-Wednesdays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and 1 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Closes: December 11, 2011.
Tickets: $55 to $360 Information and to purchase tickets: www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem
No comments yet.