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
Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild readies for the Ring…Cori Ellison speaks Thursday at Kenwood Depot
This Thursday, June 9, 2011, the Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild will host Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, who will offer an in-depth look at Wagner’s Ring cycle operas. Ms. Ellison will speak at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot in Kenwood, CA. San Francisco Opera Guild preview lectures bring renowned musicologists to the greater Bay Area for an in-depth look at the season’s operas. Cori Ellison was a consultant to Francesca Zambello in the new production of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle which is beginning next Tuesday, June 14 and running through July 3, 2011. Ellison is also speaking this week at the Marin, San Jose, Peninsula, San Francisco, and East Bay Chapters of the San Francisco Opera Guild. She will also talk about female protagonists in the Ring in an all day Ring Symposium (“Wagner’s Ring: The Love of Power, the Power of Love—Cycle 1 Symposium.”) sponsored by the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday, June 18, 2011.
Ellison’s talk in Kenwood will establish why Wagner’s Ring is so popular and important. She will situate the 4 operas contextually in Wagner’s career, in European history, and in philosophical thought, also discussing his source materials. She will introduce Wagner’s idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” that aims to make use of all or many forms of art. She will also give signposts that the audience can grab onto throughout the production to help them get the most out of their experience, with emphasis on leitmotifs. She will also share special details about the production based on her experience as part of Francesca Zambello’s core creative team.
“One of the wonderful things about Wagner and the Ring is that it really sparks deep thought and conversation in a way that other operas don’t,” said Ellison. “One of the biggest challenges in talking about Wagner, which I’ve done all over the country for a number of years, is that you are pretty much in a little red school house situation where some of the people are themselves experts and the others are novices. Bridging this divide is tricky—I’ll try to find thoughts that will be of help to both groups.”
“What interests me most about Francesca’s production in San Francisco is that she has so wisely revealed the threads that speak to the American experience in particular. Of course, every character speaks to forces within each of us, but she’s managed to make us see America too. That’s why she’s a visionary–no one sees the big picture the way she does.”
“And without Wagner’s even realizing it, this is so much a story about women and the way they are treated by society and how what’s unique in the feminine can save the world,” added Ellison. “This is not superimposed by Francesca–it’s organic in the work, but it took Francesca to see that and tease it out in this remarkable way. It’s like looking at a vast tapestry where there are millions of details and she finds one of those details that she feels is a basic. She shines a light on it and, of course, that leads to what she’s know for–some very psychologically probing interpretations.”
The Sonoma guild has roughly 1,500 members, 250 of whom are active participants. “We’ll have a turn-out for this lecture because of the group’s interest in Wagner,” said Neva Turer, who’s been running the group for several years now. The guild’s educational component is one of its most important functions. “We host 6 annual music education lectures for our members and the community with experts selected by the San Francisco Opera,” said Turer. “Even if people don’t make it in to the operas themselves, they will get a lot out of these wonderful talks. We also do education programs in about 25 local schools to provide the important foundation that they can’t anymore with all the cuts they’ve had.”
It was Turer who worked with Ky Boyd to bring the very popular Met Opera: Live in HD opera broadcasts to the (former) Rialto Lakeside Cinemas. The series, now in its 5th season, is currently held at the Jackson Theatre at Sonoma Country Day School and is a program of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas. “I had to plead with Ky to get them to bring this here and I promised that we’d fill the seats,” explained Turer. “Now, it’s become a phenomenon with a life of its own.” Attendees have had their Wagner appetites whetted this season with two ambitious Robert Lepage productions in the Met’s new Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold, which opened the 2010-11 Met Opera: Live in HD season and Die Walküre, which it closed with in May.
“We have members in our group who live for Wagner and some new ones who are excited to get into it,” explained Turer. “We are all looking forward to this SF Opera production. Several saw Zambello’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold in San Francisco and we’re waiting to see how it all comes off.
David Marsten of Calistoga is one member of Sonoma group who has seen the Ring over 20 times and has a passion and breadth of knowledge that is inspirational. When I called him, he was just running off to St. Helena with books and recordings to share with a member who was new to the cycle. Marsten tries to catch all the major performances and has found camaraderie in the group. In 2009, when his granddaughter was being born, he suddenly found himself with a spare ticket to a Ring cycle in Seattle, so he persuaded another member, who he didn’t know at the time, to spontaneously travel with him to see the performance. He also went to the Los Angeles Opera’s cycle in 2010.
“When you’ve done this for awhile, and needless to say, you have recordings of all the major performances—you find that there’s an enormous breadth of interpretation, different versions of the same opera, and that’s exciting. It’s amazing that Götterdämmerung, for example, can be as short as 5 ½ hours and as long as 6 ½ hours and that’s without intermission, just straight musically. You come to the realization that this breadth can encompass very slow conducting to more rapid versions—and generally it’s all valid. And what makes it work is that concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—a unity of the arts–when it all comes together poetically.”
“Wagner was one of the few operatic conductors who really did it all,” said Marsten. “He wrote the story and then he put the text into a very curious verse form of the archaic German ‘stabreim’ (alliteration) which had the effect of liberating him from normal rhyme patterns. Then, he wrote the music and created all sorts of incredible effects with a huge orchestra that he could only imagine. In fact, in the case of the brass section, he invented three completely new instruments that didn’t exist previously—the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and bass trombone. The most amazing thing about this was that he imagined the sound he needed to complete the tonal range and it was written on paper and lived inside of his head for 25 years until he actually heard it in the rehearsals in 1876. He was just a remarkable visionary…. It’s not so easy, but step by step, you enter and you begin to see that beyond the genius of the music itself, it’s all a gigantic metaphor, like a Tibetan sand mandala, that operates on many levels that you can work your way around and into.”
Marsten’s recommendation: buy and read William Cord’s An Introduction to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Cord is a former music professor at Sonoma State University and has written extensively and insightfully on Wagner and the Ring.
Enjoying Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung with Speight Jenkins is a 2 CD set, one per opera, of the 1954 Bayreuth performance, with each playing about an hour that presents some of the major themes and leitmotifs in the Ring.
M. Owen Lee’s (University of Toronto) Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, an excellent introduction to the Ring cycle.
Details: Cori Ellison will speak Thursday, June 9, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door. Refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.
Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.