Robert Lepage
Cirque du Soleil
Royal Albert Hall

Totem Credit: Matt Beard
Totem Credit: Matt Beard
Totem Credit: Matt Beard
Totem Credit: Matt Beard
Totem Credit: Matt Beard
Totem Credit: Matt Beard

Cirque du Soleil’s 2010 show Totem describes itself as “an odyssey of the human species”. And, there’s a touch of epic Romanticism about Totem with respect to both the scale of its ambition to trace the evolution of human life from amphibian to air-borne and in its exploration of man’s relationship with the natural world.

At the Royal Albert Hall, to which the show has returned, the ‘set’ is simple: from a bed of reeds (masking the musicians who provide a stonking pulse throughout the evening), a marshy expanse stretches, at the centre of which is a ramp leading to the central performance space. But, the design—lighting, technological, costume and choreography—is anything but plain or uncomplicated. The marsh is transformed by stunning projections, metamorphosing like an electrified kaleidoscope into lapping, ebbing waves; a surging river; the still ocean; volcanic fire. From its centre, an arched plank rears up like a roaring dragon, swallowing and releasing varied life forms.

The show’s narrative is neither chronological nor, it must be said, sustained. It moves between primeval and present-day, between cultures and climes, and by Part 2 the connections between the acrobatic wizardry and the central concept wear rather thin. Moreover, the comic interpolations, while preventing kinetic overload, slathered on overkill camp and kitsch and wore my patience rather thin too.

However, it’s not a narrative but ‘pure theatre’ that the audience at a performance of Totem (which opened in Montreal in 2010) are there to see and from the moment that Crystal Man descends, upside-down from the RAH’s lofty far reaches, a diamante spark-of-life to initiate the evolutionary journey, it’s theatre that Cirque du Soleil delivers.

Centre-stage rests a huge, emerald, encrusted turtle shell, which is upturned by Crystal Man’s magic to reveal a skeletal architecture—the interlacing shell form resembles a neural network—from which tadpole-like beings in green and silver shiny bodysuits spring and leap with apt joie de vivre.

The series of scenes which follow demonstrate pinnacles of human development and expertise: physical strength, speed and balance; manual-eye dexterity and coordination; muscle control and flexibility; the power of estimation, calculation and timing; human judgement and trust. Ironically, then, Totem is a celebration not only of human development but of the very aptitude, excellence and potential that underpins Cirque du Soleil’s own existence.

Some scenes are wry. The timeline of human evolution is represented by a procession of increasingly tall and upright figures, from ape to Ardipithecus, from homo erectus to homo sapiens by way of Neanderthal. Modern man is a city boy in a sharp suit clutching a mobile phone. But the argument here is ambiguous. Divested of his clothes and briefcase by his ancestral forebears, the humiliation of this businessman, left wearing only his red underpants and tie, seems to be a denouncement of human hubris. Yet he ascends defiantly to the top of a Chinese pole and triumphs over the ‘lesser beings’ in a demonstration of steely physical strength and stamina.

The dexterity is at times almost devilish: the Amerindians’ hoops, symbols of the cycles of life, the scientist’s illuminated atoms and the toreador’s diabolo spin too fast for the eye to follow. There’s more gravity defying twirling when velocity lifts a female roller-skater who appears to be connected to her male partner's neck by only her feet as he whirls like a dervish on a small, circular platform.

One marvels at the coordination and synchronicity, as well as the elastic athleticism and grace, of the Russian bar acrobats who spring from one narrow elasticated plank, twist and spin mid-air and whose feet must find their way to a different bar, positioned by watchful carriers beneath them. Such harmonisation reaches a peak in a scene for five Chinese unicyclists who use one foot to balance their single wheels and the other to toss small bowls which they catch on their heads. The precision needed as the bowls loop backwards over the shoulder of one cyclist, landing plumb on the hat of another moving acrobat, suggests that they are doing mathematical calculations as they ride, rest and rock. Is it instinct or insight; or simply practice? Whichever, it’s both simple in concept and stunningly sophisticated in execution.

Human mating rituals are ‘celebrated’ too, in their most elevated and banal forms. The latter are represented by beach boys who show off their pecs while dangling in improbable formations from swinging rings to impress a bikinied babe. Sensuousness and synergy come in the form of a conflict and reconciliation sequence which sees a pair of trapeze artists engage in an airborne ‘argument’ of astonishing choreographic complexity and grace.

Charles Darwin, attired in top hat and waistcoat, can be espied at times, observing the mosaic of evolutionary processes: one imagines that he would be pleased that the performers' feats offer evidence that his hunches about natural selection and survival of the fittest were indeed true.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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