As pioneers of nouveau cirque, Cirque du Soleil have woven
traditional circus skills into a narrative context with increasingly high production
values to become a global brand. And as one of the world’s greatest theatre-makers,
the multi-talented Lepage has created a number of mixed-media productions that
make innovation accessible to all kinds of audiences.
Their first collaboration was the lavish Kà in 2005, the resident show at
the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which cost $220 million to develop and is still packing
them in. Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show Totem, written and directed
by Lepage, is also spectacular, featuring about 50 international performers displaying
amazing ability in a glitzy, high-tech setting. But although it is undeniably impressive
in its slick virtuosity, it all seems rather soulless, a far cry from the collaborators’
origins in street circus and experimental theatre.
The idea behind Totem is to celebrate the evolution of mankind from its
primordial beginnings in the jungle to sophisticated twenty-first-century jet-setters.
The evolutionary perspective is emphasized by the intermittent appearance of a
Charles Darwin figure, as we see the development from monkey to man, and from
tribal society to contemporary civilization, in a succession of scenarios illustrating the
rich diversity of world cultures.
In practice, this thematic framework is only half-convincing, and sometimes
seems a contrived confection of pick and mix global village offerings, which should
be enjoyed simply for their entertainment value and not for any deeper significance.
The show gets off to a stunning start as a sparkling silver-clad figure descends
from the highest point of the Albert Hall as a foetal curled ball, unfurling as he
reaches the stage, to take part in an ritual dance with a group of African tribesman
making ape-like movements. Then we are whisked off to a modern beach setting
where two macho acrobats and an Italian clown vie with each other for the attentions
of a shapely, bikini-clad woman – the biological imperative still driving the human
After that the show seems a random rather than natural selection of scenes
displaying human resourcefulness. Some of the highlights include the astonishing
dexterity of female Chinese unicyclists throwing bowls, strong Russian men
supporting others balanced on the top of poles, dizzyingly fast Native American
roller-blade spinning, athletic somersaults from trampoline planks, synchronized
parasol twirling using both feet and hands, and an Adam and Eve-like courting couple
doing a high trapeze act. Even Darwin gets to juggle with coloured balls in a giant
The dazzling design of Carl Fillion includes a cranium-like structure which rises
above the circular stage, a slanting platform upon which Pedro Pires’s projections of
water, sand and rocks are beamed, and a mobile section which changes from bridge
to boat to plane. The colourful costumes of Kym Barrett, powerful lighting of Étienne
Boucher and evocative sound Jacques Boucher all contribute, as does the world-music
score of Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, played by musicians hidden behind dense
undergrowth of the jungle.
It seems that circus has evolved almost as much as mankind – though it too is in
danger of losing touch with its roots.