Cirque Du Soleil’s ‘Totem’: très fantastique!

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Totem”, written and directed by Robert Lepage, produced by Cirque du Soleil. Set and props designer: Carl Fellion. Costume Designer: Kim Barrett. Composers and Musical Directors: “Bob and Bill” (Guy Dubuc and Mark Lessard). Choreographer: Jeff Hall. Lighting Designer: Étienne Boucher. Sound Designer: Jacques Boucher. Makeup Designer: Natalie J. Simard. 

The cast of “Totem” comprises 53 artists from 18 countries—Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, The People’s Republic of China, Russian Federation, Spain, Ukraine, The United Kingdom and The United States of America.

(Rating: 5/5 Stars » Memorable)

The history of the Cirque du Soleil is so incredible, eccentric and magical that it is difficult to believe. Today, the Cirque has 19 shows playing in cities worldwide, and has been seen by 90 million people. Its founder, the somewhat eccentric Guy Laliberte (who continues to be creatively involved with every production) began his career as a street busking fire eater, walking on stilts and playing the accordion. Today, thanks to the success of Cirque (and his career as a world champion poker player), he is ranked by Forbes as the 11th wealthiest individual in Canada and one of the 500 wealthiest individuals world wide. How did this happen? He and his colleagues reinvented the circus.

In the western world, circuses date to the days of ancient Rome. In the east, Chinese acrobatics are an ancient performance art. In Europe and the United States, the traditional circus featured animals and sideshow acts as well as acrobatics, juggling and clowning. Before the development of the modern circus (or nouveau cirque) such as the Cirque Du Soleil, the most famous example of a traditional circus has been Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.

So what’s the difference between the traditional and the modern? The most obvious is that traditional circuses include animal acts, a practice that has been increasingly challenged by animal rights activists and is nowadays even illegal in many countries. But another difference is that the traditional circus has always been a haphazard collection of acts. There have been great clowns and great acrobatic troupes, but typically they have not been presented as a theatrical show with a common theme. (A famous exception that anticipated the modern movement might have been Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, although, of course, that show included animals — especially horses — as a large part of its appeal).

The contemporary circus, of which Cirque Du Soleil is by far the most famous and successful, draws from theatrical as well as circus traditions. Instead of a series of disconnected acts announced by a ringmaster and accompanied by random music in an atmosphere of chaos, the modern circus links the acts thematically with carefully designed costumes, makeup, musical accompaniment, story line, lighting and sets.

Company members of Cirque du Soleil create a spine-chilling depiction of the origins of human life in "Totem". Photo credit: Cirque du Soleil.


The theme of “Totem” is the evolution of human kind. Our biological origins are depicted from prehuman reptilian amphibious beginnings through hairy primates through modern explorers of outer space. Cultural diversity is on display with dance and music from a variety of aboriginal sources and a particularly humorous depiction of suited up contemporaries with briefcases in hand.

Acts and characters include the astonishing Crystal Man, representing the life force, whose dazzling costume includes 4500 reflective components. At the start of the show, he appears to be a disco ball twirling at the highest apex of the tent, gradually lowered and unfurling himself to reveal his humanity.

From that start, the display of special effects, cinematic components, astonishing makeup, juggling, acrobatics, characterization, and clowning cascades for hours from a cornucopia of delight. I have never seen its like.

During the performance, I repeatedly heard audience members exclaim: “Oh my God!” and “That’s impossible!”

There is a reason that the Cirque du Soleil is one of the most successful performing organizations in the world. It is ravishing in every respect.

Although admittedly an expensive ticket, it should be considered a once-in-a-lifetime family event that your children will remember forever. If you have never seen this extraordinary company up close and live under the touring big top, you owe it to yourself to take the plunge at least once.

If you are like me, you will surely be returning for years to come. “Totem” continues its stay in San Jose through April 15. For further information, click here.


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