Towering reeds – golden waves which roll in the inky lavender light. An ancient voice pulls tights against me, singing in a tongue both foreign yet familiar. And from the sky, a shimmering, softly moving shard descends – the God particle, the life force, the moment of time, the very beginning. And so Totem begins.
I am lucky enough to have enjoyed many theatrical performances – both at home in Australia, and overseas – in my short time. And indeed, I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil previously – around a decade ago. Without any hesitation, I can say that their latest production – Totem – is one of the most beautiful, simple, profound and emotional works I have ever seen. Of course, with the fame and budget that comes with the productions of Cirque du Soleil, you naturally expect something spectacular. But it was not its spectacle that made Totem so resonant for me – rather, it was its simultaneous universality, accessibility and rich layers of meaning that were seamlessly conveyed.
Detail of Totem costume, designed by Australian talent Kym Barrett – a mix of traditional indigenous patterns reborn in new materials and colors, detailed with kauri shells and African-style decorative collars. These full body suits were worn by gymnasts undertaking the ‘Russian Bar’ – a mix of trampolining skills and balance barre.
Cirque du Soleil does not rely on language for meaning, and is unconcerned with translating the experience for its audience. I was fortunate to be taken behind the scenes by Francis Jalbert of Cirque du Soleil, who gently held the beautiful costumes and reiterated to me that Cirque was an experience that should be accessible to anyone, and enjoyable to ‘read’ however you view it.
The Ringmaster of Totem, powerful and fertile, overlooking evolution and observing our collective desire to fly – an apt device for the gymnasts who soar above the audience into the sky.
On one hand, you have incredible gymnasts and acrobats who are exotic in their own right, performing feats (in this case feat is the only appropriate word) of incredible risk which are enhanced to otherworldly levels by their apparent ease of delivery. Live music backs each vignette, with Francis telling me that the bandmaster conducts his musicians whilst carefully observing the acrobat’s performance – tweaking here and there in response to the decisions the performers make. Most importantly, a story is told – or rather, not told. As audience, you can bask in the multiple narrative strains available and choose your own adventure. At any time there are multiple stories taking place across the performance space – making Totem worthy of more than one viewing.
Totem is a tale of evolution, lead by a mysterious deep red Circus Master and his duality – a glittering silver drop of life who appears throughout various tales; amoebic acrobatic frogs in costumes of incredible detail and makeup (based upon the actual markings of a particular frog), Native American Indians performing hoop dances in imitation of eagles, alligators and totem poles, a Charles Darwin-type overlooking the evolution of ape to man while juggling the building blocks of life, a sprightly pair of elemental lovers, an intensely regal partnership of Native American Indians defying death with their passion, floating space explorers from the past or the future and funny buffon relief characters – a gentle clown looks for fish, an amorous retro Italian looks for his amore, and a pair of 90’s buffed beach fellas loll their tongues at an exotic strong woman to an eastern beat.
A totem pole is carved, beginning at its base with aquatic creatures before working upwards towards a zenith of the eagle – a flying creature, the most noble of all. Totem acknowledges our universal desire to evolve, to develop, to fly. It will undoubtedly connect with you as it did with me, although you may take something entirely different from the experience.
Makeup and design that reference many cultures to create its own visual language of motif and gesture.
During my ‘behind the scenes’ experience, I was able to look through the magic box of Totem’s costume department and see the makeup guides for each artists. Francis told me that initially it takes artists 3 hours to put their makeup on, but once practiced they master it down to 2.
Watching the performers practice was strangely intimate, and I did feel as though I was watching a private moment. Here, a juggler goes over his routine a couple of hours before his next performance – within a cone-like apparatus which allows him to roll balls around him, relying on remembering their trajectory to next send them on their way.
Many Cirque du Soleil performers come from European or Asian circus families or troupes: these beautiful Mongolian women have their own translator and train each day for an hour and a half to keep their uni-cycle/juggling act at its peak. Their costumes are so beautiful in the show – very magical and delicate.
More fine costume detail: Francis told me about how some of the designs indicate what we might leave behind today – we, the technological tribe. On this costume to the left, nuts and bolts (made of soft silicone) are stitched finely onto leotards – from the audience you certain can’t see this detail, which makes its thoughtful inclusion even more valuable. To the right, a costume which authentically mimics the pattern on a particular Australian frog.
To explain Totem doesn’t truly do it justice. It’s best to see if for yourself – so book tickets here.