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Cirque du Soleil: Totem - review

Cirque du Soleil: Totem - review

Taken from the September 2014 Metro, on sale August 28.

You expect spectacular, and that’s what you get. Aerial acrobatics, roller skating gyroscopics, synchronised juggling, precision gymnastics, much of it defying the limits of what we think human bodies can do. The costumes are intricately beautiful, the music pounds and soars and sweeps you along, while the lighting and set design evoke a vast plain, a high universal sky, the rushing sea — the Earth, no less, in all its grand sweep.

Six women kick bowls onto each other’s heads while riding high uni­cycles, and that is so much fun. A couple on a trapeze are so apparently effortless in their grace, they seem to slow time and you feel almost like you are hanging in space with them. For two hours, Totem holds you blessedly immersed in the realm of the marvellous.

The central motif reaches back to primal times, with savannah landscapes, African rhythms and variations on warrior costuming. But the future also reaches in with some techie wizardry and a high, central gantry from which acrobats are raised and lowered: it looks like nothing so much as a spaceship, hovering overhead, whose intent is not entirely benevolent. Exciting, and spooky.

The bodies of the performers are almost hyperreal. So much sinew, such suppleness, such muscular energy stored inside those skins. They’re so good to watch, you do wonder: what exactly is the point of Olympic gymnastics, except as a training ground for this kind of entertainment? Why watch desperately anxious children competing for medals with their dour routines, all wearing absolutely hideous costumes, when you can revel in the beauty and grace and powerful excitement of Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatics?

Sport meets entertainment. Someone should give Cirque control of rugby for a year. Just imagine how thrilling they could make it.

Totem is the creation of Robert Lepage, a gifted inventor of theatrical magic. He’s most famous for long plays in which complex, epic themes play out in characters’ lives in intimate detail, but there’s none of that here. Lepage is a great artist, but he’s on holiday with Totem, revelling in his skill as a great entertainer. Good on him for that.

Yet the show is not an unqualified success. It’s presented on an apron stage, with the audience in a U-shape around it. If you can, sit in the middle of the U: a lot of the action is downstage and front facing, so if you’re at the sides you will see the performers’ backs a lot.

Surprisingly, there’s almost no personal interaction with the audience — the performers do their stuff and get out of the way for the next act. The clowns engage in good broad-brush humour but don’t ever astonish us with anything unexpected. There’s a bit of a story, with a Darwinian theme — a scientist type in a boat called the Beagle and a tableau progression from monkeys to mobile-phone-wielding modern man — but it’s half-hearted. We are there to be thrilled, not to have our hearts or minds engaged.

Just once, this approach is transgressed. At the end of an astonishing roller skating item, the two participants kiss and cuddle. You don’t see that much in a circus, and it’s a lovely dramatic moment: brave, skilled and breathtakingly beautiful human achievement comes hand in hand with emotional attachment. We are human.

Totem is a marvel, for sure. But I can’t help feeling there’s a bigger work inside it, waiting to be let out.

Theatre