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Cirque du Soleil: Totem – Review

The Crystal Man from Cirque du Soleil: Totem

National Tour
Preview performance seen in Atlanta, Georgia, October 25, 2012

When discussing Cirque du Soleil, there’s something that should be established straightaway: and that’s the sheer “Sweet Holy Raspberry-Flavored Jesus WTF” nature of watching one of their shows. Cirque, in fact, is a lot like sex: the worst you’ve ever had is pretty good.

A Cirque show is, despite what anyone else–and what perhaps Cirque themselves–would tell you: an excuse to show ordinary humans what superhuman things extraordinary humans can do. And I don’t mean to put down what goes into creating the characters, the story, the costumes, the music and everything else that creates the package that hits the stage under their traveling tent. Because they do bring to life characters that have little to no dialogue. They do have to create costumes that you can do pretty much anything in (there’s a reason the new Spider-Man costume was designed by Cirque). The musical score to these shows is some of the finest working music you can lay hands upon. All of that is fantastic.

[ad#longpost]But in the end, it’s about taking something normal and upping the ante until it gets ridiculous. And that’s where I think Cirque is at its best. An example. In this latest show, Totem, a group of young ladies come on stage riding unicycles. They are rather tall unicycles, yes, but they’re just riding around on unicycles. The mind thinks, “Ah, yes, unicycles. Even tall ones. I’ve seen people do this before. Cool and difficult, yes. I couldn’t do it. But not too unusual. They are wearing funny little hats, though.” It’s about this point in the proceedings that you realize the hats are not, in fact, hats–they are a stack of little bowls that they have balanced on their heads. It’s about that point in the proceedings that they begin to take the bowls off their heads and flip them onto their own heads, the heads of other people on unicycles and do so with increasingly insane combinations–and the mind is forced to think, “Who the hell thought about flipping a stack of bowls and then a teapot onto someone else’s head? Who the hell thinks of this stuff?”

Greg Kennedy, who appears as The Scientist in ‘Totem,’ and an early video of him juggling inside a cone. It only looks easy.

That’s Cirque rocking and rolling–getting more and more crazy until it basically beggars belief what you’re seeing on stage. Whether it’s a bunch of men balancing and walking across poles, a couple roller skating in a circle in a such a way as to court massive head trauma, or a clown who starts juggling while inside a transparent cone–that’s the Cirque experience: the mind just gives up and goes into wonderment mode.

Now, I make this point because the deal with Totem, as I understand it, is about the evolution of life. And yes, you have people in amphibian costumes. You have a fantastically engineered chain of evolution sight gag. But for the most part, it’s just…well, Cirque. Granted, it’s Cirque with a flexible “scorpion bridge” set piece that is one of the most complicated stage mechanisms I’ve ever seen and with some of the most effective set projections I’ve ever seen. (Swimmers on the projections emerge from the water and become real people. No shit.) So there’s that. But it’s on a par with the several Cirque shows that I’ve seen.

Massimo & Denise, the roller skaters…I love how at the beginning of this short bit, people are walking by them like nothing’s happening.

To be specific, some of the acts go farther than others. The trapeze act that opens the show, the “Carapace,” seems to be rather ordinary for a Cirque show…which is odd, because normally the trapeze act at a Cirque show is guaranteed to hurt your brain. Also, the hoop dancing and ring acts are impressive, yes, but I felt they weren’t as crazy as the others. Again, for me–and this could just be me–the sign of an effective Cirque act is when your brain just gives up. Like when the “Fixed Trapeze Duo” show us what a lovers’ spat looks like when performed in mid-air–an absolutely brilliantly choreographed routine where a man and woman are frequently just holding barely onto the trapeze itself and mostly to each other. Like much in life, where are you going to go? It’s a long way down.

Despite some acts being more mind-blowing than others, they are all to an extent mind-crimping. It’s recommended to see it live (though be prepared for a mysteriously overlong intermission) but be prepared to be wowed. And to be reminded of how extremely unflexible you are.


  • Nicely done Widge. You left out the part of the show where they force you to learn French while everyone else speaks English. Much like Quebec and their language laws, they are a weird bunch. A talented weird bunch though. People should see it.