Seeing is believing: Cirque du Soleil’s Totem a feast for the senses

by Keith Barber

From the opening moments of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, the audience is thrust into a primeval world of wonder. Described as “a fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind,” the show begins with acrobats dressed in amphibian costumes bouncing off a trampoline device and onto an apparatus that resembles a Neanderthal jungle gym. According to the show’s website, the oval set represents the skeletal substructure of a turtle, an animal totem that is omnipresent in founding myths, legends and oral traditions.

The beginning of mankind is captured beautifully by the Cirque du Soleil orchestra’s driving rhythms that send vibrations through audience members as the talented acrobats spin on high bars and somersault across the trampoline before flinging themselves onto the turtle shell and landing with cat-like grace.

If 30,000 years of evolution led to the miracle of modern man, the Cirque du Soleil performers showcase the potential of the human body to do amazing and unbelievable feats. A Native American hoops dancer mesmerizes the audience with his talent to transform rings into eagle’s wings; a trio of performers soar through the air grasping Olympic rings; three petite performers astound the audience with their artistry on unicycles while balancing and flipping brass bowls onto their heads.

No circus would be complete without clowns and Cirque du Soleil is no exception. A caricature of an Italian man entertains the younger audience members with his outrageous stunts. In the rings trio act, a gorgeous blonde is being pursued by two male performers dressed as lifeguards. But in the end, the beauty goes for the loud Italian as the audience roars its delight.

Another clown, who can best be described as “the fisherman,” paddles his boat onto the marsh set, which is part of the organic world created by Totem set designer Carl Fillion. Throughout the show, images projected onto the tilted surface create a swamp, river, marsh, lake, pond, ocean, star-filled sky and even a volcanic island.

The fisherman entertains the younger members of the audience by bouncing an egg off his hands, feet, head and shoulders like a soccer ball. One of the show-stopping performances of Totem is the foot-juggling act of the Crystal Ladies. Featuring top-notch acrobatics, yoga and laser-like focus, the performers spin sequined cloth squares with hands and feet at a dizzying pace. The precision and near-perfection of each act of Totem is a wonder to behold.

The character known as the Tracker, whose top hat holds an incadescent light, wows the audience with his devil sticks; a male-female trapeze duo pull off incredible feats 25 feet above the stage; a mad scientist manipulates balls of light and transforms into a much younger man; and the hoops dancers return for another homage to tribal civilizations.

At some point, Totem touches on man’s ascension from his primate ancestors. There is one humorous moment when a man dressed in a business suit and talking on a cell phone is being followed around the stage by Neanderthal man and several performers in primate costumes, symbolizing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The performers in primate costumes also serve as comic relief, playing air guitar on a giant dinosaur bone and going into the audience to start a popcorn fight. The final two acts — roller skates and Russian bars — bring “Totem” to its climax before all cast members take the stage for a rousing musical dance number with an African tribal feel. When the nearly 50 performers and orchestra take their final bow, the audience under the big top rises to its feet and expresses respect, admiration and pure wonder for the once-in-a-liftime experience provided by some of the world’s best entertainers known as Cirque du Soleil.

wanna go?

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem will play under the Grand Chapiteau at the Charlotte Motor Speedway through March 27. Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria will be at the Greensboro Coliseum April 13-17. For ticket info, visit: