All words: Hood Up — All photos: Franz Mahr
Cirque Du Soleil’s “Totem,” running now thru October 7th at National Harbor, is a beautiful experience to behold, taking gymnastics, music, and art, placing them together to tell the fascinating journey of the human species. Totem takes us on a ride from swimming in the sea, crawling on land, walking up right, to our desire of wanting to fly in the skies and beyond. While there is one story that is being told on the stage for the next few nights here in Baltimore, there are many more that can be told behind the curtains as well. There’s a story of unity, pride, and family that exists, something most people may not even think about when speaking of Totem. I believe that this is also a key founding part of the story I hope to bring to the center stage.
Totem is comprised of 53 artists from 18 countries, 120 touring employees, an on-site school for the 23 children, and may hire over 150 people during and engagement in a city. It’s been running for about 2 ½ years so far, with 750 shows performed. I was lucky enough to have Francis Jalbert (tour publicist) and Joe Putignano (performer) take time out of their busy day to talk with me about some of the things we don’t see that help make Cirque Du Soleil Totem the event that it is.
Francis informed me that it took 3yrs to create this show, and 8 days to set-up here in DC. A goal that Francis pointed out for the show is to always be evolving, to keep things fresh. 50% of the performers come from an athletic background. Though now there may not be any judges or score cards, there is a drive for perfection. The artist challenge themselves every show to tighten their routine, change things up to make their act better. The performers will practice once a day on their routine, finding place where they might be able to tweak so the movements flow seamless. For some performers perfection is more than just sticking the right moves, it’s just as much about the attitude that they bring to the stage as well.
Joe Putingnano is from Boston, Massachusetts, he’s been training and competing in gymnastics since he was about 8 years old. Around the age of 17, Putignano decide to completely quit the competing world as it was a having a negative impact on his life. There were some difficulties that Joe had to face during his time away from gymnastics, but 10 years later he returned back to it. He performed in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway show The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Robert Lepage’s La damnation de Faust with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I asked Joe about the first time he met Lepage, “He was so laid back and down to earth, so normal.” So much so that Joe said he didn’t even know that he was directing La damnation de Faust. Lepage and Putignano became friends and stayed in contact throughout the years. Francis Jalbert told me that Lepage felt like the story of the “Crystal Man” fit very well with Joe Putignano’s life story, and is why he asked him to play this main character in Totem.
“Humbling.” is the only word Joe used when I asked him about playing this role. “It’s not just being the Crystal Man, but being the very first performer. You can’t come down in fear.” he says, “If I come down a shaky mess, that going to set the tone for the whole show. I have to come down with that confidence, acceptance if you will.” It’s the attention to details such as this that makes Totem and Cirque Du Soleil so amazing to me. There is not one area that is over looked. From a gentleman checking sits before the show, or the fact that every custom in the show is hand crafted. We are talking about the hair on the monkey suit, the multi colored frog suit, and patterns on the cosmonauts’ space boots. I know those patterns were there, but unless you were on the front row I doubt you saw them; you’d be so focused on the stunts that they were performing.
Yet Cirque Du Soleil takes the time just in case. A lot of these costumes only have a six month life span as well. Even though there’s such a hunger for perfection and attention to detail, Joe points out, “ We are all human, and some days you’re tired.” Joe points out that some days you just want to relax, or you feel sick and not up for performing. Things that every person feels every now and then. “You have to step beyond that feeling with the acceptance of “this might not be my best performance, and I allow that,” he continued saying, “instead of fighting against it. The more I perform, the more I’m relaying on acceptance versus confidence.”
It took me a few times of hearing and reading those words before I got what Joe meant, but once I did, I was very thankful that he had said them. That in itself is something that Putignano believes Cirque Du Soleil has help him get better at. Joe describes the atmosphere to be much like New York, where he currently lives. “There are a lot of different opinions and views, but each culture has a positive unique thing that they bring.” He compares it to gymnastics saying, “You see different qualities that are displayed from each country. One might have heart, another strength.” Everyone is bring their own gifts from their culture to the table.
He’s also learned persistence in doing the show. So on those days where he’s felt tired or sick, Totem has taught/given him this dedication and drive that has be cultivated by all the cultures that he’s around. I believe that it also has to be the family like atmosphere that is created by Cirque Du Soleil. Performers such as 17 year old Nikita has been on tour his whole life, and just graduated for school in June. He’s the youngest perform in Totem, and also works alongside his father doing Russian bars as a cosmonaut. It’s things like that, and seeing the young ladies who would later sit atop unicycles, joking with each other backstage while resting. There’s also Joe pointing out a fellow performer laying on the mat behind us, his arm covering his face to block any light out as he sleeps. “Right now he’s sleeping, he’s tired, but as the clown at 8 o’clock he’s going to go out there and make everyone laugh. And that helps me.”
Just like in a family, sometimes it’s the things that we don’t know that helps our brother. Sometimes we don’t feel deserving of the places that we are at in life, wondering how we got to where we are. For instance when Joe pulls off a solo move, gliding down to the stage into a group of people, he acknowledges, “It’s always in that moment that I’m like ‘Thank god, all of you are here, that I’m not all alone, because I’d probably crap my pants.’”
Though each act as it’s moment on stage it’s what they create together that make Totem so amazing. It’s the friendships that are formed, the families that are, and those to be are formed that truly bring life to Totem. It’s the attention to detail, such as when asked who he’d like to thank Joe said, “The riggers up top, they’re my guardian angels. They deserve to be thanked.” It’s unity that brings everything together, within the story, on the stage, or in the background. Totem is an inspiration for all to strive for more, and to grow. If you’re seeing in the audience and take the time to look up to the rafters before the show, there’s a chance that Joe and the riggers are looking back down at you. They’re making it their goal to inspire you during this performance.