Cirque Du Soleil: Totem (A Review)
cale | Apr 11, 2011 | 9:50AM |

Awesome photos by Kevin Carroll

Totem, the new touring show by Cirque Du Soleil, has started its month long run at Westport Waterfront in Baltimore.  You can get reduced price tickets for certain shows through BYT by following this link.  Full schedule and details here.

I attended a special sneak preview last Wednesday, leaving DC early to beat the traffic.  Seeing the giant blue and yellow striped big top appearing on the horizon on 95, I assumed it was located near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area, the touristy strip of chain restaurants, paddle boats, and aquariums, but the GPS veered us off course about a mile early plopping us down in a hard up industrial area with crack heads and beware of pit bull signs.  It felt a little strange.  We came to a traffic standstill, but no worries, we are a solid 30 min early and I can see the Totem flags in the distance.  But it was not to be.  To travel the 51 seconds left to our destination took 51 minutes.  When we finally arrived to the parking lot they only had one dude collecting the $15.  First of all, with tickets ranging from $55-225, no easy public transportation options available, and a surrounding neighborhood where you wouldn’t dare park your car, the additional15 bucks was an unpleasant surprise, secondly, one guy?  Well, at least it’s press/friends/family night and obviously they’ll delay the start time due to this parking logistics nightmare.  NOPE.  We walk in to a 2/3 full house and they’re already onto act three.  I would have demanded my money back… if I had actually paid for the tickets.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

We sit down, and at least the seats are just about the best in the house (Section 101 – Premium), I’ve seen Cirque Du Soleil performances from just about every seating option available and I can tell you that right in the middle half way back is the best way to go.  There is often so much going on on stage at once that if you’re too close you can’t really take it all in, but if you’re too far you loose some of the intimacy and you might as well stay home watching your Journey of Man DVD.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

Let me back up just a hair, in case you’re not familiar with what the Cirque Du Soleil phenomenon is all about, here is a quick primer.  It is a performance company based in Montreal that has both permanent and touring show all over the world, generates over $800 million a year, and employees over 4000 people.  Unlike your typical Ringling Bros show, a Cirque show is a highly stylized artistic performance with themed productions, extravagant costumes, recurring characters, live music and dancing, no animals, no dialogue or ringmaster per se, no stage hands, very few safety nets, and some of the most mind blowingly unique feats of acrobatics and object manipulation you will ever see in your entire life.  In recent years, some of the new shows have taken on less abstract themes, like The Beatles Love show, and more linear storylines like MGM Grand’s Ka.  Totem is the latest touring production, which is inspired by ideas of both scientific human evolution and creation myths.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

So, back to the show.  We’re catching the end of the third act and there are like these musclely beach dudes on stage with florescent swim trunks and blowouts doing a ring routine.  It’s tacky and cheesy.  My mood worsens.  I learn later that it was supposedly a Bollywood inspired act and the lack of class was partially intentional, so I’ll give it a pass, but it still didn’t feel right.  I’ve always liked how Cirque kept things pretty weird, even with being a giant mainstream juggernaut of entertainment, maybe they were trying to broaden their appeal these days?

Next up, five cute asian girls riding giant unicycles wearing amazing costumes proceed to use their feet to flip metal cups onto their heads.  Now this is what I’m talking about.  It is incredible.  A performance that is so unique, yet requiring unfathomable precision.  It’s as if they woke up and created this new art form and decided to practice it every day for a year and become ultimate ninja masters.  Or maybe there is a long lineage or unicycle riding foot flip cuppers who have honed and passed their craft on from generation to generation.  I’m not sure which is more impressive.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

My faith in Cirque Du Soleil has been renewed.  I settle down and take note of the set.  Throughout the show projections are used to create the effect of water and natural environments on the sloping stage, the illusion is quite effective, giving the performers various landscapes to emerge from/interact with.  Lasers are blasted onto someone hanging from the ceiling wearing a mirrored costume, creating the effect of human disco ball.  Discreet surround sound is used to immerse you in the show.  While not as complex as some of the permanent show set pieces, it’s still an affecting piece of stagecraft.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

The show continues with act after act of beautiful choreography and truly astonishing feats of dexterity.  A young couple hanging from a trapeze twists and turns around each other in a dizzyingly creative dance.  A rollerskating duo put olympic figure skaters to shame.  Comic relief “clown” routines are clever and funny.  Time and time again these performers do things that you’ve not only never seen before, but also never even imagined the idea of someone doing them.  I mean, look, look what these people can do:

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

What the hell is that??  They are spinning those pieces of fabric.  The level of multitasking here is bewildering.  I can barely finish this article cause the TV keeps distracting me.  Oh, and then there is this juggling routine at one point that will make you reevaluate the meaning of life.  Like, nobody has a right to be that talented.  I’m going to die, I need a break.

At intermission there is free champagne, popcorn, sodas, cake, etc. for this special preview night.  We’ve already eaten a large seafood dinner and topped it off with Rita’s Italian Ice Blendinis yet the allure of “free” sets my brain into a frenzy.  I have to eat this whole box of popcorn and top it off with a pretzel and piece of cake right now!  I mean it’s free.  FREEEEEEEEE.  Another champagne flute please?  People are frantic, popcorn is strewn all over the lobby floors, I see a bag of gummy worms and contemplate putting in my backpack for later.  My general well being and health disagrees with my definition of “cost”.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

The show continues.  People do more stuff.  There are space helmets and devil sticks and bouncy things.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  Just know that it is fantastic.  Despite the major problems at the beginning of the show, despite the super cheesy Lion King dance number ending, despite everything, this is an experience you should not miss.  In fact, if you’re planning on going, stop looking at these wonderful photos by Kevin and see for yourself.    Just leave really really really early.

Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

Some behind the scenes shots:

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Some spoilers:

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Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

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Cirque du Soleil TOTEM

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