Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem haunts, twirls & thrills
Posted on 4 Mar 2011 by Michael J. Solender
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway there were more thrills, high speed turns and tension than is typically found at the Coca-Cola 600. It all took place under the Grande chapiteau where close to 2200 attendees were spellbound for nearly three hours with Totem, the latest performing arts feast from Cirque Du Soleil.
I’ve been a Cirque-watcher since their nascent days when I lived in Los Angeles in the early 90s and the troupe was struggling to survive. A single company, they performed to initially middling crowds at the Santa Monica Pier. They teetered with bankruptcy and only after resolving some internal strife and ownership issues did they emerge as a viable concern. It was about 1992 when they found the formula that catapulted them to the pinnacle of the “Circus Arts” field.
That show was Saltimbanco and it revolved around a theme which each act in the show was loosely anchored upon. The origins of the fantastic costuming, world music, dance and subtle messaging can be traced back to this show. With close to two dozen separate shows performing all over the world, Cirque has become an industry unto itself employing thousands of personnel, multiple troupes of performers and generating close to $1 billion dollars annually.
Coming off a recent European run, Totem is making its North American debut in Charlotte. The QC has proven to be a hospitable venue for Cirque and if Thursday’s attendance and merchandise procurement was any indication, their run here will be very successful.
And well it should be. Billed as “the fascinating journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly,” the show loosely employs the concept of evolution in its costuming and transition interplay between main performing acts. Multi-colored neoprene frog suits serve to create androgynous performers emerging in the opening act “awakening” from a cleverly designed set that is designed to resemble a backwater pond.
A human glitter ball descends from the high above to the wonder and amazement of the prancing and dancing frog-men cum space aliens. The action is visually stimulating, yet for my money these interludes are merely gilded bridges to the main performances.
The trouble with setting the gold-standard is not simply living up to expectations but topping them. Cirque is constantly searching the world for performance artists who will do just that. The troupe has come to define excellence in acrobatics and that is what dominates this show. With half a dozen main performance acts pre-intermission, each tremendous, two stood out in particular.
Imagine four Asian unicyclists, each woman no taller than five feet, astride six foot tall contraptions, with stacking silver bowls atop their head. Now picture them tossing these bowls, in various combination from their feet to their own and their partner’s heads all while riding forwards, backwards and in circles. The balance, grace and coordination required boggle the mind and these women, permanent smiles on their face, created such dizzying combination that I could only watch transfixed at their skill.
More acrobatics of a different sort was the other show stopper with two twin women, perched upside-down atop specially configured chairs, spinning, twirling and whirling special glitzy rugs with their feet and hands. They would alternatively toss these spinning soft Frisbees back and forth between themselves and then in concluding their act, one of the sisters balanced upon the other’s feet, hanging on with only one arm while each had three rugs spinning on their free appendages. It was truly remarkable.
The set and clowning interludes make for fun eye candy, the high definition projected video creating the various water and lunarscape being of note.
With no let up in pacing, act 2 highlights included the juggling professor who took magic glowing balls, iridescent and ever changing in color to create an absolute frenzy inside a giant glass walled beaker from which he ultimately emerged, fifty years younger than when he went in.
Aerialists, handstand walking apes, silly Italian tourists, chanting Indians and a set that opened with cascading blue light emerging ala-ET created a wild second half show that climaxed with the penultimate act featuring two roller skating Indians. I won’t give too much away but it’s safe to say that Dale Jr. doesn’t approach the rpms that the female half of this act did as with her head in a cushioned loop around that of her partner she spun wildly as he twirled in a death spiral that rivaled Dorothy Hamill.
All the performers are at the top of their game and I could just as easily single out another grouping for discussion. Surprise at what’s next is a key element with a performance such as this and surprise is precisely what you get at Totem, a good one at that.