Totem; a show of magic, energy and inventiveness

Totem, devised by Robert Lepage
Cirque du Soleil Alexandra Park, Auckland
Until September 28

Once again the magic, the wonder and excitement of a Cirque du Soleil show has hit Auckland and, like the previous extravaganzas, this is a fantastic display of trapeze work, gymnastics, dance and clowning.

The various acts of Totem explore ideas about the evolutionary development of the human race, along with ideas about the creation of totems or cultural icons that various cultures have developed. This involves story telling, creation myths, fables and allegories. This is all made visually exciting by amazing lighting, music, singing, costumes, audio visuals and remarkable inventiveness.

However, as with many of the Cirque du Soleil shows, the story often gets in the way of a good act and the dislocation between what we are told about an act and what we see can be unsettling. The worlds we enter are all fantastic whether it is our prehistory, our primitive beginnings or the contemporary. We are assaulted with a kaleidoscope of colour, music and action.

Unlike previous Cirque shows where there were multiple performers on stage engaged in a variety of actions, in Totem there is a greater focus on individual performances and, where there are a number of performers, they interact in a much more concentrated way, making a much more satisfying show.

Totem has been devised by Robert Lepage, who has produced a number of startling and inventive theatrical works including Needles and Opium at this years Wellington Festival of the Arts. Even though he has kept within the bounds of a normal Cirque work, there are signs of his technical wizardry particularly with the music and the visuals. A large ramp in the centre of the stage is used as a projection area and this transforms the space from a desert to surf to on a beach, crashing rapids and bubbling mud pools, all with the appropriate sounds. The music ranges from classical through Bollywood, flamenco and hip hop providing a continuously changing soundscape.

With Cirque performances, one can often forget that what we are seeing are highly talented performers who are taking their skills to the edge. It is only when something goes wrong that we appreciate just how clever they are. In the unicycle act, which has five performers atop very high cycles, they flicked and kicked around bowls with surprising agility, making them land on each other's heads. And they do it with machine gun speed, all the time riding their unstable bikes. When one bowl fails to land in the right place you realise how good they are and that they are having a much better hit rate than any All Black has at kicking goals and their target is much smaller and moving.

One of the later sequences featured a scientist standing in a large glass laboratory contraption. He performs a contemporary version of juggling by spinning balls of coloured light around the inner surface of the glass shape. These rotating balls create dramatic images which look like the orbits of some complex atomic reaction.

Lepage has replaced the traditional clowns with a couple of Neanderthals who pop up at various points in this evolutionary journey, most tellingly when they encounter a contemporary besuited homo sapiens where they are intrigued by his cell phone, brief case and clothes. This sequence also contains a clever take on evolution with a tableaux showing an evolutionary train from chimps through to humans.

A couple of the acts feature Native Americans in traditional dress highlighting the Canadian roots of Cirque shows. One of these, which seemed slightly tawdry, featured a brave and his Indian maiden in a non- traditional dance on roller skates. Before starting their routine, however, she stripped of her very Indian garb ending up looking like a cabaret pole dancer. However the energy, speed and tension the couple created, spinning on a drum not much more than a metre in diameter was unnerving and breathtaking.

Another couple of lovers featured in a mix of dance and trapeze work with the two performers engaged in the various games of courtship; flirtation, attraction, rejection and making up. All the time they are welded together on the stage or on a trapeze their bodies rippling and intertwining, taking romantic connections and ecstatic love to new heights.

All the acts in Totem are filled with energy and novelty but there is also an enigmatic quality to many of the sequences leaving members of the audience feeling that they experienced something extraordinary.

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