Review: Cirque du Soleil’s Totem


Singapore’s the first Asian city that will play host to Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, seeing the return of the signature blue-and-yellow grand circus tents that can accommodate more than 2,600 people.


If you don’t remember their last Big Top show on our shores 10 years ago, Saltimbanco (which didn’t play in the tents in 2012 here), haven’t seen 1 of its 20-plus performances playing across the world, or caught the many Cirque du Soleil productions already out in DVD, you may not know why these command ticket prices in the hundreds of dollars. They are seen as high art circus extravaganzas because they are typically sophisticated, well-orchestrated, lavishly costumed and intelligent stories with athletic acrobatics woven in. Another distinctive: No animals, ferocious or cute, are paraded.


Except animals are a necessary part of Totem, which debuted in 2010, seeing it purports to trace the evolution of humans from the amphibian state to “its ultimate desire to fly”. True to its creed, the part of these creatures (including frogs and primates) are played, sometimes to comic effect, by humans. One ape flipped upside down, its back facing the audience with an ape mask on its buttocks, making it seem as if the ape’s hands and legs were interchangeable. It even went into the audience, picked up someone’s tub of popcorn, and excitedly waved it around, spilling popcorn onto the audience.



While the company is Canadian, Totem’s 46-strong cast, like all its productions before, features performers from many countries, 17, in this case, such as China, Ukraine, Belarus and Germany. Many of these are also countries with a long tradition of acrobatic skills and circus acts, so this isn’t surprising.


But with a theme like evolution, casting most of the non-white Anglo Saxon talents as the tribal, earlier incarnations of modern or future Man makes a somewhat derogatory statement that’s not much different from the whitewashing we get from Hollywood director.


What also makes the story development problematic is that it doesn’t unfold chronologically, which makes for some confusion especially when no words are ever spoken and all understanding must come through the self-evident acts and acting.


But all this didn’t prevent Totem, written and directed by Robert Lepage, from winning The Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience in 2013. Lepage is the mastermind behind another Cirque production, , staged in Las Vegas, in 2004.


The show is peppered with attention to little details that left an impression; such as the opening act, featuring performers who resembled amphibians, thanks to their scaly spandex suits and bending their knees in mid air as frogs would, while performing an act on parallel bars. Gymnasts would have done so in a more aerodynamic way, keeping their feet straight and pointed.

Totem’s opening act features performers in scaly spandex suits on the high bars.


Specific to this very theme was a scene where a group of primates and Neanderthals lined up and trailed a man dressed in a suit, giving a nod to the evolutionary chart we’ve seen countless times. Less impressive was a scientist modeled after father of evolution Charles Darwin who juggled color-changing LED balls within a human-sized inverted cone.



Totem did etch in our minds a couple of memorable acts, but it falls short of a mind-blowing theatrical production due to a few forgettable filler acts.


We were thrilled by a man hanging on a trapeze holding a female only by her neck as she does a spilt in mid air. Another “futuristic” act with performers in psychedelic spandex suits had the audience waiting with bated breath as the performer pauses and braces himself seconds before he jumps, performs twists in mid-air and lands back onto Russian bars as wide as a palm’s span held firmly by 2 broad-shouldered men. As there were no safety harness or mats, these performers had to be very precise.



Besides risky, gravity defying acts, a quintet of Chinese ladies on the unicycle delighted the audience with their precise aim by tossing a bowl with their foot onto a stack of bowls on their head, while remaining balanced on the unicycle with the other foot. Perfect synchronism aside, these women begin upping the difficulty level and eventually 1 even flipped a bowl backwards to land on another lady’s head.



There were a few forgettable acts that seemed inserted into the program just for the sake of it. For example, a lady decked in a white sparkly suit just spun bejeweled small square cloths with their hands and feet while lying down, which seemed monotonous compared with adrenalin-pumping acts like the roller-skating couple who spun so fast their figures seemed to blend into one.


The clowns in Totem don’t have red noses nor did they perform any juggling or magic tricks. But they did keep the mood light with teasing some seated audience members, and wordless story telling reminiscent of Mr Bean. Overdoing the sauciness, however, makes them only funny the first time.


If we’re going to judge Totem’s concept seriously, then most acts failed to effectively merge and converge to tell a solid theatrical story about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The actual acrobatic skills also seemed to have nothing to do with the cultures, for example the Native American tribes, that the performers were costumed in.


But then again, this is a circus performance, at heart. The mostly-sequined costumes were stunning, the live music was impeccable and the skilled acrobatic displays make it a largely entertaining show.


Also to be applauded is Totem’s clever use technology that transformed a part of the stage into waves of water for one scene and bubbling lava for another via projectors from above. Impressively, a long strip of the stage can be extended or even curled back like a flexible scorpion’s tail. The platform created the perfect entry, or exit, for quite a few of the scenes.


Rating: 3.5/5



Venue: Inside the Big Top, next to Marina Bay Sands

Event period: Oct 28 to Dec 6, 2015

Ticket prices (excludes booking fee): $98, $138, $168, $188, $308, $328, and $495

Duration: Estimated 2 hours and 25 minutes (includes a 25-minute interval) Doors open 1 hour before the show. Some cast members mingled with the audience minutes before the show started.

Photos courtesy of Base Entertainment Asia