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Theatre review: Cirque continues to evolve with Totem

Latest spectacle conceived and written by Canadian theatre icon Robert Lepage

Cirque du Soleil: Totem

Under the Big Top at Concord Pacific Place until July 6

Ttickets: 1-800-450-1480 or go to

Ah, there’s something about pushing aside the tent flap and entering the big blue-and-yellow Cirque du Soleil tent: the smell of popcorn, the anticipation of fearless high-flying aerialists, the clowns working the crowd before the show, the music, the lights. It’s the whole circus package sans elephants, lions and tigers.

And, as always, Cirque is a big, big package fabulously wrapped and explosively presented. Although the title Totem, conceived and written by Canadian theatre icon Robert Lepage, suggests either a First Nations focus or, perhaps, totemic images from other cultures, it’s really an imaginative tracing of humankind’s evolution from primordial swamps — complete with human “frogs” — to a briefcase-toting business man rushing off to work. The frogs certainly look happier and they are definitely more exuberant than “the suit” in the act called “Carapace” where the performers — in fantastic, body-clinging, green spandex — hop and whirl within an open, tortoise-shell framework.

Frogs give way to apes and a couple of cavemen or early Homo sapiens. Threaded through is an outrageous dude called Valentino: an Italian would-be ladies man with slicked back hair and tight yellow trousers. (Not sure where he is on the evolutionary ladder.) Another continuing character amidst all the high tech razzle-dazzle is a fisherman whose re-occurrence throughout Totem harkens back to our early circus experience when a hapless clown in a rowboat could keep us in gales of laughter.

The staging is fantastic with a wide (maybe 12 to 15 metre) sloping performers’ entrance on the surface of which is projected “watery” light — dappled, moving, rippled. It’s like a slow, gently moving waterfall on which boats float and frogs cavort and under which figures appear to swim.

Music is always a huge part of Cirque: percussive and blood-stirring.

But apart from staging, music and costumes, it’s always about the various acts: beautiful, strong bodies performing amazing, gravity-defying stunts: four young girls., none of which appear to be more than 1.5 meters tall, on five tall unicycles. Little brass bowls are tossed from toe to head in neat stacks all the while pedaling back and forth, back and forth to keep the unicycle balanced. Or the hand-balancing act atop a fused set of metal rings — the performer on one hand cantilevered out and striking seemingly impossible poses. The Crystal Ladies turn spinning a cushion cover on your hands and toes into high art and the two on roller skates — especially when he spins her around by her neck — make you hold your breath (and hope she has a good physiotherapist).

The big closing number — 10 guys on flexible Russian bars — is spectacular with aerialists flying through the air and miraculously landing on their feet on the narrow bar.

As with everything Cirque does, the attention to detail is phenomenal: every sequin, ribbon and feather; exquisite makeup; and everyone either in motion or watching with rapt attention.

What started small is now huge — 100 million people have seen a Cirque show. It’s an unmatched Canadian success story in the entertainment industry.

Is it getting too big? This year, Cirque did not hire the local marketing outfit Artsbiz Public Relations, a “boutique” Vancouver company specializing in publicizing arts and entertainment events. Another company with offices from Vancouver to Montreal and with clients from The Gap to Future Shop and Best Buy to Bayer, got the nod. If the co-founder of Cirque, Guy Laliberté (whose worth is estimated at US$2.6 billion), can rocket himself into space aboard a Russian spacecraft, I think he could have kept his feet firmly planted on Vancouver soil and stayed with a local, hands-on PR firm like Artsbiz who has successfully promoted Cirque in this town for the past eight years.

Cirque du Soleil is a big, big show, but sometimes smaller is better.

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