By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
If Darwin could juggle….
That seems to be the premise behind Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. I don’t know why it’s called Totem. The press information said the narrative was about evolution; I actually couldn’t find much of a narrative, despite the fact that it was written and directed by the avant-garde French Canadian actor/director/filmmaker Robert Lepage.
But Cirque du Soleil is always fun in a circus-y way—acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns-- and it’s great that it’s back in the Big Top, their signature blue and yellow tents, after several years in Temple’s stadium.
The acts I liked best were the “Russian Bars,” a troupe of ten strongmen whose exotic costumes and gestures made them look like Chinese warriors as they flew through the air, and the “Unicycles and Bowls” performed by five Chinese women on very high unicycles who could flip bowls onto their own and each others’ heads.
One frequent set-up was the flirty, sexy couple; this requires a very strong man who can do one thing (like roller skate very fast in a circle) and a very little woman who is also very strong and who trusts him, literally, with her life. The Indian Princess (the show keeps returning to these indigenous people and their drums) and her Prince, for example, an unlikely pair who emerge from a canoe. In roller skates. The French trapeze artists were the best version of this kind of duo, very daring and very charming.
There are hoop dancers and foot jugglers and all manner of amazing talents: how does anybody do that? is the basic reaction. But most of the acts go on too long, repeating again and again what we’ve already admired.
The most impressive aspect of this show for me was the lighting designed by Etienne Boucher: fascinating projections that looked like water, waves, snow, waterfalls, or a still pool with creatures swimming in it.
Cirque du Soleil has always been known for their exotic and extreme costumes; in Totem there are lots of sparkles and mysterious designs, but they don’t seem to have any real meaning, except of course the monkey who is Darwin’s pal. And speaking of Darwin, it turns out he can juggle—inside a cone with lighted balls whirling around him. Who knew?
Cirque du Soleil at Grand Chapiteau at the Camden Waterfront. Through June 30. Tickets $58-140