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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

Cirque du Soleil
Concord Pacific Place
May 15-July 6

A  glittery humanoid creature covered in crystals slowly descends from the sky on a wire, gracefully contorting its body into the shape of an O. Silver lamé Spiderman? Human disco ball? Below the creature, under a shell-like structure reminiscent of the illustration of a molecule in chemistry class, a group of what look like alien reptiles sit around what might be a campfire.

Percussive music plays. Magical lighting effects transpire. The reptiles stand and begin to do swings, handstands, flips and other acrobatic feats along the structure of the molecule.

We’re watching human evolution Cirque du Soleil style. Totem has begun.

The latest Cirque show to hit Vancouver is similar to its predecessors. This animal-free circus celebrates the marvels of the body and the imagination with dazzling derring-do. Unbelievably strong, flexible, beautiful humans spin, fly, balance in impossible ways, twisting themselves into shapes human bodies were never meant to take. All of this is accompanied by high-tech sets, cutting edge lighting and projection effects, uptempo choreography and driving world music.

Totem has the usual clowns, too, which I’ve always found to be the least successful elements of Cirque shows. (I’m sure lots of kids and others would disagree.) And the thematics of Totem are typically puzzling.

The story here is “the odyssey of the human species,” the overpriced program explains ($12). You might figure that out yourself based on the show’s visual code that includes people in monkey suits, cavemen, a guy who looks like Darwin, and a flight to the moon. It’s not clear how all the show’s elements fit the theme, but so what.

Canada’s most accomplished theatre artist, Robert Lepage, has written and directed Totem so everything looks and sounds great, the scenic effects are marvellous, and the evolutionary ideas are conveyed mostly through cleverly staged transitions between acts.

But what have we really come to see? The crazy amazing, gravity-defying, physically challenging performances of the international cast. Totem doesn’t disappoint on this score. Here are my personal top ten.

10. A man (Russian Pavel Sabrykin) does an increasingly difficult series of hand-stands atop a DNA-shaped spiral metal platform while a woman who may be an African priestess (the UK’s Esi Kwesiwa Acquaah-Harrison) stands beside him hauntingly singing.

9. Two hunky guys and a sexy girl meet at the beach (the surf created by magical projections and sound effects). The guys take to rings hanging from silks, do some flying breakdancing moves, then are joined by the girl in a muscular aerial ballet.

8. A clown (Ukraine’s Mikhail Usov) goes fishing from a rowboat filled with cooking paraphernalia. He tries to crack an egg on a pot and it bounces. He covers his hands, feet, shoulders and head with metal pots and proceeds to amazingly bounce the egg around his body with a casual comic grace, as if it were nothing at all.

7. A scientist (American Greg Kennedy) stands inside a giant laboratory beaker and rapidly juggles strangely lit balls that change colours as they mysteriously whip at increasing speed around the inside circumference of the beaker while musicians play large test-tubes as if they were tom toms and glass containers of chemicals like a xylophone.

6. Looking like a couple of beautiful Hollywood Indians, a man on roller skates (Italian Massimiliano Medini) spins ridiculously fast atop a drum while holding his female partner (Spain’s Denise Garcia Sorta), who has to keep from being flung out into space while doing various acrobatic tricks. How don’t they fall off the drum?

5. In the grand finale nine Eastern European men perform the “Russian Bars,” three pairs holding the ends of long, narrow, flexible bars only a few centimetres across–like the world’s skinniest trampolines–while the others bounce off them, doing ridiculously high flips and somehow always landing on the bars. Sensational costumes.

4. Four female Chinese unicyclists, balancing high on their cycles, fling metal pots with their feet at a fifth, who catches them on her head and sends them back to the others’ heads with her feet. Even better costumes.

3. A beautiful man and woman (Canada’s Sarah Tessier) flirt and court on a fixed trapeze. Their routine is playful, romantic and beautifully choreographed. Their physical strength is astounding.

2. Two women (Belorussians Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova) spin large, flexible disks that look like pizza dough on their hands and feet while upside down on chairs. This has to be seen to be believed. The coordination alone seems impossible. One of many Totem acts that reveal how articulate our feet can be. Could easily be number one.

1. But for me it was American Shandien Sonwai Larance’s hoop dance. In powwow garb she does astonishing things with up to five wooden hoops in a ferociously beautiful dance at impossible speeds, putting a First Nations exclamation mark on the show’s title.

Jerry Wasserman


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