Writer and Director: Robert Lepage
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The combination of circus and evolutionary science may not seem like an obvious pairing but in theory Cirque Du Soleil are on to something with their new show Totem. At The Royal Albert Hall, made even more regal by the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, this premiere builds on Cirque Du Soleil’s work in exploring the extraordinary elasticity, strength and precision of the human body. But a surfeit of laboured storytelling draws attention away from the acrobatic skills and tricks the audience has really come to see.
Opening in a giant symbolic turtle, a group of amphibious creatures swing from the high bars in variated patterns as they explore new forms of movement. Over the next 2.5hours Totem follows the process of humanisation, presenting a series of set pieces that examine mutation, seduction, narrative traditions, scientific advance and eventually flight, treating the audience to an international smorgasbord with influences from China, Greece, Spain, Africa and Italy as well as Bollywood and Amerindian culture.
In practice, the show unfolds at a rather uneven pace and, while the circus skills are as dazzling as ever, the overall structure is rather more puzzling. Totem contains 14 separate sections each aligned with a specific circus skill that showcases the wide-ranging talents of this renowned company, but too often there are long preambles to establish a location or style before the performers can really impress.
In an attempt to be inclusive and to represent the heritage of their international company, there are just too many elements in competition as visual design, sets, costumes and scripted patter compete for attention. Each skit has its own storyline that has a lengthy introduction while the weaker clownish elements are frustrating, including a ping pong ball being bounced on some pots, a speedboat in need of a jump start and the occasional bit of audience interaction, largely working in a different tone to the rest of the show.
What you want from a Cirque Du Soleil show is spectacle and although a science-based piece in Act Two with illuminated juggling in a glass tube is surprisingly underwhelming, when Totem gives the performers the space to showcase their skills, they really wow us. Best among them are Marie-Christine Fournier and Louis-David Simoneau whose intimate and intricate trapeze routine is daring and full of amazing feats from breath-taking drop-catches to incredible displays of strength as Simoneau, himself hanging upside down, supports Fournier’s head as the spin effortlessly in mid-air.
Equally jaw-dropping are Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini whose roller skate routine on circle drum takes a number of stunning and dangerous lifts from ice dancing and delivers them at an incredible speed. At one point the pair are connected only by Garcia-Sorta’s headband fixed around Medini’s neck creating a double rotation as the fly around their narrow circle with incredible accuracy.
There is mind-bending work from contortionist Nyamgerel Gankhuyag who creates the most unlikely shapes, able to arch her back so her feet and head meet, a group of five unicyclists who manage some great catching tricks, while Zhan Iordanov, Aliaksei Liubezny provide exceptional control and balance as they bounce between the moving Russian bars.
The over-engineered theatricality of this new Cirque Du Soleil piece is just a distraction from the fantastic series of circus performances at its heart. Totem doesn’t really need the over-wieldy story structure to make a point about the brilliance of evolution because the company prove that every time they begin a routine, demonstrating the dexterous development and stamina of the body.
Runs until 26 February 2019 | Image: Cirque Du Soleil