Cirque du Soleil's Totem inspires awe but lacks cohesiveness

Several years after they last graced our shores, the banners are fluttering high on Cirque du Soleil's signature blue and yellow swirled chapiteau tents. As Cirque puts it, Totem is a Darwinian-inspired piece about the evolution of man from amphibian to flight. Though, to be fair, none of us can soar as high as Cirque's artists.

But Creationists need not fret. Only a scant handful of Cirque shows are actually plot-driven and the evolutionary theme in Totem serves only as a vague attempt to lend aesthetic consistency to the show. It would be wise not to try to make too much sense of what unfolds onstage, but to sit back and enjoy the theatrics.

While Cirque shows pride themselves on being refined versions of the typical circus, Totem's artistic director Robert Lepage is careful not to let the production take itself too seriously, straddling a fine balance between whimsy and abstraction. Cirque has been beleaguered by a string of hits and misses over the last few years, but in Totem, Lepage proffers a solid show that is Cirque sans the pretentiousness.

Cirque's casting process is notoriously rigorous, resulting in the ability to put on stage artists who are not only skilled athletes but performers able to embody various characters from amphibian to ape. A pair of gnarly surfer dudes compete for the affections of a female beachgoer in an aerial rings performance that goes from light- hearted to death-defying in a flash, a couple on a trapeze engages in a charming courtship, while an act that is best described as "Native American roller skating princess bride" is a lot more spectacular and less ridiculous that it sounds.

In the explosive opening act, a group of artists swing from a pair of gymnastics high bars, but in portraying the amphibian personas of their characters, keep their toes flexed as they perform their release moves, instead of pointed as gymnasts usually do. This attention to detail is evident throughout the show, from the lighting and staging to the excellent live band.

Totem makes no bones about what it is - a night of pure entertainment. But what it does lack is cohesiveness, and as the show goes on it seems more and more like a series of circus acts rather than a piece of theatre that can be enjoyed as a whole.

Some of the less risky acts consequently seemed more like interludes before the next show- stopper - an artist in a jewelled costume promised so much more than what she performed (spinning carpets on her feet). There are only so many times you can laugh at the inane clown acts before wondering what comes next.

However heavy-handed the older Cirque shows might be, what they did have was pathos, whether in the uplifting, odds-overcoming morality of Varekai (2002) or the melancholy of Alegria (1994). Totem is fun and slick, yet so determined to err on the side of brevity than sentimentality that it lacks those moments of heart- stirring wistfulness that stay with you long after the adrenalin fades.

Then again, when there's a guy dangling upside down from the rafters, encrusted in crystals purely for your viewing pleasure, and others churning out twisting tucked somersaults in the air before landing on a pole only a few inches wide and with no safety mat below, all you can do is gape in awe.

Because that is the point of a trip to the circus, even a highly-evolved one as Cirque du Soleil claims to be.


WHERE: Under the Big Top next to Marina Bay Sands

WHEN: Till Dec 6, Tuesday to Sunday, various times

ADMISSION: $98 onwards from Sistic (go to or call 6348-5555)

This article was first published on Oct 30, 2015.
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