Review: With ‘Totem,’ Cirque du Soleil soars

Here’s just some of what you’ll see under the Grand Chapiteau — the huge tent — set up at Camden’s waterfront for “Totem,” the breathtaking, beautiful show that Cirque du Soleil opened here Thursday night:

• Two buff guys — Olli Torkel from Finland and Gael Ouisse from France — each holding on to large rings that suddenly take them airborne. Alevtyna Titarenko, a vision in pink and sequins from Ukraine, eventually joins them up there. With her one hand jutting forward and holding a ring, and her other holding a ring and outstretched to her side, you can be forgiven for believing she is actually flying.

• Two women — Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova from Ukraine — who spin large fabric pieces on their upstretched feet and their hands. They toss these spinning pieces across the stage to one another. And just when you think they’re over the top, they are over the Big Top, with a finale that is probably, for anyone else on earth, impossible to perform.

• Five Chinese women who ride tall unicycles as if they were doing a choreographed dance. This would be enough, but then they begin tossing metal bowls with their knees and catching them on their heads. After that, they toss the bowls to each other, catch them on their heads in unison or in rhythm, like some computerized fantasy. They are thrilling.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

• Philadelphian Greg Kennedy, a Drexel graduate who eventually ran off and joined the circus, sort of. He is a master juggler. He gets inside a huge see-through cone and juggles lighted balls that he also rolls on the cone’s inside surface, creating striking light patterns he controls by simultaneously catching and tossing balls in split seconds.

And then there are the clowns. Mykhaylo Usov (Ukraine) is exceptional in a boating skit that he begins by tossing an anchor overboard — completely. And Pippo Crotti (Italy) is the one who walks through life clueless. And people playing monkeys and frogs, and others dressed as Indians (it is, after all, called “Totem”) who do things with hoops, or acrobats flipping wildly on thin planks called Russian bars.

When Massimiliano Medini (Italy) and Denise Garcia-Sorta (Spain) performed a centrifugal-force routine on a small raised disk — and on roller skates — for a few seconds I averted my eyes. It was too dangerous to watch. But then, I couldn’t help myself.

Canada’s actor-playwright-director Robert Lepage wrote the concept for the show and directed it to do what Cirque does best — present highly specialized acts in a surreal context. The show’s multimedia displays are magnificent. A stage shaped like an arc is constantly lit with images of water or ice or some scene befitting the act that comes out from the rear of the stage, which is lined with huge bulrushes. From there, the performers take to a main stage. The effect can be a jaw-dropping blend of real life and filmed media as, say, a fog rises from a filmed ice floe while performers float around the stage.

The music is, as always, a mood-inducing blend of sweet and heart-pumping tunes, and the singers deliver lyrics composed of phrases from many languages — or babble from none.

If you have never seen the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, which a few decades back changed the notion of a circus, now is your time. If you have seen Cirque, “Totem” gives you a reason to see it again. For me, Cirque is the world’s leader in spectacle, and it offers a defiant exploration of human potential.

Nowhere in “Totem” is this more obvious than a performance by the handsome Guilhem Cauchois (France) and Sarah Tessier (Canada), the sweetest thing you will ever see on a trapeze. They play characters in the act of chasing love and falling in it, with all the coyness and playfulness and promise of that pursuit. At the same time, they are doing the impossible on a trapeze — stunning stuff, falling all over each other, hanging by the fingers from ropes or from the trapeze bar or from one another in an act of strength and beauty that uses gravity and also abuses it. It’s intricate and perilous and pure Cirque — a prayer for, and a celebration of, having a body and being alive.

“Totem” by Cirque du Soleil runs through June 30 under the blue and yellow tent at the Camden Waterfront, One Cooper Street. or 1-800-450-1480.


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal