‘TOTEM’ Comes to Irvine

The universe of “Totem” is an abstract, independent world living and breathing inside our own physical universe. The show itself deals with the idea of humanity rising out of its humble beginnings to progress higher and higher on the “totem pole,” but this show needs no theater.

Quebec’s well-known Cirque du Soleil masterpiece “Totem” premiered in April 2010. Written and directed by Robert Lepage, “Totem” houses itself in a transportable circus tent. The 66 foot high Big Top’s blue and yellow patterns evoke the picture of a traditional circus tent, inside a circular stage that presents a world that meshes ideas of nature, mysticism and science with emotions of attraction, all of which feature powerful performances that contain rings, hand balancing, acrobatics and much more.

The show began with a large turtle shell that was stripped away, revealing only the white turtle skeleton and a group of reptiles below, a trampoline track was opened and two bars were used for the acrobats to perform full 360 degree swings changing from bar to bar with the momentum with intervals of flips and twists in the time suspended in the air.

The high energy did not end there. The skeleton was lifted high above the stage revealing the circular stage, its marsh-like wings and smooth rock that was similar to the shape of a tongue stuck out from the mouth of the stage. The flat rock was used as a screen to project images and notify the audience of a changing season or weather.

The rock was not finished, as it had some fancy tricks of its own. At times it rose completely up and over like a flexible scorpion tail, jetted straight out like a walkway, and even formed a small hump to resemble a bridge.

The singing was all live, which was also an impressive feat because of the variances in genres from salsa, to Bollywood to Native American. The singers’ voices rose and fell like ancient symphonies. All of the instrumental was also live composed by two talented men known as Bill and Bob.

All of the acts were amazing and had me clutching my hands together in anticipation. The choreographer Jeff Hall masterfully strategized with performers to begin with basic maneuvers in their repertoire and build suspense into harder, more impressive feats of balance and coordination.

A standout was the five women on 7-foot tall unicycles who balanced bowls on their heads. First they merely pedaled and balanced their unicycle with one foot while holding a bowl with the other foot. Suddenly they threw their bowls, and they landed in a clean clatter back on top of their heads. As the act progressed the girls began to kick numerous bowls to fit neatly back into the other bowls sitting on their head, and then they were kicking bowls to other girl’s heads and back and forth. Though there were a few moments where bowls did drop, it still allowed me to recognize that the hard work and practice never ends for these talented performers.

There were also passionate style acts, such as the amazing roller skating performance that imitated a wedding ceremony. Another more whimsical performance between two, young shy admirers on the fixed trapeze worked in amazing unison and strength, with detailed choreography and stunts.

Ultimately, “Totem” deals with environmental issues and humanity’s struggle to live and rise above the animalistic behaviors, while living in harmony with nature. Humanity is torn between the desire to reach the stars and beyond, and an overwhelming curiosity for the smaller invisible molecules.