TOTEM by Cirque du Soleil: A Review

totem cirque du soleil review robert lepage
Photo © Daniel Desmarais for Cirque du Soleil

Bottom Line

A tribute to universal consciousness and the building blocks that connect all forms of life, TOTEM dives head first into the matrix of matter, offering an acrobatic reflection on the connection between modern humans and species preceding it on the evolutionary scale, from amphibians to Neanderthals. Cleverly weaving myth, esoteric knowledge and science, TOTEM primarily concerns itself with totemism, toying with Darwin in the process, and, either deliberately or unwittingly, hints at Kabbalistic thought, ancient Gnosticism, and other creation stories that didn't quite make it into the Bible. Elements of quantum physics are also apparent in writer/director Robert Lepage's creation—no pun. But do you need to know any of this to enjoy Cirque du Soleil's foray in evolutionary commentary? Not at all. Everyone from first graders to retired anthropologists are going to get something out of one of the best productions your humble guide has seen in years.


In the Beginning

In classic Cirque style, the show begins with the audience—a live perk you don't see much on Cirque du Soleil DVDs is how much performers interact with guests before the show—with TOTEM characters roaming the aisles, gently teasing random ticket holders into gleeful submission, with onlookers chuckling away.

As the lights go down, audience harassment is quickly replaced by darkness and what looks like a turtle covering the bulk of the stage, a nod to what seems a nearly universal legend: found in First Nations oral traditions, Hindu lore and Chinese myths, many cultures tell tales of a world propped up by a giant tortoise.

Meanwhile, sounds of what could be a Native American flute or ney fill the Big Top as a light from above descends to meet the turtle, removing its shell with a single touch, revealing a skeletal structure filled with human precursors: amphibians and fish cackling like a Balinese monkey chant. This "light" is called Crystal Man, TOTEM's life force, a faceless spark that sets creation, and TOTEM, in motion.


Round the Highlights

"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves." - Black Elk, Oglaga Sioux, 1863-1950


Twirls, jumps, aerials and light contortions, TOTEM mirrors the circle of life, featuring hoop dances, rings, juggling and countless spins, outdoing itself from one act to the next. From five unicyclists throwing bowls on top of each others' heads without using hands to Crystal ladies creating the Earth by engaging in the most attractive feat of foot juggling I've ever seen, I'd be giving away the whole show if I listed all the highlights. However—you can blame the hopeless romantic in me—there are a couple more I need to share: a trapeze duo engaged in a chemistry-bursting push-and-pull dance of seduction got me going as did a First Nations inspired act on roller skates. High on drama and sensuality as they spun in unison atop a small, 1.8 metre-wide drum, I'm not sure if it was the choreography or the rapport between the two, but I got shivers watching them.


On a Different Note

A chunk of TOTEM's charm is the music itself, created by Cirque du Soleil regulars Bob & Bill, the duo behind Cirque's 20th Anniversary production Midnight Sun. An upbeat blend featuring too many cultural influences to keep track of, a bit of Bollywood, First Nations drumming, hints of ambient, world beat, didgeridoo, and a taste of flamenco are easy to spot in the score.


"I've Already Seen Cirque du Soleil Live. Is This Just More of the Same?"

Yes ... but no. TOTEM features disciplines new to Cirque du Soleil, including roller-skating and hoop dancing. As for backdrops, Pedro Pires' video projections bring a new dimension to the Cirque stage as it morphs from water to grass to molten lava, projections made possible by images he filmed from around the world, including in Iceland, Guatemala and Hawaii. And the costumes, created by Kym Barrett, the designer behind The Matrix, dazzle in ways no Cirque costumes have before. Literally. The Crystal Man's costume, for example, is encrusted with no less than 4,500 crystals and mirrors which give the illusion of a spinning ball of light when the performer twirls.

And every Cirque production team brings something different to the table. Under the seasoned watch of actor/film writer/director/dancer/opera director/outdoor mega-production creative director/playwright/KÀ creator Robert Lepage, his creative team, including long-time collaborator Neilson Vignola, are obviously working their magic. A synergy evident in every eye roll and finger flick timed to the music, in scene transitions that are scenes unto themselves, in costumes with still life—feathers, crystals, insects—woven into the fabric, TOTEM is ripe with eye-catching visuals and histrionics, and yet the subtler details shine through, minor touches that ultimately make the difference between good and genius.


In the End

Don't expect a clear-cut, chronological examination of human evolution from its origins as primordial goo to what the species could be tomorrow. In fact, don't count on TOTEM making much sense at all: one minute, it's the beginning of time, the next, a toreador is helping Darwin extend his life expectancy. But that's the whole pointTOTEM is supposed to be a linear mess, a conceptual walk through the ties that bind us all, fish and humans, apes and cosmonauts, a plot-free series of vignettes seamlessly shifting from comedy to drama, mixing and matching time lines, places, and possibilities.


Want a Second Opinion?

Concerned I'm as objective as Robert Lepage's fan club? Can't blame you. So I asked a couple of ladies sitting behind me what they thought of the show.

Audette Desjardins said "I liked the roller skaters. I'd never seen that before. But I thought the size of the drum was a little small for what they had to do. I was afraid they were going to fall off!" Her sister, Carole, had a soft spot for the trapeze couple and was also partial to the clowns (I didn't mention them earlier, but their antics were spot on): "I liked the intervals with the [clowns] between acts." Audette chimed in, "they were actually funny!" Carole added she enjoyed the water projections onstage and images of space during the Russian Bars act, images that were taken by Guy Laliberté when he traveled to outer space in September 2009.

But did they think TOTEM was different from previous Cirque productions they'd seen? Both Audette and Carole had previously attended OVO and Corteo and both said that although Cirque du Soleil has similar acts from show to show, each production is different. But which one was their favorite show? "OVO," they echoed. Why? Carole thought a scene involving The Scientist was fun but a little long and Audette was disappointed there was no group trapeze act. But when I asked them if their $135 tickets were worth it—admission ranges from $45 to $135 to $260 for V.I.P. seats with pre-show cocktails and wine—the sisters concurred in near unison "yes, oh yes."

In line with's and the New York Times Company's full disclosure policy, readers should be aware that the writer was provided with a complimentary ticket for the purpose of reviewing TOTEM, a common procedure in the entertainment industry. Also note that the latter gratuity has not influenced this review. For more information on full disclosure at, please consult our ethics policy.

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