Under the big top

Cirque Du Soleil’s TOTEM is a delightful, if haphazard, romp through evolution. 

The Canadian-based circus brand is known for masterful acrobatic performances set against lush imagery, and TOTEM lives up to that billing. The show ‘traces humankind’s incredible journey’, according to creator Robin Lepage, ‘with scenes from the story of evolution randomly linked together in a chain’.

Randomly is right. The show leapfrogs across timezones, from the origins of life, to a modern beach setting, to a scientist’s laboratory complete with life-sized test tubes filled with coloured potions. So although the opening act starts with the spark of life on earth, the rest of the show is hardly chronological in its depiction of man’s journey through time.

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Performers swing, crawl and climb around a giant tortoise shell that represents the origins of life on earth.

But if there is any confusion, it melts away quickly in the spectacle. This isn’t theatre, I tell myself, it’s the circus, and if its job is to entertain, then it succeeds tremendously. In the opening number, artistes clad in the multicoloured hues of reptiles and amphibians swing on parallel bars, up to four of them at a time, within a structure that represents a giant tortoise shell. Around them, other performers slither and crawl around the skeletal structure, bodies supple and sinewy like the fish and frogs they represent. Designer Kym Barett’s costumes are a visual treat, neon hues ablaze in the sea of movement. And the live orchestra, singers and drummers bring to life Guy Dubac and Marc Lessard’s score to create luscious backing music that reverberates around the tent.

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Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois play out a vertical dance of flirting and seduction while dangling from a single trapeze.

The cast demonstrates that they are just as quietly masterful in the simpler numbers. Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois perform a vertical dance on a trapeze, playing out the flirting and seduction of young lovers. He wears only a pair of tights; she is clad in a yellow and green tunic – no dazzling costumes here, just a seemingly effortless series of lifts and turns as they scale up and down each other’s bodies. Often, Cauchois lifts Tessier’s lithe frame by only a wrist, or an ankle, himself dangling upside down by his knee joints, and their pair elicits gasps from the audience at their more audacious stunts even as Tessier’s smiles serenely amid her aerial contortions.

Less effective are the comedic acts. In one scene, apes gambol around the stage, eventually depicting the different stages of evolution from monkey to man – complete with business suit and briefcase. But in a bizarre turn, they tear apart his clothes and grab his modern-day tools, until he is clad only in boxers, chattering and chasing them around the stage. If there was humour or artistry in that scene, it eluded me.

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TOTEM depicts the evolution of humankind, from monkey to Man.

The show, while excellent, is not without its missteps. There are dropped hoops by the Amerindian artiste as he attempts to juggle and spin five of them in unison, and often the quintet of unicyclists tossing bowls onto their heads use their hands to guide the metal tableware into place. Perhaps these are opening night kinks that will be worked through in the days to come. But they are a minor distraction from the mastery these performers demonstrate – the unicyclists do nail the more difficult stunts, including one where four of them catch bowls tossed from their fellow performer behind her back.

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Unicyclists toss bowls into a growing stack that they balance in their heads. 

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Performers bound off Russian bars, dressed as cosmonauts to represent Man’s quest for flight and space.

Because where it matters, TOTEM soars, like the closing act where two artistes bound astonishingly high on Russian bars – balance beams supported on the shoulders of fellow cast members that bend and rebound as the performers land and somersault off them. I watch, slack-jawed like the rest of the audience around me, and collectively we hope they will land safely from that series of twists and back flips.

Of course they do. TOTEM is world-class, two hours of entertainment in light, sound, movement and magic.

TOTEM runs from 28 October to 6 December under the big top next to Marina Bay Sands. Tickets at $98-328 from Sistic.

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