‘Totem’ at Cirque du Soleil at National Harbor by Amanda Gunther

The mysteries of man’s evolution set down under the bright blue and yellow big top is a stunning creation from Cirque Du Soleil rolls into Washington DC – Totem. A fascinating journey that traces the human species from its amphibious origins right through to man’s desire to fly enveloping ancient legends and myths to bring such a phenomena to the stage, this unique performance is unlike any circus you’ve ever seen before. The infinite potential of man and his ties to other species is put to the test through death-defying aerial feats, intense acrobatic stunts, and a series of wondrous visual spectacles you must see to believe.

Under the artistic guidance of Cirque’s founding artists Guy Lalibertè and Gilles Se-Croix, Writer/Director Robert Lepage and Creation Director Neilson Vignola compose a world of mystical proportions that transports the audience to an ethereal swamp on the edge of time. The brilliance of their vision is breathtaking; a stunning ethos of magic, mysticism, and awe culminating into a world all its own; vastly unique with hints of the familiar that invite the audience into the surreal world of Totem.

Hoops Dancer Part 1 (Eric Hernandez). Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Set Designer Neilson Vignolamolds a universe in which the impossible can happen. The giant turtle, a long standing creationism legend, becoming his centerpiece for the bog shrouded by evening twilight; the tall reeds and subdued serene blue that penetrates everything surrounding it creating a world where ancient illusions can arise from the swirls of mist that haunt the stage like wisps of spirits.

Enhancing this creation with their unique ability to blur the lines of genres and styles into new sounds are composers Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, better known as ‘Bob & Bill.’ This duo crafts a soundtrack that inspires many of the acrobatic and aesthetically pleasing acts that follow throughout the show, each number intricately interwoven into the movement of the performers, unifying the piece as one evolving event rather than just an act set to music. The wondrous compositions that accompany this show are available for purchase both at the show and through the Totem website.

The level of sheer talent witnessed in this production is jaw-dropping as these sensational acrobats attempt and succeed to perform amazing feats with awe-inspired costumes, designed by Kym Barrett. The Crystal Man (Joseph Putignano) who is a representation of a pulsing life force, often descending from above, is covered in 4,500 reflective twinkling surfaces. Many of the other costumes have deep naturalistic the whimsical fantasy of this show to completion with her designs leaving the performers in nothininspirations, such as the movement of real animals and native cultural influences. Barrett brings g short of eye-popping outfits.

Unicycles. Photo by Daniel Auclair of Cirque du Soleil.

Each act tells a unique portion of this abstract story, winding its way from the beginning of time when the amphibians leap out of the great pool of life, in an opening act called ‘Bars (Carapace)’ featuring the amphibious tadpole like creatures Mark Freeman, Umi Miya, Fabio Santos and Caoliang Wang; all the way to the end where man has evolved to a full upright group of balancing artists on ‘Russian Bars.’ This final performance number involves the use of floppy spring-loaded balance beam-like bars where a group of ten acrobats perform complex flips, jumps, spins and other leaps of amazement unharnessed and un-tethered over these single strips of flexible rubber.

The sheer muscular strength of many of these performers is shocking. Not only are many of these performers able to support their full weight on one hand, like Hand Balancer Pavel Saprykin, many of them are able to do so while swinging high above the crowd, inverted while contorting their bodies into intense positions of sculpture-like art; the prime example of this trick being showcased by Yann Arnaud and Olli Torkkel in the ‘Rings Duo.’

Not only are these performers strong but they are graceful and fluid; each movement exploring this notion of creation through a sophisticated relationship of motion and emotion; their bodies becoming vessels of existence that portray the sensations of time moving through man. The core strength alone required to support some of the balancing acts, like the five fabulous females on unicycles – HAO Yuting, HE Xuedi, WEN Xin, WU Yurong, and ZHANG Jie – is beyond intense, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats watching them on these gravity – defying bikes that are easily eight feet high. This is one of the most captivating acts in the show, receiving the loudest applause and thunderous cheers for every successful trick performed.

Roller Skates (Massimiliano Meini and Denise Garcia-Sorta). Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

The thing that makes this performance so unique, aside from everything that I’ve already mentioned, is the fusion of digital projections as a part of the set design. Image Designer Pedro Pires literally creates visual miracles with the projections used throughout the show. Water, playing a large unifying theme, is projected onto planks of the stage and it looks so real that for a moment it doesn’t appear as a projection, but as actual water. This enhances many scenes, especially the scenes where the clowns (Pippo Crotti and Mykhaylo Usov) are speed boating in shark infested waters. Pires brings an added element of nature to the show through his incredible projections; an effort not likely to be found at any other circus in the world.

Totem is amazing – the greatest show on earth since the advent of the original circus – incorporating the notion of humans as animals, acrobatics as expressions, and music as emotion. The show is a brilliant success and is not to be missed while here in DC at The National Harbor.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one thirty minute intermission.

Cirque Du Soleil Totem plays performances through October 7, 2012 at National Harbor, in Washington DC. For tickets, please call (800) 450-1480, or purchase them online.


Here is a special discount for Totem for DC Theater Arts readers.

Read Joel Markowitz’s interview with Eric Hernandez – The Hoop Dancer of Totem.


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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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