Entertainment » Theatre

With ’Totem’ Cirque Returns, This Time on Evolution

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 28, 2013

Those blue and yellow Cirque du Soleil big tops (aka The Grand Chapteau) is presently camped on the Camden Waterfront this week for their production Totem. Created by opera director extraordinaire Robert LePage, best-known these days for his production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle at New York's Metropolitan Opera. With its massive, unit set of interlocking, movable planks, the production was both highly praised and damned since the first opera in the series, "Das Rheingold," premiered in 2010. Like that production, "Totem" is just as high-concept with its phantasmagoric visuals that speculate on the evolution of species.

The show has toured Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and United States. It's recent appearance in New York led to a 2013 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. "Totem" explores the idea of evolution, from man's primordial, amphibious state to his quest for space travel; and it is told by Cirque's extraordinary troupe of acrobats, clowns, singers, and dancers (some 46 from 15 countries), along with an elaborate, state-of-the-art production that takes some 74 trucks to move from city to city.

Earlier this month, Tim Smith, the tour’s artistic director, along with some cast members talked about the show. "With this type of diversity, artists are used to working differently. The biggest reward is when we do indeed arrive all on the same page and art is made," he observed.

"This show has this opulent style and theatricality. It is really is a feast for the senses. Lepage and the Cirque creative team designed ’Totem’ in a way that would specifically push circus to new dimensions. It takes you through the evolution of humans and the beginning of our species as we know it, (from existing) in water and to reaching for the sky, " Smith said.

When "Totem" played London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2011, the critic from the Guardian wrote: "By far the most enjoyable act was on the fixed trapeze, where a man and woman in mustard yellow had an unusually close encounter. The act benefited from having something approaching a narrative. It was almost Adam and Eve (although, in the circus, you are not allowed to fall). This was a man and a woman discovering one another and testing limbs, as if for the first time. Jeffrey Hall’s choreography builds on the notion of newness and even of occasional (highly rehearsed) clumsiness, as the two figures involve themselves in a series of unexpected knots and become to each other a burden, a plaything, a second self.

In the current production, Guilhem Cauchois, who trained in the circus from age seven, is one-half of this couple. "My partner Sarah and I play a young couple discovering love. So we integrate high acrobatic skills into that storyline," he explained. "We are in the air, flying."

The duo trained at National Circus School in Montreal and joined "Totem" six months ago. They recently won the gold metal from the illustrious Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain in Paris.

"Guilhem and his partner combine hand-to-hand acrobatics, bodies moving together 40 feet in the air on a static trapeze," adds Smith. "It’s not moving in the traditional sense of this discipline, that relies on velocity. It is a routine of amazing precision and daring which requires a high degree of trust between them."

Among the 13 acrobatic disciplines there are characters to visually narrate the story of evolution - The Tracker, The Amerindian Dancer, The Crystal Man and, back on the ground, The Scientist played by juggler Greg Kennedy, who has been with "Totem" from the start.

Kennedy describes his part as "a scientist and witness to evolution," He has developed specialized props and apparatus. Already an engineer before he got the part, he already knew the physics of juggling.

"I could juggle since I was a kid and I went to engineering school," he explained, "then in 1997 I took a leave of absence from my engineering job and never went back. I was spending a lot of time developing modern forms of juggling using engineering principals. We reinvented what is possible for juggling in ’Totem.’ The balls I use are rigged by a lighting board and whiz around me like atoms."

"Totem" has worked with many dance troupes that combine acrobatic skills at The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, which he and his wife Shanna founded in 1999 in Germantown. It is one of the few schools for new circus arts in the country. The couple has three kids and the whole Kennedy family has been on tour with "Totem," traveling the globe making globes and children of all ages, travel around him.

Kennedy says that many disciplines are being combined at Cirque du Soleil that could never have imagined before as part of a circus. "All of the object manipulation, not to mention body sculpturing, in dance troupes like Momix and Pilobolus, are new art forms" are incorporated in "Totem."

Totem will be on the Camden, NJ Waterfront from May 30-June 30 for complete information check www.cirquedusoleil.com

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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