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Cirque du Soleil's 'TOTEM' Brings Evolution to Life

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

If you grew up being entertained by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, put it quickly out of your mind. Cirque du Soleil is 21st century, different on so many levels from those three-ring circuses, although there still are acrobats and animals – or people dressed as animals, at least in the TOTEM performance showing at Atlantic Station through Dec. 2.

With dazzling colorful costumes, brilliant lights and marvelous music, TOTEM brings to life the evolution of human beings from our initial crawling amphibian shape, evoked by a turtle, to our long-sought ambition to fly. TOTEM’s cast of characters illustrates through acrobatics touched with humor the dreams of Man, as well as his foibles. 

The word “totem” itself represents the order of species. Written and directed by Robert Lepage, known for his unique modern messages and presentations, TOTEM is his second Cirque show.

 “Inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples, TOTEM explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel,” he says. “The word TOTEM suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living species, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the TOTEM.”

Eight different acts, as varied as Chinese performers on unicycles tossing and catching bowls, to stunning acrobats, to a hoops dancer, alternately amazed, frightened and entertained TOTEM’s opening night audience. The large blue and yellow tent opened into an intimate setting that found, first clowns, then various other performers reaching into the appreciative crowd. Cheering and standing ovations expressed the audience’s gratitude.

Nothing in the planning and execution of TOTEM is done by chance. Performers are deliberative and cautious in their movements, some of which are definitely not meant for faint-hearted observers. 

The show’s theme of evolution is reinforced by emphasis on the human body, incredibly performed by amazingly muscular young men and women. The costumes entail meticulous research into real animals and plants along with traditional cultural and tribal designs. Brilliant colors, sequins and intricate patterns of the costumes bring the characters to life.

Three characters tie the show together. The Crystal Man, who opens the show, falls from space to spark life on Earth. We watch as he initially animates the turtle’s skeleton and closes the show by diving into a lagoon. The Scientist is the explorer, reminiscent of Charles Darwin, who visits the various worlds of the show and performs magical experiments. The Tracker is a friend of the animals who assists The Scientist in his explorations.

The stage is visually and elaborately brought to life as a marsh lined with reeds providing the backdrop for an island on which images are projected. Through the moving images, the stage progresses from a swamp to a river source, a lake, an ocean, a volcanic island and a starry sky. The images were shot for production from around the world, in places including Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala.

Cirque founder Guy Laliberte was the first to orchestrate the combination of cultures and artistic and acrobatic disciplines for which Cirque du Soleil has become famous. Since 1984, he has guided a team through the creation of every show and contributed to elevating circus arts to an incomparable artistic discipline. Cirque du Soleil has become an international organization in terms of its performers, directors and the scope of its influence, with activities on five continents.

Jan Jaben-Eilon, a journalist, is a guest blogger for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. She was a founding staff writer of the “Atlanta Business Chronicle.” Since then, she has been the international editor of “Advertising Age” magazine and has written for such publications as “The New York Times,” “International Herald Tribune,” “The Jerusalem Report”, “Washington Journalism Review,” and “Consumer Reports.” Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.


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