It takes a genius to reinvent the wheel, but that’s what Robert Lepage is and what he’s done for Cirque du Soleil with “Totem,” their newest touring show. At first glance, “Totem” may look like the other Cirque touring shows, with its three-quarter round playing arena, orchestra upstage and central scenic element hanging overhead. But it takes very little time to realize that while Lepage may be duplicating the exterior shape of previous shows, the interior content is something completely different.The concept of “Totem,” unlike some of Cirque’s productions, is easy to grasp. It tells the story of man’s evolution from his aquatic beginnings, through his amphibious adolescence, all the way to his desire to fly like the birds. Lepage and his longtime scenic collaborator, Carl Fillion, have turned this conceptual simplicity into a highly sophisticated execution. Tall marsh grasses grow upstage, masking the orchestra and a motorized drawbridge connects that area with a downstage space on which a spectacular assortment of textural projections are placed. One actually believes that fires are blazing, tornadoes are swirling and waters are rising, all on the same slightly raked oval disc, making for an extremely accomplished use of projection. The circus acts that carry Le-page’s message of evolution are more sophisticated, or at least seem so in presentation, than those found in many other Cirque shows. Lepage has taught his gymnasts and tricksters to act, so that the expressions on their faces some-times rival the legerdemain of their bodies. And in Kym Barrett’s frankly sensual costumes, the same performers acquire an open sexuality seldom encountered in the G-rated world of Cirque. Nothing too openly erotic takes place, but the beautiful physicality of these performers is put on display and celebrated. However, even Lepage’s invention can flag and the show’s second act isn’t up to its first, with too much of an emphasis on more conventional gymnastics, impressive though they might be. Still, there is no question that “Totem” is one of the most impressive touring creations in Cirque’s history and is bound to have a long and happy life around the world.
Le Grand Chapiteau, Montreal; 2,675 seats; C$135 $133 top
A Cirque du Soleil presentation of a show in two acts, written and directed by Robert Lepage.
Set and props, Carl Fillion; costumes, Kym Barrett; lighting, Etienne Boucher; Bob and Bill, composers and musical directors. Opened, reviewed April 28, 2010. Runs through July 11. Running time: 2 HOUR, 30 MIN.