Cirque du Soleil: Serenity Under the Big Top

photo credit: Evan Witek

Totem, Cirque du Soleil, Marine Industrial Park, 6/10/12-7/15/12,

(Boston, MA) It’s not logical or, frankly, believable that a circus featuring so many acrobats in body stockings could be capable of such grace.  In performance, style, and message, though, Cirque du Soleil’s Totem is enthralling.  I found the show unique and lovely among Boston’s other attractions this month.

Totem strings together a series of vignettes all related (in some way) to biology, human history, and the relationship between them.  With motifs like frogs and a man dressed entirely in silver, acts are both memorable and numerous.  Stand-outs include a scientist juggling balls lit with LED lights inside a test tube and two trapeze artists re-enacting a tumultuous courtship on a swing suspended over the stage.  Even a man doing a simple Native American hoop dance lingers long after he’s left the spotlight of the arena.

Probably the most heart-stopping performance is one involving men in monkey (business) suits, monkeys, and perches that serve as a literal totem.  The men, freed from the suits that swathe their bodies in contemporary culture, become free to scale a precariously balanced structure.  This comes at the end of the first half and, up until this point, the show has moved at a languid pace.  After intermission, Totem is tight and rapturous.

Cirque du Soleil fosters a close-knit atmosphere.  The sense of camaraderie stretches out into the audience.  During a Chinese unicycle performance that involved balancing bowls, when it looked as if one person was about to fall, there was a sense of urgency and group worry in the theatre over her fate.  No audience member seemed to be particularly entertained by the thought of a hard-working performer falling down.

With high stakes acrobatics and no animals to speak of, Cirque du Soleil has made its reputation as the “new” circus of the 21st century.  Totem, itself, will have many admirers.  The only qualms an audience member would have with it is that there’s no unified narrative.  It’s a show segmented into parts, complete with clowns and more serious turns of fancy, with images that eventually run together or, as the end seems to indicate, were part of each other all along.

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