Totem – the newest Cirque du Soleil concoction taking over the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park – is a look at evolution filtered through the kind of dazzling human circus tricks we’ve come to know and expect from the troupe.
There’s a human disco ball, who descends from the roof and spins, majestic, alien. There’s a great sight gag that recreates the famous March of Progress illustration, where the man has a briefcase and mobile phone instead of a spear. There are lizards, men on beaches trying to impress a lady (yawn), a scientist who is basically Darwin, and also unicyclists who toss bowls from head to head (dressed in exaggerated Asian exoticism).
It’s a little bit troubling, though, and not just because the production has more flash than heart, and not just because of the exaggerated stereotypical makeup. There’s more.
The tricks are as good as they ever are, but they’re dusted over with a dose of cultural appropriation that can’t help but make the whole thing create in some a clear sense of unease.
It’s no secret that appropriating religious (or traditional) wear from other cultures blithely, for entertainment purposes, is not something we should be doing anymore. Totem is a particular kind of cultural insensitivity – the kind that probably really means to celebrate other cultures of the world, but manages to be tone-deaf in doing so. No one has gone into this with any kind of ill intent, but when there are hundreds of articles, thinkpieces, and videos, and that’s just online, dedicated to explaining how offensive it is when a cultural or religious symbol is adopted for entertainment and removed from its history or purpose, maybe we should start paying attention?
The thing is, when a dominant culture takes a symbol and makes it their own, it’s another way of demonstrating a power over a marginalised group. You can’t have everything, people, especially not if you’re going to put roller skates on it and make it a circus act.
Robert Lepage, the director, consulted with First Nations elders before the work was premiered, but the thing is, the show still makes these other worlds feel exotic, different, other, and that’s not actually a great thing. Why not look at casting the traditionally attractive beachgoers as non-white, instead of making them magical, mystical performers?
To be the same show, only not discomfiting, Totem would actually have to be altered a little bit to be a little more sensitive. You can dance an energetic Bollywood-inspired number without wearing a bindi or making a sari be some mystical outsider garb, and we will still understand it’s Bollywood-inspired by other indicators – the bright colours, the particular movements of hands and feet. The duo doing partnering turns on roller skates can keep on keeping on, but how about they don’t wear the headdresses? (Empire did a similar, surprisingly effective, routine earlier this year). Why have a lazy Italian stereotype when you can tell the same story without it?
If we constantly, unthinkingly accept these instances of cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity, it just means we keep not listening to other cultures or to minority groups. It means we continue to be a culture that probably isn’t going to react to casual racism either, and is that actually who we want to be?
Totem is a very nice show with amazing feats of human strength, agility, and stamina. It just left a bad taste in my mouth for such small reasons that could have been fixed. Let’s aim to fix these issues, temper them, celebrate vast cultures without fetishizing them. That’s all.