Cirque Du Soleil’s latest spectacular, TOTEM, traces the story of human life from its primordial roots through to our never-ending quest to reach new heights. It’s written and directed by prolific Canadian theatre and film director, playwright and actor Robert Lepage and it his second Cirque du Soleil show, following KÀ (2004). As is expected from Cirque du Soleil, the production is technically brilliant and filled with breathtaking acts of physical splendour. But is Cirque starting to lose its spark?
As a performance, TOTEM barely manages to hold on to its plot or themes. Where we might expect to find a powerful critique of humankind’s place in the natural world, I instead found a garbled mix of cliché meets cultural appropriation. A blonde white woman dresses in a sari and sports a decorative bindi; a European roller-skating duo adorn in pseudo-native, Halloween-style costumes and head dresses; a caricature of an Italian man offends.
The most authentic performance was an Amerindian hoop dancer, and yet he was costumed in a mismatch of the traditional ceremonial clothing of a number of North American Indian tribes, rather than being an accurate portrayal of any one culture. It was as though Cirque was trying to make a point about world cultures, but I could not help but feel a sense of unease as I saw entire cultures and items of great symbolic significance reduced to circus acts that seemed far more exploitative than expressive.
Ultimately TOTEM remained spectacle over substance. While the physical ability of the performers was impressive and at times breathtaking, the execution of ensemble choreography was at times lacklustre and ultimately forgettable. Comedic elements were stereotypical and uninspired, while a lovebird theme was overused and at times borderedon offensive.
To Cirque’s credit, the set design and costume designs were impressive and the live music was a lovely touch, but the “well-oiled machine” vibe left some ensemble members looking positively bored and boring – not a look to want to see when you’re essentially paying hundreds of dollars for a family outing. Add in the price of programs, snacks and merch and Cirque is not delivering what you pay for.