Cirque du Soleil's Totem fantasy under the tent

Totem is inspired by Darwin and the story of evolution.
Totem is inspired by Darwin and the story of evolution.PHOTO: CIRQUE DU SOLEIL

Cirque du Soleil's Totem packs in the fun, but not the pathos

REVIEW / CIRCUS

TOTEM

Cirque du Soleil

Under the Big Top/Wednesday

Several years after they last graced our shores, the banners are fluttering high on Cirque du Soleil's signature blue and yellow swirled chapiteau tents.

As Cirque puts it, Totem is a Darwinian-inspired piece about the evolution of man from amphibian to flight. Although, to be fair, none of us can soar as high as Cirque's artists.

The evolutionary theme in Totem serves only as a vague attempt to lend aesthetic consistency to the show. It would be wise not to try to make too much sense of what unfolds onstage, but to sit back and enjoy the theatrics.

While Cirque shows pride themselves on being refined versions of the typical circus, Totem's artistic director Robert Lepage is careful not to let the production take itself too seriously, straddling a fine balance between whimsy and abstraction.

The company's casting process is notoriously rigorous, resulting in the ability to put on stage artists who are not only skilled athletes, but also performers able to embody various characters from amphibian to ape.

  • BOOK IT/TOTEM

    WHERE: Under the Big Top , next to Marina Bay Sands

    WHEN: Till Dec 6, Tuesday to Sunday, various times

    ADMISSION: From $98, from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

A pair of gnarly surfer dudes compete for the affections of a female beachgoer in an aerial-rings performance that goes from light- hearted to death-defying in a flash, a couple on a trapeze engage in a charming courtship, while an act that is best described as "Native American roller skating princess bride" is a lot more spectacular and less ridiculous that it sounds.

In the explosive opening act, a group of artists swing from a pair of gymnastics high bars, but in portraying the amphibian personas of their characters, keep their toes flexed as they perform their release moves, instead of pointed as gymnasts usually do.

This attention to detail is evident throughout the show, from the lighting to the staging to the excellent live band.

Totem makes no bones about what it is - pure entertainment. However, what it does lack is cohesiveness and, as the show goes on, it seems more like a series of circus acts than a piece of theatre that can be enjoyed as a whole.

Some of the less risky acts consequently seem more like interludes before the next show- stopper - an artist in a bejewelled costume promises so much more than what she performed (spinning carpets on her feet). There are only so many times you can laugh at the inane clown acts before wondering what comes next.

However heavy-handed the older Cirque shows might be, what they did have was pathos, whether in the uplifting, odds-overcoming morality of Varekai (2002) or the melancholy of Alegria (1994).

Totem is fun and slick but lacks those moments of heart-stirring wistfulness that stay with you long after the adrenaline fades.

Then again, when there's a guy dangling upside down from the rafters, encrusted in crystals purely for your viewing pleasure, and others churning out twisting tucked somersaults in the air before landing on a pole only a few inches wide and with no safety mat below, all you can do is gape in awe.

Because that is the point of a trip to the circus, even one as highly evolved as Cirque du Soleil claims to be.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'Fantasy under the tent'. Print Edition | Subscribe