Wrapped in the warm colors of the fall harvest, five petite unicyclists agilely edge the circumference of the stage and take juggling to a mind-blowing new level in an astounding showcase of control and balance under the blue and yellow swirled Big Top of Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM.
The quintet carefully create intricate formations across the stage and enliven stacked metal bowls from atop their heads, quickly flicking and flipping them into the air with their feet and effortlessly catching them on one another’s heads with synchronized grace.
This is just one glimpse into the acrobatic spectacle of TOTEM, which brings to life the mythological and scientific narrative of the evolution of the human species from amphibious primitive times to the modern businessman.
“The evolution in the show is presented on two levels,” says Francis Jalbert, TOTEM’s publicist. “It’s the evolution of the human body, but instead of showing our supremacy on animals we show they are a part of who we are. It’s also the evolution each of us go through during our lives.”
The world-renowned traveling circus is calling downtown San José home during March and April as TOTEM is featured in the South Bay.
Through the imaginative storytelling of writer and director Robert Lepage and the flawless athleticism and aerobic skill of each performer, TOTEM is a testament to the amazing bounds of the human body with 11 vignettes, including: Bars (Carapace), Devil Sticks, Fixed Trapeze, Antipodism, Hoops, Manipulation, Perches, Rings, Roller Skates, Russian Bars and Unicycles.
TOTEM begins when “The Crystal Man” — an acrobat donning a velveteen leotard encrusted with 4,500 reflective fragments — glides down from space and sparks life on Earth by touching a large turtle shell, a totemic animal and symbol of numerous founding myths, legends and oral traditions.
Amphibians masterfully rotate and spin themselves on the parallel bars of the ignited skeletal substructure of the turtle shell, which sets the high-energy, mouth-dropping tempo for the remainder of the show.
All in the family
And while these totemic creatures evolve on stage, the performers that travel the world to portray them have also transformed — into an extended family comprised of 53 artists from 18 different countries, including: Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, The People’s Republic of China, Russian Federation, Spain, Ukraine, The United Kingdom and The United States of America.
“We have to live together, we eat together, we train together, we do the show together,” says Lucie Doyon, TOTEM’s general stage manager, who says the cast and crew only get one day off a week. “When we pack the trucks it’s all together and then after that we transfer to another city altogether so we have no choice, it’s a big family.”
The TOTEM family has forged a strong bond since the shows’ birthplace in Montreal during late 2009, its world-premiere in April 2010 and its subsequent tours throughout Canada, Europe and the United States.
And though the Cirque du Soleil lifestyle certainly brings a constant degree of change into their lives, the TOTEM cast and crew finds one constant that fosters a sense of home: the iconic 66-foot tall “Grand Chapiteau,” or Big Top tent, which takes eight days to set up and three days to deconstruct.
“It’s like the only stability we get in our lives and that’s where all the magic happens basically,” says Jalbert. “It’s important to have this stability and I think when we arrive to town when the Big Top is not there we feel a bit empty, but once we it comes up it’s like, ‘Finally, home is here.’”
Weighing around 11,500 lbs the “village on wheels” provides a space for all 53 artists, 170 touring employees and 73 traveling crew members to set up shop.
And despite housing the monumental TOTEM stage, the tent has ample space for a fully-equipped training area, wardrobing and makeup sections, dressing rooms, a kitchen, a small area to review the performance from the night before and, perhaps most importantly, a physiotherapy room.
Keeping the family healthy
The performance medicine therapists that run the physiotherapy room are a critical component for Cirque du Soleil as they are on the front lines to maintain the health and fitness of their performers and to prevent and mend any injuries.
“Typically physical therapy starts when people are getting injured,” says Matthijs Van Der Lugt, one of TOTEM’s performance medicine therapists who work with the high level, lead athletes of Cirque du Soleil. “This [Cirque du Soleil] starts with monitoring, training, risk assessments and making sure they aren’t going past their capacity, that it’s a reliable way of performing.”
Van Der Lugt, a native of the Netherlands, worked in China as a physical therapist after competing for the National Chinese Martial Arts Team.
It was this experience of working with top athletes that allowed him to easily transition into the Cirque du Soleil family.
“It’s great,” he says. “It’s like one big family here, it’s a great atmosphere. This is our home.”
Making sure Cirque doesn’t turn into a circus
But no home is complete without an omnipresent, parental figure.
That’s where general stage manager Doyon comes in, who is ultimately responsible for managing all the components of the show: from performers and intricate music or light cues to deciding the next step if something goes wrong.
Doyon’s ten-year experience with Cirque du Soleil also includes general stage manager positions of shows KÀ and Corteo.
But before she was a general stage manager, Doyon’s first role in the Cirque du Soleil family was to utilize her skills as a former veterinarian assistant and taking care of 33 horses when the company was touring the show Cavalia.
And while the Quebec native admits the job is no “walk in the park” with the overall show on her shoulders, Doyon enjoys working with the Cirque family and learning from all the different cultures.
“My favorite part is to be surrounded by the artist,” she says. “We learn so much about them and just to try to learn the language. Sometimes I will force myself to learn some Russian words or Chinese words, that’s the fun part.”
And while Van Der Lugt and Doyon work steadily behind-the-scenes, it is the work of costume designer Kym Barrett that may be one of the most noticed show elements by TOTEM audiences.
“Although TOTEM is quite fantastical, there’s also a sense of reality,” says Barrett. “The costumes were inspired in part by documentary film. I wanted them to have a kind of documentary patina, even though we were inventing our own reality.”
All 53 stage performers’ costumes evolved during an eight-month creation process in Montreal, where designers hand-dyed simple white Lycra fabric into 250, one-of-a-kind individual pieces inspired by animals, plants and tribal designs.
And once every six months, the wardrobe department ensures that reproductions of the costumes for the touring show are exactly like the original garments.
“We want you to feel that you are transported to a different environment,” says Jalbert. “By creating those detail with the costumes — and with the live music that fits the act perfectly — we are creating an atmosphere that takes you somewhere else.”
And sometimes some little offstage free time has given TOTEM’s cast and crew members some time to bond with extended family members within Cirque du Soleil.
On one of his days off Van Der Lugt and some of his friends headed to Los Angeles to visit other performance medicine therapists who work on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO.
And when TOTEM heads to San Diego after its time in the Bay Area, Jalbert says they are going to spend time with their Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil friends.
“You’ve got your friends within Cirque and it’s always a great atmosphere,” says Van Der Lugt.
And after the final show on April 15 in San José, the TOTEMfamily will carry that great atmosphere with them, right under that blue and yellow swirled Big Top.
* Hannah Keirns contributed to this story.
Visit Cirque du Soleil’s OFFICIAL SITE for ticketing and additional San José show information.