May 30--Cirque du Soleil has built its reputation on shows that combine acrobatic skills, ethereal music and jaw-dropping images.
The troupe's 20th show, "Totem," is no exception. It explores the evolution of man and his dream to fly. Aerialists soar overhead and acrobats do flips high in the air, all to the rhythm of an original Native American-inspired score.
"Cirque deals with concepts as opposed to plots," says Tim Smith, artistic director for "Totem." "This show was inspired by man's constant need to progress and man's desire to ultimately fly."
The show opens today May 30 for a three-week-plus run at Camden's Waterfront on the Delaware River.
Upon entering Cirque's blue and yellow big top -- the Grand Chapiteau, audiences are greeted by the form of a huge turtle, symbolizing the Iroquois belief that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle.
"It's very avant-garde," Smith says. "When you go and see a Cirque show, you expect to see visuals you have never seen before."
The opening number of "Totem" includes a trapeze act above the stage as the turtle's covering is stripped away to become a geometric framework. Performers representing amphibians and fish emerge from the framework to perform on parallel bars while others dressed as frogs leap into the air from a floor trampoline. Adding to the energy are five women from China who juggle bowls while riding 7-foot-high unicycles.
The set is inspired by the organic world, and represents a marsh lined with reeds near an island on which images are projected. Set designer Carl Fillion used curved forms to reflect the natural world.
"This represents the water base, where all of these animals come from," Smith says. "They are visited from space by a crystal man who sets all of evolution in place. It bridges between earth and space and surrounds the audience with opulent style and original world music."
The crystal man wears a costume covered with 4,000 crystals. He drops from the sky and is joined by two crystal ladies who perform foot juggling.
Images from all over the world including Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala are projected on the marsh, transforming it into a river, a lake, an ocean, a volcanic island and a starry sky.
A bridge structure changes shape to become the prow of boat for a clown act, then turns into a plane in flight and finally a rocket heading for a star. The bridge also is configured at one point to look like a totem pole.
Smith worked on Broadway for 15 years on shows including Elton John's "Aida," and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." He says there's nothing quite like a Cirque show. "This is a whole other skill set," he says. "The technology and budget of these shows are through the roof. These are the only people doing what they are doing in the business."
In the nominal storyline of "Totem," reoccurring characters include a Darwinian scientist who is joined by a chimpanzee in his laboratory; a tracker who spins devil's sticks and is concerned for the environment; a Native American dancer who creates images out of his hoops; and the crystal man, who returns to end the show by diving into a lagoon. "Totem" was written and directed by Robert Lepage, who directed two of musician Peter Gabriel's tours and also created Cirque's 2004 show "Ka."
The circus acts are connected to the overall concept through costumes and set design that draw from Native American and South American traditions. The acts include hand balancing, a contortionist and roller skating on a tiny platform.
Other acts are more esoteric, such as the scientist juggling luminous balls that represent molecules.
"These are amazing, original, unique artists," Smith says. "The mandate of the company is creation."
The cast features 46 performers from 17 countries, plus eight musicians and vocalists performing the percussion-heavy music.
"There is an international feel to the show," Smith says. "To have so many cultures adds to the diversity and the uniqueness of the disciplines they bring."
The finale features a Russian bar act in which the performers are flipped 40 feet in the air and land on a 3-inch wide bar. Photographs taken aboard the International Space Station when cosmonauts are trying to break free of the Earth's gravity are integrated into the finale.
"Each show is different," Smith says. "The show constantly changes because of the type of artists they are. They have to keep their minds and bodies disciplined, and they want to challenge themselves. So the show is constantly evolving. It also motivates audiences by presenting new images and reshaping acts. That's why the shows run so long." Cirque, based in Montreal, just retired its first big show, "Saltimbanco," after 23 years. Another show, "Alegria," will close at the end of this year after 18 years.
"It says something about it being resonant year after year," Smith says. "It's a testament to opening the door to creativity."
"Totem" which had its world premiere in 2010, toured in Europe before coming to the United States. Smith is excited to premiere "Totem" in the Philadelphia area.
"For me it's a special evening," he says. "Audiences will step into a very special world."
-- What: New Cirque du Soleil show follows the journey of man.
-- When: 8 p.m. today and Friday ; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday ; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Runs through June 23.
-- Where: Camden Waterfront, Cooper Street and Delaware Avenue
-- How much: $50-$130; $40-$120, children ages 2 to 12.
-- Info: http://www.cirquedusoleil.com, 800-450-1480
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