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November 14, 2012

Le Cirque’s New Spin

The famed French-Canadian Circus Act Returns to Atlantic Station with “Totem”

By Felicia Feaster

Elaborate costumes, music, and gravity-defying acts of physical prowess define this conceptual circus for grownups.

Performers from Cirque du Soleil's Performers from Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" at Atlantic Station

What a wonderful concept that there are still grown-ups whose job description involves spinning, balancing, lifting and jumping. Cirque du Soleil’s Totem is a reminder that in an era of desk jobs and few tests of virtuosic physical agility beyond the gridiron or basketball court, some people live in thrilling contact with the laws of gravity and centrifugal force. And many of them seem to hail from places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, plucked from cities and villages where zero body fat and boundless energy appear to be the norm.

In many ways Totem is a self-referential celebration of brawn over brains.

The majority of Totem’s evolutionary story line celebrates masterful expressions of derring-do and sexual prowess practiced by Native Americans, surfer dudes, space aliens and intergalactic Cosmonauts who look like Mayans kitted out by Urban Outfitters.

Birthed into existence by Canadian street performers, Cirque du Soleil has never lost its connection to a streak of scrappy busker inventiveness, where anything flies, as long as it thrills.

The production begins with a “spark of life” in the form of a spangly human disco ball -- the Crystal Man -- lowered from the Grand Chapiteau ceiling. The orb-like structure unleashes what could be a cell of tropical tree frogs, the primordial beginnings of life -- or as the Cirque’s own origin myth goes, a tortoise shell that symbolizes origin for “many ancient civilizations.” A canny blend of subculture, imagination and myth, Totem’s primary set decoration is a sloped beach front onto which water ebbs and flows, carrying boats and swimmers and teeming with life. Trying to follow the narrative crux of Totem is like holding warm pudding in your hands. How frogs give way to beach bunnies, who then give way to Neanderthals is hard to comprehend, and generally beside the point. Like a vintage Hollywood musical, the narrative riggings are secondary to ecstatic spasms of spectacle.

At a certain point the entertainment-susceptible part of your brain jellies and simply surrenders to the jaw-dropping sight of delicate Chinese girl cyclists, so young they travel with their own tutor, balanced on 7-foot tall unicycles from which they toss heaps of metal bowls onto each others’ heads. Meanwhile, brawny men from Belarus shimmy up metal supports as tall as telephone poles that are attached to the foreheads of their brethren.

These sorts of stunts are reminiscent of Depression-era tightrope walker and flag pole sitters, but with that patented gloss of Euro-sexiness that you expect from Cirque’s adult circus.

Typical of the mix of daring and sex appeal, is a roller skating number that looks like Last of the Mohicans meets Xanadu and feels about as close as you can come to a metaphor for sexual climax as you can pull-off in a mixed crowd of tweens and grannies.

Romance is a theme of many of the numbers on trapezes and tethers that boomerang to the ceiling. You think of ballet and ice skating and other rituals of prolonged, artful coupling. Then, like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, the genders divide as women perform elaborate balancing acts or twirl spangled blankets on their nimble toes, as the menfolk shimmy up poles like hairless apes. That virtuoso action is bracketed by silly, leaden, silent comedy acts with the pratfalls and sight gags of vaudeville and Buster Keaton comedies.

As with any Cirque du Soleil show, it is best to give yourself over to the real point: bodies so fit that they look like the ones ringing a Greek vase and the kinds of stunts that perpetually escalate in difficulty and danger until you feel almost like an enabler--the obnoxious kid in the corner egging others to take the leaps that you yourself fear. My advice: Surrender.

Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" will be on show at the Big Top at Atlantic Station through Dec. 30. For more info and tickets visit:

Performers from Cirque du Soleil's show Performers from Cirque du Soleil's show "Totem."