The last Cirque du Soleil show to come to town, Ovo, was a magical work that created a whimsical world of insect performers amidst magnificent blossoming flowers (our review). While it didn’t exactly have a point, it still evoked a thematic wonderland that laced together the spectacular performances.

Totem, in contrast, is an incoherent mishmash of circus acts, jerky Las Vegas choreography, lowest denominator humor, and offensive stereotypes. In other words, it’s all spectacle and no soul.

The show is billed as “somewhere between science and legend,” “where creation myths are the springboard for exploring the birth and evolution of humankind.” That’s a mission I wanted to get behind, but instead I found myself repeatedly wondering, “what are they thinking?”

Don’t get me wrong: Totem has many of the ingredients that make Cirque one of the best shows on Earth: a metamorphosing set, a spectacular light show, a full band, and some of the most talented performers to be found. Highlights included a troupe of Chinese performers on tall unicycles flipping bowls from their feet to their heads in an orchestrated symphony of movement; a scientist who climbed into a giant transparent funnel and then “juggled” color-changing balls on the walls around him, creating a human atom in a Technicolor cloud of spinning electrons; and the finale, three trampolinists who did their death-defying jumps from flexible balance beams held on the shoulders of other performers. Their costumes—Tron meets indigenous patterns meets black light—were almost worth the price of admission alone.

Cirque du Soleil's Totem
Expo Center
Thru May 4
But many of the other performers, obviously technically skilled, are reduced to schmaltzy choreography that goes from pose to pose with little emphasis on grace.

More importantly, the show as a whole tried to cram so many concepts together—evolution, creation myths, love, rivalry, harvests, the beginning of life, atomic physics, space travel, and most inexplicably, boating—that it became so distracting, it was hard to enjoy. 

A show about science = yes. The exploration of physics, the beginning of life, and evolution would be a great theme. Throwing in “origin myths” (which seemed to be limited here to performers dressed up in over-the-top Native American garb that would make Walt Disney embarrassed) is pushing it. But then what’s up with the guidos on the beach flexing their muscles and making dick jokes, or the two clowns (one a guido in a speedo and the other a country bumpkin version of Johnny Depp’s character in Benny and June) doing a speed boat interlude, or for that matter, the guy in wizard robes that are immediately pulled away to reveal his beefcake body? Are these supposed to be the height of humankind?

Seriously, WTF?

I hate that I was just forced to use “WTF” in a review, but nothing else captures it.

I was surprised and delighted that the act I expected to find most offensive from the press photos turned out to feel like the most authentic part of the show. Eric Hernandez is a hoop dancer from LA who has been dancing since he was 10—Cirque found him by his Youtube videos—and he was obviously enjoying the opportunity to share his culture (you can watch an interview and demonstration with him here).

The same can’t be said for the other “origin myth” performance that incorporated Native American costumes. Two distinctly non-Native performers (a married European couple) skated on a small circular stage that was painted as a drum—a sacred instrument—in highly sexualized outfits of feathers and fringe for a love scene that amounted to late-night-Cinemax, roller-skating soft porn. Can we expect a Pope/alter boy routine on a cross next?

If you’re a diehard, high-flying Cirque fan, it’s possible these criticisms will be minor to you. But I want a Cirque show to leave me wondering about the mystery and miracle of human life, not at what on Earth these particular humans were thinking.

For more of Arthur Hitchcock's photographs, see a slide show from his walk across America.

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