Cirque du Soleil has done it again with its particular brand of entertainment magic.  Conceived in 2010, TOTEM has kept the company’s commitment to delivering a “no animals circus” by having simians and other beasts played by some pretty specialized homo sapiens.

TOTEM is the latest production brought to the Washington area in the organization’s 28 years.  What started as a rag tag troupe of street performers in Quebec, Cirque du Soleil has become big business.

The statistics are impressive. Five thousand employees including 1,300 artists have won over 100 million spectators representing 300 cities in over 40 countries on 6 continents. In last year alone, there were 21 shows going on simultaneously around the world.

Unicyclists (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Certainly more than the most recent myopic, jingoistic coverage of the 2012 Olympics, this show celebrates global collaboration. The artists represent 50 different countries, and Director Robert Lepage has employed them to depict a gathering of the tribes of the earth, using world music and painted body suits to remind us that our colors are only “tights” deep.

Lepage embodies the most virtuosic and intrinsic impulse in theatre, bringing directing, writing, and acting talents to his works that, at their best, transcend boundaries between disciplines.  TOTEM is an example of this prodigious imagination at its best.

Lepage was inspired to create this work by Northwest American totem poles, which symbolize for him the order of the species. Using this symbol, he has devised a work about humanity itself, its evolution, and the ever-changing earth, our home. As Lepage has put it, “The word TOTEM suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living species, even the thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the TOTEM.”

He has assembled an astonishing team of multi-disciplinary talents to collaborate on this vision. Lepage takes us into the brain’s dreamscape in a kind of visual and aural enactment of Joseph Campbell’s mythological journey.

Right from the start, when you approach the site, you travel, like a pilgrim, along a path of switchbacks that ascends to the “temple,” the iconic blue-and-yellow tent high on a hill overlooking the Potomac.  Looking across the haze of Washington’s rush hour to Virginia, you can feel a happy lift off, leaving Washington’s summer heat and the other seasonal pain, the impending electoral frenzy, behind.

As people gather, it feels more like a ballpark audience than a typical Washingtonian theatrical event.  Families of many heritages and colors blend with dating couples and older returnees. Everything and everyone becomes part of the show in this fabulous arena built specially for the traveling TOTEM.

Cirque du Soleil’s productions always incorporate clowns. In this show, two are featured.  One is a skinny little Italian, a strutting rooster and sexual Neanderthal, whose vocabulary is reduced to “Ciao Bella” and Italian supermarket products as he tries to pick up chicks. The other is a droopy-faced Eeyore-type, who holds our attention with his soulful eyes and draws out of us less belly laughs than wistful smiles.

Evolution (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

I have always loved best the depth of images in a Cirque du Soleil production, how one act or element fades out of the foreground yet still maintains a lively presence while a new act takes center stage. Sometimes several layers are cohabiting the stage, each one speaking and resonating with the others and combining to create fresh images and configurations.  These “scapes” are more compelling and powerful than even the highly gifted acts that they frame.

Throughout, lighting designer Étienne Boucher seems to light the very air the performers breathe.  The “genius” of Cirque du Soleil changed the circus form from a series of discrete variety acts to something that has a thematic and even a narrative drama.

Set designer Carl Fillion has incorporated a marshy world dominated by a giant turtle and a steeply raked oval which serves as a semi-horizontal screen upon which Pedro Pries projects an ongoing play of time-lapsed images of the earth’s surface. A murky wet surface changes to a baked, cracked desert in a matter of minutes and then to a bubbling lava floor. Each eon fades as the edge of the world seems to be washed clean by a tide coming in.

While there remains little spoken dialogue in the highly corporal style of the company, some things have changed. The sound system is more sophisticated than in Cirque du Soleil’s early days and creates more dynamic distinction to show off the many musical styles featured in the work of compose-arranger-orchestrator team of Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard.  African percussion mixes with Tibetan harmonics, Native American chanting, and flamenco-inspired guitar and clapping syncopations.

Choreographer Jeffrey Hall, whose work with Montreal’s dance-theatre Carbone 14 electrified me years ago, beautifully partners the music score with work that takes its vocabulary from American Indian, Hindhu, and African dance repertoire. Acrobatic performance designer Florence Pot keeps routines fresh and inspiring but never lets us lose the artistry of the theatrical story.

TOTEM illuminates for the audience through a visual and acrobatic language the evolutionary progress of our own species. Several early acts seem to incorporate monkeys and apes –  never like a dusty museum diorama, but rather always re-imagined.

A man joins the apes, entering on short legs and with very long black hair, looking like the bassist of the heavy metal band Metallica, and wails on a large mastodon femur. The creatures seem observers, even spotters, for the spectacular specialized acrobatic acts. Then, suddenly, as more apes gather, one recognizes there are indeed gradations of furry. A fully-suited modern man enters with cell phone and attaché case attached, and the creatures fall into an  “ascent of man” portrait, in gradations of hair and erectness. It’s a moment of joyful, theatrical magic.

Another high moment of such is the impressive opening act when the giant tortoise shell “cover” gets lifted off to disclose a carapace of bars and slides. A group of neon-body suited acrobats twirl in pairs on the high parallel bars, leap from frame to frame, then squat froglike, with their googly eyes staring out into the audience, and cheekily stick out their tongues at us.

The acrobatics and choreography are at a high level.  Pavel Saprykin performs an elegant hand-balancing routine on a steel hourglass, a beautiful sculptural in its own right with unique multiple functions that keeps the routine fresh and moving. A sister act entitled Crystal Ladies takes the spinning and throwing of soft, pizza-like discs (literally) to new heights. A Chinese team of underage unicyclists fearlessly wheel around the stage tossing and catching bowls on various parts of their bodies. Eric Hernandez performs an Amerindian hoops dance, taking the low riding, skipping and hopping into high art with such impressive choreography the work gets a reprise in the second act, as he is joined in a duet by Shandien Larance.

Highest marks go to the Russians who dominate these “games” and who have evolved physical traits presenting staggering strength and acrobaticism. Two teams display both in gold medal measure. One is an act where strong men balance their fellows on enormously high perches. The other, a climactic finish, entitled “Russian Bars,” features acrobats springing and being flung out into space like cosmonauts.

Throughout the evening, a white-haired scientist wanders the stage, observing and recording notes. Is he studying new forms as they specialize and develop?

Highly Recommended

Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM
The Plateau at National Harbor
Fort Washington, MD
Closes: Oct 7, 2013
Tuesdays thru Sundays
2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

If you didn’t get Cirque du Soleil’s wonderful put-together-the-puzzle style, the melt-your-heart Clown Mykhaylo Usov performs a little skit in a rowboat, turning life’s simple pleasures of fishing and eating into an irresistibly funny howl. Representing perhaps a higher evolutionarily wiser, problem-solving clown than the more instinctual “Ciao bella” buffoon, he pulls up a giant plug, and we hear and see waters of the earth drain.  Where, oh where, do our evolutionary smarts get us? Usov sadly drags his boat off the stage on little roller wheels and the back of his boat has “Beagle” written on it. That’s when some of us suckers first get the punch line.

Okay, but how do the spangle-panted, kiss-my-own-biceps boy duo-on-rings fit in?  The number crosses a Chippendales act with body-building posing and guarantees there is something in the show for everyone. From the whistles and hoots in the audience, there clearly was an enthusiastic following for the eye-candy.  But what tribe did these guys represent?  And where did they fit on the evolutionary “chain” in the show’s theme? I can only surmise by the line up that this narcissistic type is rated above the early apes but way below aerial acrobats.  Beware, the show may also be a cautionary tale about what you choose to specialize in and develop.

TOTEM roller skaters (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Though there are thankfully no aerial displays with sashes, which have become almost synonymous with the company and been borrowed often, Cirque du Soleil has never been above taking clichés and the kitschiest of popular images and mixing it up with something deeply resonating.  Perhaps the best example in this show is an act that incorporates a little story of a bride and groom. The couple is brought together in a wintry landscape by canoe and celebrate a union that brings together images of the tackiest of romance novels, Jack London’s virile wilderness, and a death-defying roller skating duet, all on what looks like the circular head of a smallish drum.  The equally beautiful Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta make us gasp on several levels as we secretly long for just such a buckskinned, roller-skating partner to lift us out of ourselves and help us fly.

Greg Kennedy, our scientist, returns and puts the journey all together for us as he moves from observing the arcs made by different diameters of bowls then applies these findings, climbing into a giant plexiglass cylinder and performing a stunning “juggling” act of his own, making arcs with multi-colored spheres on the inside of the cone.

The show takes us from the swamps into contemplating celestial bodies.  A silver-spangled visitant makes his return appearance lowered from the ceiling then disappears again up into the night sky.

Thank you, Cirque du Soleil, for reminding us that from the stars we have come and to the stars we will return. Now through October 7, you too can make this journey with TOTEM.


Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM, Written and directed by Robert Lepage, Music by Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, Choreography by Jeffrey Hall, Acrobatic Performance Design by Florence Pot, Produced by Cirque du Soleil, Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.

You might also enjoy:

A brilliant photo essay on backstage at TOTEM by photographer Franz Mahr

Other reviews

Rebecca Ritzel . Washington Post
Marlene Hall . Huffington Post
Rachel Holleman . AskMissa
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts


Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.


  1. Melinda Murray says:

    What an inspiring and detailed review.  Makes me want to get out of my buttoned up Washington self and travel out there right now, even though it is a hike.



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