A Cirque du Soleil show is a wondrous thing, usually, and such was the case – for the most part – with their current iteration, Totem.  But for different reasons than you might expect.  Often, some of the acts aren’t quite up to snuff, spectacle-wise, but the overall evening (including the hilarious clowns and some stand out athletic moments) smooths everything over.  Their stories, too, instill a sense of minor awe as one enters a new world with rules completely unlike our own.  This time around, however, the story was lacklustre, and the clowns left the audience more silent than they should have.

“On an island evoking the shape of a giant turtle, TOTEM traces humankind’s incredible journey – from our original amphibian state to our ultimate quest for flight.”  (So says the program.)  One gathers a bit of the evolutionary vibe from the apes that roughhouse around the place, as well as the appearance of a bearded scientist – ie, Darwin.  (One of the clown’s boat’s is called the S.S. Beagle in reference to Darwin’s famous ship.)  But to say that the story has a clear narrative such as, for example, the absolutely wonderful Quidam – another Cirque du Soleil show from many years ago – would be a lie.  It feels like the barest of connective tissue.

The clowns, too, failed to hit the mark for the most part.  Notably absent, for instance, was a section where an audience member is dragged up on stage to be toyed with.  (I would never want to do that myself, but I enjoy the schadenfreude of watching others.)  This is such a crucial part of any night at the circus – almost expected, one might say – as it creates camaraderie between audience and performer.  A sort of sacrifice to the theatre gods.  But none in Totem.  One act, where a clown performed a visual-gag-filled routine in a speedboat, fell rather flat, with half the jokes barely registering a murmur, while none of the other acts particularly stood out as anything to rave about.

What saved the night was the athletic/stunt part of the circus.  Totem, I believe, has the best line up of these kind of acts of any Cirque du Soleil show in a while.  There was the hoop dancer, for instance – Eric Hernandez – in a Native American outfit manipulating small rings all around his body with lightning speed and dexterity.  There was the strength of the hand balancer, Pavel Saprykin, his forearms shaking with the stress of ever-so-slowly moving his entire body weight through the air.  There was a foot juggling duo that astounded the possibilities, keeping square blankets spinning on the ends of their limbs in incredible positions.

A fixed trapeze duo (with a cleverly disguised white-water raft as a safety mat) tossed each other around like an office worker flicking a pen in his hand, while a pair on roller skates showed just how fast one can spin on a tiny platform while taking the father and son game of “aeroplane” to a new level.  The “manipulation” (ie, the juggler) was a breath of fresh air on what can often be a stale routine, too, doing most of his manipulating in a Perspex cone, the balls whizzing around him up and down.  But perhaps the most impressive act of all was the unicycles with bowls, where a troupe of women stuck on ridiculously high unicycles tossed bowls back and forth between each other onto their heads.  (It had the best applause of the night, and rightly so.)

Director Robert Lepage adds some nice stage mechanical touches, including a large metallic tentacle that can retract and curl up and do all sorts of special things.  (This comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen his recent take on The Ring Cycle, and the huge stage machinery used for that – there was even a slight reference to the Rhinemaidens too, although perhaps that’s merely me projecting onto it.)  It all runs very smoothly, and apart from the clowns, there’s never much of a dull moment.

So to the prospective ticket buyer: go to Totem for the acts, and not the whole Cirque du Soleil experience that you may be used to.  I left the show with my jaw dropped to the floor, but my mind and heart weren’t that much affected – spectacular, but with a hollow ring to it.