Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Cirque du Soleil's "Totem"

Another phenomenal Cirque Du Soleil production unfolds in Pittsburgh. This time it’s called Totem but the title and the underlying conception matter less than how everything comes off looking impressive on so many levels, i.e above the heads of the audience, balancing on poles, soaring and gyrating high in the air, walking on perilously thin boards, or surging forth on a vast shell-like stage, leaping, jumping, wheeling, spinning, juggling, balancing in one remarkable act after another. Meanwhile entertaining, physically virtuosic amusing clown acts pop on and off. The other artists come dressed in superb looking costumes as, all over their performance areas, platforms and spaces open close, raise and lower, ensembles colorfully parade or dance, boats and canoes float in and out and vivid images of flowing water or swirling sands of the desert, or crystal white snow cascade before your eyes. And a small percussion-based orchestra thunders, throbs and pulses as if to an accelerated heartbeat reminding us of the anxiety within the dangers these performers face should they lose their footing, stumble and fall.

The underlying visual concept suggests enduring tribal myths reaching back into pre-history, often evoking native North American people, but also stretching forward into space and into present time. You needn’t bother trying to analyze this or even think about it, since it remains more wonderfully and colorfully decorative than profoundly intellectual into which you need to read all kinds of meaning. The concept seems most pointed when a group described as business men try to reach the top of a pole and maintain their balance. But, by the time they start their climb they’ve divested themselves of business suits and briefcases dressed more like you’d expect for circus performers. One act also seems visually odd when a man and a woman dressed like North American natives twirl and gyrate on roller skates, although I’ve no doubt some real contemporary native people would skate, but not in traditional clothing. Overall then, thinking about how well the concept works, or even about what the word Totem means, is something you should leave outside the tent and allow yourself to marvel at what you see, the brilliant spectacle.

I saw the last production here in 2009, called Alegria. I find this one much more dynamic and compelling than that overly clown-dominated show which ran for only one week in the Peterson Center. There too, wretched balcony sight lines significantly diminished the experience for many people. Here, under the big tent, with no doubt fewer seats than at Peterson, it looks as if everyone gets closer to the action. And isn’t that what a circus should be, not confined within the cement walls of a sweaty sports arena?

Some info about parking. This production takes place in the Strip District, close to the Allegheny River, directly behind the Produce Terminal where there is a lot of parking space. However, the evening I was there, an attendant was bunching up cars closest to the lot entrance while the actual entrance to Cirque is about three blocks closer to downtown. So, for $10, you might have an unnecessary walk coming to and to leaving the performance and I saw many empty spaces quite close one half hour before the show started.

The program book, which is not free with admission, gives lots of information about what the acts intend, about the logistics of how the show is produced and much more, but,oddly, my copy does not name any of the performers. But I have what’s called a “Press Kit” which may have less in it than what paying customers get.

Most important, though, everyone gets a magnificent experience.

Cirque du Soleil's Totem continues through Sunday, June 5 , in the Strip District at 20th Street where Railroad Street ends

Tickets online at or by phone at 1-800-450-1480 or at the Cirque du Soleil box office located at the front of site 2 hours prior to show time.

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