Like any Cirque du Soleil production, “TOTEM,” which opens Aug. 15 at the National Harbor, is a display of mind — and body — bending acrobatics and breathtaking leaps through the air. And, just like any Cirque show, “TOTEM” ups the ante yet again for what to expect from the groundbreaking Canadian-based troupe.
“TOTEM” pairs Cirque’s signature circus-type acts trapeze artists, acrobats and jugglers just to name a few with new technologies like incredible projected images, to trace the story of man’s evolution. “TOTEM” explores the captivating journey of the human species starting with the amphibian state all the way through man’s fascination with flight.
“I was looking for something that looked like the theater and smelled like the theater, but was something completely different,” says artistic director Tim Smith. “TOTEM” is the brain child of creator, writer and director, Robert Lepage. This is Lepage’s second Cirque production, following “KÁ” in 2004. The acrobatic masterpiece with a scientific backdrop is a new idea and a completely original concept.
“They really want to start with a blank page,” says Smith. “They want to start with bringing new images to the world that you haven’t seen yet.”
Not only is “TOTEM” something completely different from anything Cirque has ever done before, but the show itself varies from night to night. Because the show is live entertainment, featuring only live music, the movements of the actors like the never-before-seen acrobatics from a troop of Mongolian unicyclists vary from one show to the next. No two audiences will ever have the same “TOTEM” experience.
To achieve such a unique vision, Smith and Lepage enlisted the help of over 120 cast and crew members, from technicians, to artists, to carpenters. All 120 people have traveled via 64 trailers around the world since the show first opened in Montreal in April 2010. Since its debut, “TOTEM” has mesmerized audiences in England, the Netherlands and the United States.
“It required collaboration like no other,” says Smith.
The show’s performers come from 50 different countries and speak more than 25 different languages. But Lepage didn’t have to go far to find “TOTEM’s” lead singer, Christian Laveau. A native Canadian and member of the Hurons-Wendat tribe in Quebec, Laveau caught the eye of “TOTEM’s” creator while playing the traditional drum on his Wendake reservation.
“I was approached and told that ‘TOTEM’ was being created,” remembers Laveau. “[Lepage] said it was the kind of spirit he needed for the show.”
Many of “TOTEM’s” themes center around the ideas of ancient civilizations, including those of Canada’s “First Nations” like the Hurons-Wendat tribe. The more primitive scenes from these ancient civilizations alternate with more modern ones, including actors on stage in suits portraying 21st century businessmen.
While Laveau says some of the elders in his community were hesitant to share their language and culture, he made sure the “TOTEM” producers and directors remained true to the tribe and were sensitive when it came to sacred Hurons-Wendat traditions.
“They didn’t go very superficial or cliché,” says Laveau. “I’m very proud of that.”
Laveau, a trained comedian with his own comedy show on a Canadian television network, says while he went to school for radio and television, singing is his first passion.
“I prefer singing,” says Laveau. “If I don’t sing, I don’t breathe.”
The 37-year-old will have plenty of opportunity to show off his range as the production’s “Native singer.”
Although Smith says there is certainly a storyline to “TOTEM,” the show evokes a different message depending on the audience member.
“Different people will interpret the story differently,” says Smith. “We have a concept, images and ideas ... but we really want the audience to exercise their right to create.”
Audience members may have different personal interpretations of “TOTEM,” but they’ll likely agree on one thing: like any Cirque show, this one is unprecedented.
“Ninety-nine percent of people say they’ve never seen anything like it,” says Smith. “Cirque gives the audience a chance to dream.”