Totem – Cirque du Soleil, Alexandra Park, Auckland REVIEW

August 24, 2014
3 mins read

CDS_totem_carapace_OSA_PS_TOTEM_ (7)NORMALLY, THIS REVIEWER would run a mile from anything theatrically-oriented, and anything remotely circus-like.

But somehow (don’t ask) I found myself seated in the big top at Alexandra Park on Friday night, being wowed along with a couple of thousand other impressed punters, by Cirque du Soleil’s latest production.

Happily, here’s a circus that exploits only humanimals, but for me, it’s alien territory. I’m an ardent music fan for a purpose: music fulfills all my criteria as an abstract series of organised vibrations that I can listen to without picturing humans at all. All types of visual theatre, on the other hand, no matter how seemingly magical or technologically and creatively audacious (and let’s make no bones about it, Totem is all those things and more), involve an audience willing to suspend their analyses, willing to be bewitched rather than seeing through the cracks in the illusions. Sadly, I’m one of those people who have a predisposition to obsessing about those cracks.

It’s to Cirque du Soleil’s credit, then, that every now and then during the two-hours-plus of Totem, I was actually swept up and sucked into that illusion, bowled over by the magic of the movement.

FootJugglingWhen it comes right down to it, Cirque du Soleil is mostly about acrobatics. All the most compelling set pieces of Totem involved acrobats doing their death-defying routines, but in their case, they’re dressed up with a story (of sorts), outrageous costumes, and brilliant sets and lighting. There are diversions into comedy-theatre, but these are really just a way to ease the tension between the main acts, and in fact, the comedy becomes a little bit annoying towards the end, mainly because its sensibility is struck somewhere between the anachronistic antics of a Chaplin and the TV-friendly characteristics of a Mr Bean.

Totem as a theme is a non-event, mere dressage. I didn’t even really get that it was supposed to be “a fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind” until I read about it after the performance. Still, it binds things together in a manner that may work better for both performers and audience than a mere variety show.

As a fan of progressive rock (don’t laugh), I don’t really have a problem with the fact that the whole thing is structured around an exposition of the virtuosic performances of its leading acrobats, although, as a heterosexual male, I was considerably more entranced with the seemingly impossible conto_SA14209_v5rtions of the female exponents than the six-pack-sporting males. The two pieces that had me awestruck were poles apart: one involved a bevy of beauties riding incredibly tall one-wheel bikes and throwing hats at each other (it’s much better than it sounds), and the other was a male/female duo whose high-up acrobatic dance told a love story way up on a trapeze, and almost had me writhing under the seat (I hate heights, you see).

The problem with virtuosity, however, no matter how much dressage it has, is that ultimately it can seem a bit empty. At times, I found myself thinking about the tooth I had broken the day before and how I was going to find the cash to see it fixed. Although none of the set pieces were excruciatingly long, at times it did feel a bit like I was sitting through a Ginger Baker drum solo, or an Indian classical music concert. In short, my attention wandered, but not often enough to describe it as boredom.

Witchdoctor readers will find plenty to like about Totem, which undoubtedly harnesses the latest technology to make for a stage set that’s constantly morphing, and the integration of stage smarts, lighting and audio was dazzling. The audio, although not pure in a hi-fi sense, was impressively surround sound – an example of that was when we heard a giant mosquito buzz around the circumference of the tent. And the integration between pre-recorded and live sounds was excellent: one of the real bonuses were the musicians, especially the percussionists, who were positioned behind a wall of bamboo at the back of the set, and the vocalists who wandered around with their wireless microphones.

CDS_totem_unicycles_OSA_PS_TOTEM_ (4)The music itself was a fairly garish but effective mix of ‘world’ tropes, with the emphasis on rhythm and an African accent that I guess was in keeping with the ‘ascent of man’/back-to-Africa theme.

Totem is a massive undertaking by a team of 45, and the knowledge that just one wrong move by one person could stuff everything up tends to keep audience members (metaphorically speaking) on their toes. It’s not really my thing, but as a live spectacle, I admit, this would be hard to beat. GARY STEEL

* Totem runs until September 29 at Alexandra Park, Auckland. Ticketing and schedule information from


Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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