Theater Review: Totem

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What The Greatest Show On Earth now looks (and sounds) like: stupendous and bedazzling, flecked with only a trace presence of the precious and pretentious.

Cirque du Soleil brings its Big Top to the Santa Monica Pier.

Cirque du Soleil has certainly come a long way since it first pitched its tent on the beach at Santa Monica in 1988 (after an initial make-or-break run in Little Tokyo the year before as part of the sorely-missed Los Angeles Festival). The circus originally distinguished by its circumspect modesty has evolved into a commercial juggernaut of gargantuan proportion, so there is a double-edge to the theme of its fabulous most recent touring show, Totem, which propounds variations on the evolution of humanity and other species as a framing vision to encompass its astonishing feats of acrobatics, juggling and showmanship. These acts transcend the merely jaw-dropping: they tap more deeply than the post-New Agey trappings into an awestruck sense of wonderment and a profound connoisseurship of the miraculous expressiveness of the human body.

In the first act of a long, full program, the Carapace Bars, foot juggling, hand balancing, hoop dancing, and Devil Sticks, astounding as they may be, are trumped by a quartet on the gymnastic rings that bests any traditional trapeze act this viewer has seen live or on film. Yet even that dazzler is eclipsed by a quintet of young Chinese women in suggestive Pacific Islander regalia tossing bowls with their feet and catching them on their heads, all while riding the tallest unicycles ever seen -- maybe even possible. That their execution is not completely perfect detracts nothing, only underscoring the phenomenal skill required and making their climaxes even more sensationally suspenseful.

Yes, the circus has improved in almost every respect from its 20th century modes. Just as instrumental musicians and athletes have become more prodigious phenomenons, so too have conditioning, fitness, and enhanced materials and fabrics allowed physical performers to attain ever more impressive levels of capability. Whatever we saw on The Ed Sullivan Show has been left in the sawdust. Nor should we underrate the significance of the progress in core values, as in the absence of live animals, which are no more missed than the haze of tobacco smoke in the big tent. Cirque du Soleil may traffic in suggestions of grand themes, invoking both myth and science as gestures more than ideas, but flashing facile big ideas does promote a more humanistic extravaganza than the casual and unrecognized cruelties and exploitations so integral to the institution’s past glories.

Even so, while Cirque may cocoon its pyrotechnics in conceptual cloudiness, who reasonably expects depth of thought from a circus? Its weightier meanings instead emerge from the depth of the visceral experience itself, from the authority of the senses engaging with the unimaginable. In this, despite its Faustian compacts with Vegas-ization and sponsors, Cirque du Soleil, in perhaps its most amazing tour de force of all, has steadfastly maintained the virtue of its purity despite unsavory associations.

And if one must amp up the spectacle to such splashy and cacophonous extremes, there can be no talent to do so with greater integrity than writer-director Robert LePage, Canada’s analogue to an Orson Welles. A rigorous experimental artist on stage, he insures that the realization of the encompassing vision of the show remains precise in its effect, and for all the freight of its pretensions the concept retains its intellectual and visceral coherence. It’s an even more extraordinary challenge than confronts any of the artistes, itself a marvel of acrobatics and juggling – and, yes, even clowning. He deploys the circus as a pretext to distill an essence of dance, sculptural physicality and undiluted theatricality (though not, for good or ill, any distinctive musicality).

LePage is certainly blessed to have the collaboration of such sensitive and flamboyant designers, the lighting intricate, complex and subtle -- and, above all, the creative perfection of the incomparable costumes. Kym Barrett started out on film with Baz Luhrmann, moving on to the Wachowski siblingson The Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas. What she’s accomplished here with textiles and color is so flashy and yet so lucid that the patterns mix with the bodies and light with an inspiration more truly interactive than what passes for such with computer devices.

Any viewer would be remiss to fail to acclaim the innocent yet truly sexual pas de deux on the fixed trapeze, the penultimate marriage ceremony on roller skates within a tight ring, and perhaps the most death-defying of all: the climax on the Russian bars, half balance beam and half trampoline, supported only by stalwart shoulders, accomplishing what looks to be quadruple somersaults in midair. You’ve got to see it to believe it.  

Venue: Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica (runs through March 16)

Cast: Ante Ursic, Greg Kennedy, Eric Hernandez, David Resnick, Mikhail Usov, Pippo Crotti

Writer & Director: Robert LePage

Director of Creation: Neilson Vignola

Set & Props Designer: Carl Fillion

Costume Designer: Kym Barrett

Composers & Musical Directors: Bob & Bill (Guy Dubuc & Marc Lessard)

Choreographer: Jeff Hall

Lighting Designer: Etienne Boucher

Sound Designer: Jacques Boucher