Thrilling return to form in trippy Totem


One of the most thrilling acts in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem involves five women on tall unicycles. Photo by Daniel Auclair. Below: Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme are absolutely charming in their trapeze duet. Photo by David Desmarais

It’s never good to speak ill of those no longer with us, but the last touring Cirque du Soleil show that stopped in San Francisco, Ovo, was all about the insect world. And truth be told, it bugged. The show only added to my Cirque fatigue – a feeling that my enthusiasm for the company, which had once thrilled me beyond belief, was wearing terribly thin.

But then along comes Totem, the latest touring show from the Montreal-based circus empire, and the enthusiasm barometer rises again. This show, playing in the yellow-and-blue striped “grand chapiteau” behind AT&T Park, returns a sense of wonder to the big top. There’s visual magic in this show and scenes of breathtaking beauty.

Directed by famed Canadian artist Robert Lepage, the man responsible for the Las Vegas behemoth Ka, Totem has some of the Vegas wow factor (especially in aspects of Carl Fillion’s amazing set) but it has a human scale, which is helpful because the theme of the show is human evolution. Like any Cirque show, that theme floats in and out to make room for some astonishing circus acts (which you could consider the highest form of human evolution if, in addition to being beautiful and thrilling, contributed in some way to world peace) and, more awkwardly, the clown bits.

At more than 2 ½ hours (including a 30-minute intermission), Totem is packed with thrills, but even more than the gravity-defying acrobats, it is infused with visual lyricism. The musical score (by composers Bob & Bill) has that vaguely South Asian feel and heavy percussive tone that so many Cirque shows have, and I wished the music were a better match for the visuals.

The set includes a round performance area in the foreground, and at the back of the stage, behind the tall reeds is the eight-piece band and a bridge to the central performance area. Under that bridge is an extraordinary screen filled with high-def images of water in many forms. We see waves crashing on the shore, rippling waves across a pond, lava burping from a volcano and, most stunningly, a massive waterfall with spray seeming to come right out of the screen.

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The most thrilling of the acts involves five women on tall unicycles. At Friday’s opening-night performance, one of the women fell and rushed off stage. As the other women continued kicking bowls and catching them on their heads (a feat that sounds rudimentary but is actually incredibly exciting), the fallen performer returned to a rousing ovation and only heightened the thrill of the act. The fumble reminded us that even Cirque professionals – the best of the best – are just people, and that raised the stakes for every act that followed. Error is good – grounding and oh so very human.

In Act 2, fixed-trapeze duo Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme completely charmed the audience with their artistry and good humor. What differentiates their act is the hint of story and character. Theirs is a tale of courtship and anger and aggression and submission, all on a trapeze, high above a safety cushion on the stage floor.

Also in Act 2, what started as a clown act with the Darwin-like Greg Kennedy cavorting with an ape turned into a dazzling display of juggling colored lights within a giant plastic cone. I’d never seen anything like it and loved every minute of it.

As ever, the technical aspects of the show are stunning, especially the colorful and bold costumes by Kym Barrett. Her Aztec cosmonaut costumes for the final act of the evening (an impressive Russian bars routine) were like high fashion if there had been a catwalk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The best visual joke of the evening involves the seven stages of man’s evolution, beginning with ape and ending with a guy in a suit on a mobile phone. That has to be Lepage working the show’s theme like the substantial showman he is.

It seems Cirque shows are constantly striving for something new, and that’s certainly admirable, but too often they stray from the core entertainment and wonderful dazzle that the earlier shows offered in such abundance. Totem is more like those early shows, which may seem like reverse evolution, but it’s really just mastery of the form.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Totem director Robert Lepage and costume designer Kym Barrett for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues an extended run through Dec. 18 in the tent behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Show opens in San Jose on March 2. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call 800-450-1480 or visit

Kym Barrett designs a Cirque evolution

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Top: One of Kym Barrett’s designs for Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. Bottom: Barrett’s costumes as they appear in the touring show. Below: Costume designer Kym Barrett. Photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

You don’t go to a Cirque du Soleil show just to see the costumes. Audiences are usually slathering for the death-defying acrobatics and goofy clowns. But what separates a Cirque show from the rest of the circus fray is the spectacle, and that certainly has a lot to do with the costumes.

The latest touring Cirque opus is Totem, another artsy epic under a blue-and-yellow striped tent behind AT&T Park. The theme for this show is evolution, and the costumes are by a charming Australian designer named Kym Barrett. She’s best known for her work in movies – perhaps you’ve seen one of the Matrix movies or Speed Racer? If you haven’t caught one of those, you can check out her work in the upcoming reboot of the Spider-man franchise and the film adaptation of the hit novel Cloud Atlas.
Kym Barrett
I interviewed Barrett and Totem director Robert Lepage (a Canadian theater icon) for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Check out the story here.

Here’s Lepage on working with Barrett:

“We’re not doing period pieces. We create a kind of closed-circuit universe with its own laws and color charts and vocabulary. Kym came with all of that. She is extremely creative, funny, playful and versatile and immediately set the tone for the universe we were creating. This is very much her show. We didn’t even know the characters we were trying to create, but she had photos and fabrics and references and ideas. She was very inspiring.”

And here’s a word from Barrett:

“By the end of the show we’re into kind of Aztec astronaut stuff. We used a lot of imagery from Aztec culture, but all the patterns you see in the actual fabric are from around the world. It’s sort of a designer United Nations in a way. They transcend their borders and move into the next sphere together. It’s all a bit transcendental.”


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues through Dec. 11 behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call (800) 450-1480 or visit