Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem”, playing through early March at the Santa Monica Pier, isn’t nearly as profound nor as entertaining as many of its Cirque predecessors. The show, which was sometimes swamped by its impressive stage technology, didn’t get much help from the thin and meandering high concept theme by Robert Lepage, or Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard’s music, which leaned on a vague fusion of Middle Eastern and Amer-Indian melodies, chant, and percussion. The nearest we get to a cohesive, unifying theme comes from Carl Fillion’s sets (a backdrop of a glowing embankment of reeds), accompanied by Pedro Pires’ interactive and beautifully filmed projections. Alternating between rocky surfaces washed by steams or the ocean, bubbling mud pools, and lava flows, those effects were consistently appealing and put you at the heart of an essential, natural world.

Lepage’s “Totem” begins deep in man’s primordial past. The opening gymnastic act emerges from the opening set piece, an immense turtle shell. But the connections Lepage hopes to draw between man, myth, and science never really develop. A handful of recurring characters guide us along the way. He makes one clever statement with a reconstruction of the briefcase toting businessman and the procession of monkeys. One of them carries a large bone evoking the famous image from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Least appealing was the music for the faux flamenco act, and the disco themed dance finale which looked amateurish. The choreography was by Jeff Hall.

Duet circus acrobats performing in the air
Trapeze Duod − Photo: Matt Beard

Over the last twenty years Cirque du Soleil has pioneered “nouveau cirque”, a themed, animal-free, big top adventure that reinvigorates circus sensibilities, often elevating acts that were formerly considered second tier performance such as contortionists and strength artists, acrobats, and jugglers. The best of these on the “Totem” lineup were the fantastic, all-female Chinese quintet of unicycle riding jugglers, and the spectacular and moving trapeze duo, performed by Guilhelm Cauchois and Sarah Tessier.

On this Sunday’s performance the flown acts went off without a hitch. But the unicycle act showed just how dangerous being on the ground could be when one of the five performers fell hard from nearly ten feet, lunging for a head catch for a bowl that had been thrown short. It was an instructive lesson in how easily missed tosses in a challenging routine can spool toward disaster. The fallen cyclist recovered and finished the act, grabbing some well-deserved applause in doing so. The performers were: Bai Xiangjie, Su Rina, Wang Xue, Yang Jie and Zhang Jie.

Shows continue at the Santa Monica pier through early March. If you go on Sunday, take a moment to contemplate the temporary Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial set up on the beach adjacent to the tents. It is sponsored by local Veterans organizations.

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