Evolution is the theme in Quebec circus’ latest show, which opens this week in O.C.
For its latest story, “Totem,” Cirque du Soleil’s creative minds decided on a modest topic: the history of life on Earth.
“It’s big, I know,” said Tim Smith, the artistic director of “Totem,” which opens Thursday in Irvine’s Great Park. “But Guy and Robert like a big canvas.”
Where: Orange County Great Park Festival site, 6950 Marine Way, Irvine
When: Nov. 21-Dec. 29. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Additional 4:30 p.m. performances Dec. 6 and 13. No performances Dec. 17, 25, 26.
How much: $50-$150
“Totem” focuses on evolution, a subject that has long interested Lepage. As his visual point of departure, Lepage uses the imagery and origin stories of the First Nations people from the Pacific Northwest, though “Totem” ranges far and wide over its two-hour length.
“Robert is fascinated with where we came from,” Smith said. “That’s why we have water represented throughout the show. Life started in the water, and it makes sense that it supports many of the acts; it’s almost like a character in that way.”
Unlike “O,” Cirque’s hugely successful aquatic extravaganza in Las Vegas, “Totem” doesn’t feature real water. As a traveling circus, its effects must be transportable. The water is a convincing image projected on a raised upstage platform that frames the performers. An articulated arm extends from it, acting as an entrance ramp, set piece and additional performing space.
“We call it the bridge,” Smith said. “It’s a really exciting piece of engineering. It looks simple, but it’s not simple in structure. It can do a hundred different things.”
Ten independent hydraulic cylinders operate a series of panels that can be manipulated into a curve, a flat surface or other shapes. At one point it becomes a speeding motorboat, waves flying from its bow.
The acrobats, jugglers and athletes in “Totem” are similar to those seen in other Cirque shows – there’s a female unicycle team that balances metal bowls on their heads, an amorous couple on a fixed trapeze, a juggler who performs inside a huge Plexiglas cylinder, a Native American hoop dancer and, of course, several physically dexterous clowns.
But Lepage’s theme is reiterated throughout “Totem.” That leads to an obvious question: Which comes first, the concept or the acts?
“That’s kind of a chicken-egg thing,” Smith said. “We need to book acts sometimes a year or more in advance, but we’re always looking at them and deciding how or if they can be molded to our theme. We pick acts that support it. We’re clear about the general concept and direction of the show, but we can alter it a bit to accommodate an individual act.”
A mandate to stay creative
When Lepage joined the “Totem” project, he brought a huge asset with him: his own creative team.
“One of the most exciting things about this project is that Robert has a large group of technical people who are used to working with him,” Smith said. “He has projectionists and designers and lighting and sound technicians that he uses in his theater pieces all over the world.
“We were very lucky to have that kind of talent brought to ‘Totem.’ That’s why I think it’s significantly different from other Cirque shows.”
An enigmatic, glittering character who floats above the action in “Totem” is called the Crystal Man. He is central to Lepage’s thematic concept and represents one of his favorite recurring themes, Smith said.
“Robert always focuses on our constant need to progress as a civilization. We have the means to escape Earth and fly upward into space. (The Crystal Man) is the bridge between us here on Earth and our dream to live and travel easily through the stars.”
Many of the performers imitate various amphibians – another aspect of Lepage’s Darwinian explorations, Smith said.
“Everything you see on stage has to do with Robert’s theme of evolution and where we came from. Humankind arose from those life forms, and we literally came out of the water.”
“Totem” takes a different approach than many Cirque du Soleil shows with its host characters, the Scientist and the Tracker, who visit its many worlds. Aided by several assistants and a monkey, the Scientist performs amazing physics experiments. The Tracker, despite his splendidly theatrical attire, is environmentally conscious and a friend to animals; he helps the Scientist in his travels.
“Cirque shows often separate the ‘story’ characters from the athletic artists,” Smith said. “With the Tracker and the Scientist, they develop throughout the show and contribute artistically with a skill set.” In the second act, the Scientist transforms into a younger man to perform a spectacular juggling routine. The Tracker becomes a toreador.
Smith, who spent 15 years as a Broadway actor before developing his behind-the-scenes skills, loves his job but acknowledges he sometimes feels like the Scientist during his juggling routine.
“It’s an exciting job. I sit in the middle of many different elements. I watch every show, take notes and try to keep the quality as high as possible.”
“Totem” also changes to accommodate new ideas.
“It’s part of Cirque’s mandate of being creative,” Smith said. “We change things partly to motivate the artists, as opposed to a theater piece which stays frozen once you’ve created it. That’s one of the things I love most about this organization.”