|See it Live
Totem is playing at the Port of Los Angeles
in San Pedro through November 10. The
show comes to the Orange County Great
Park in Irvine on November 21 and runs
through December 29. It moves to Santa
Monica January 17. Tickets start at $60
for adults and $50 for children ages 2 to 12.
Classical music is playing in the background, its upbeat cadence directing ballet dancers to stand with backs erect, one arm curved gracefully to the side, while a straight leg moves with precise, disciplined movements. Pointed toe in, pointed toe out. Pointed toe in, pointed toe out. Quiet conversations whirl in French, Russian and Chinese. A well-built man with a chiseled face lifts a child onto a gymnastics bar, swinging her safely to the ground before picking up the next in line. An acrobat tumbles across gym mats, his focus undisturbed by the giggling unicycle performers who walk by, their tutus and expressive face paint an ordinary sight under Cirque du Soleil’s big tent.
This is the scene backstage at Cirque’s Totem, which comes to Orange County’s Great Park this month. If the performers felt any trepidation about the stunts they were about to perform in front of an awe-struck audience, there wasn’t any indication. Cirque’s shows are known for their extreme acrobatics – daring feats that require superhuman levels of athleticism, discipline and concentration – but these acts aren’t all that have been attracting audiences to the big tent for nearly 30 years. The performances are known as much for their artistry as they are for their acrobatics, from the Beatles-inspired Love show, running since 2006, to O, which takes place in and above a 1.5-million gallon pool and has been in permanent residence at the Bellagio in Las Vegas since 1998. Totem takes on a different visual challenge – human evolution – striving to capture man’s journey through millennia of changes and adaptations.
It’s not an entirely intuitive concept. For Totem’s artistic directors, evolution doesn’t only encompass the chronological development of the human species; it also addresses the evolution of an individual over the course of a lifetime, from finding love for the first time to a wedding ceremony and man’s continuous struggle with himself. The storyline roughly follows human origins, from amphibious creatures emerging from a massive turtle-like structure at center stage, playfully leaping from bar to bar, to a heartbreakingly beautiful narrative dance by Native American artists, and the discovery of science and reason interpreted by a juggling act. Each scene is a feast for the eyes, with lighting, set design and a transformative stage giving a different mood and geographical setting to each act. Totem is an organic world, where a marsh lined with reeds surrounds the stage, an island that becomes a virtual swamp, a river source, a lake, an ocean, a starry sky, and a volcano. It is also a stylistically futuristic world, where the technology and design that go into Totem’s production are the ultimate expression of what man has evolved to accomplish.
There’s an irony in the juxtaposition between Totem’s ancient and mythical beginnings and the actual making of the show, which exists at the cutting-edge of innovation. Costumes for the performers represent the end of man’s evolution – an expression of how far we have come in our ability to create. Designed by Kym Barrett, a native Australian with a long and illustrious career in costume art (she designed the looks seen in films such as The Matrix, Romeo + Juliet and Three Kings), Totem’s costumes straddle the line between reality and fantasy, based on real animals, plants and birds, but made using the latest advancements in the art. Resembling a second skin, each costume is custom-fitted for each performer and treated using a number of printing techniques and pigments that interact with the show’s changing lighting. Mirror fragments, crystals and other decorative pieces are then added to strategically reflect light. The Native American hoop dancers’ costumes incorporate leather and an elaborate headdress, while further down the evolutionary path, the Cosmonauts wear two costumes in one: a glow-in-the-dark Lycra suit that shines in the dark, and an elaborately printed Mayan motif that appears in the light. The Crystal Man, a recurring character who descends from the top of the tent, wears a velvet leotard covered in a mosaic of nearly 4,500 small mirrors and crystals.
The Crystal Man is where Totem begins, his presence a representation of the human life force. He is also where the show ends, diving under the Scorpion Bridge, a mobile platform that connects the marsh to the stage and contorts into variable geometry – a metaphor for our adaptability as a species.
Totem is where beauty, mythology, the past, the present, and our human history, triumphs and struggles intersect.
Photographer James Cant
Styling Kim Bowen at The Magnet Agency
Makeup Billy B for L'Oréal at Bridge Artists
Hair Christian Marc for Bumble and Bumble at The Magnet Agency
Model Alii Kat @ photogenics LA
Digital Operator Joanna Miriam
Photographer’s Assistants Lily Cote, Aubrey Devin
Stylist’s Assistant Sarah Mosqueda
Location Cirque du Soleil Stage, Port of Los Angeles