Thursday, November 1, 2012

Talking TOTEM by Cirque du Soleil

When Cirque du Soleil is in town, I'm there. Well, most of the time.

My introduction to the Montreal-based entertainment extravaganza took place under the Grand Chapiteau at Turner Field's parking lots in 1999, when the big top tour of "Dralion" arrived in Atlanta. The Headline Group -- the boutique public relations agency for which I was then a new employee -- worked with Cirque du Soleil from their early 1990s Atlanta debut through the end of that decade, and my boss and mentor managed the local team for "Dralion." Jolly good show.

We missed a 2002-03 tour on a technicality: Edelman acquired The Headline Group, so with THG showing up as "closed" our agency missed the option to pursue the Cirque du Soleil project the one time it was in suburban Cobb County (we also represented a competing entertainment property, so timing did not work).

But the sun did not set for our team as we renewed contact in time for 2005 when "Corteo" arrived at Atlantic Station and our team at Edelman landed this entertainment project. It was great fun working on this dream-inspired tour, and we later enjoyed collaboration for "KOOZA" and "OVO" before "Dralion" returned on an arena tour just a couple of years ago. C'est magnifique!

On my own dime, I experienced the magnificent water-themed "O" in Las Vegas, the arena tour for "Alegria" in Oklahoma City, and Cirque du Soleil's racier "Zumanity" (also in Sin City) in recent years. Each show brings to mind special memories -- though there are similar themes from one tour to another, they are all unique in as many ways. "O" remains the one to beat in my personal scorekeeping for Cirque du Soleil thrills.

It was my good fortune to work on the "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" earlier this year as a freelance P.R. partner for Cirque du Soleil, and it was bittersweet to learn their selection of another communications counselor for the new big top tour -- "TOTEM" -- now at Atlantic Station through December 30. But the "sweet" part meant that, as in 1999, I could again experience an Atlanta big top stop as a spectator.

"TOTEM" delivers the goods.

In Cirque du Soleil's words from the official program (a beautiful publication), the new tour "traces humankind's incredible journey -- from our original amphibian state to our ultimate quest for flight."

The journey begins with "Crystal Man" (an artist beautifully covered head to toe by thousands of tiny mirrors) descending from the heavens, unveiling turtle shell-inspired staging around which colorful amphibians gaze upon the audience. As these sequin-clad reptiles warm up the crowd, they reveal the carapace as their playground for gymnastic leaps and trampoline bounds. Welcome to Cirque du Soleil!

I loved that the first act quickly moved to a First Nations feature (that's Canadian for Native American). The Hoop Dancer -- U.S. born Eric Hernandez -- delivered an elaborate performance showcasing many skills with five rings (the closest "TOTEM" gets to the Olympics -- though there are Olympians who are part of Cirque du Soleil's other tours, none are part of this tour). Beautiful. And the live band and musicians' many talents really started to shine in support of Hernandez.

The rest of the first act included a blur of amazing: more gymnastics via the Ring Trio (two males and one female dangling from way, way up); five Chinese-born performers who earned a standing ovation for their brass bowl and teapot tossing -- and catching -- on elongated unicycles; and two "Crystal Ladies" (a duo of Belarus beauties with the same surname, Tsodikova) who seemed to arrive from the future to showcase fine foot juggling skills (I made note of their costumes' similarity to outfits donned by Zhora at Taffeys Bar in "Blade Runner" and now feel I have an answer to what Harrison Ford watched in the film's fictional night club scene).

Cirque du Soleil also brought in the clowns -- this time in the form of Italy's answer to Elvis (with horse jockey physique) and a playful introvert with the morose eyes of The Cure's Robert Smith. They each take center stage several times throughout the show, twice in boats which "float" atop a well-executed stage configuration that blends video projection to create water.

A scene in which the evolution of man from monkey to modern office worker played out nicely and with good cheer.

"TOTEM" also included a few scenes that left me, and more than a few fellow audience members, scratching our heads.

I was not sure what to make of the Robert Goulet lookalike and his teammates in the "Perches" performance (their act includes plenty of daring feats, mind you, but it was the least connected scene for the evolution theme). A character named "The Tracker" also was a non-sequitur, as was the Spanish dancer and the Darwin-like "character" who worked to electrify the audience from within a giant beaker. Each of these fell flat, at least for this blogger.

But "TOTEM" included a lovely couple on the Fixed Duo Trapeze (breathtaking and beautiful -- I now have a crush du soleil on the Canadian performer Sarah Tessier) and a welcomed return of the Hoop Dancer with his female partner. And at this point in the second act, when the woman behind me exclaimed, "roller skates!?!" I must admit to some initial apprehension about wheel-clad Native Americans setting up for a spinning dance on an enormous drum -- but they brought down the house (it was spectacular; something I'll tell to my grand kids at a future Cirque du Soleil show).

It was during this latter pair of First Nations performances when I realized the "turtle shell" staging resembled an enormous Dream Catcher aloft in the big top. A lot of good dreams captured in "TOTEM."

I won't write much here about the final act, Russian Bars, which brought the evening's second "from the future" (???) moments. Were they supposed to be amphibians from outer space? Or going to outer space? Still not sure. But then, part of the beauty of Cirque du Soleil is the wiggle room for audience interpretation.

And with that in mind, my take was that this Russkiye act (with the help of Kym Barrett, costume designer extraordinaire) gave us a mini-preview of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic "Look of the Games," if only by coincidence (their costumes are similar to the upcoming winter Olympic outerwear and advertising, with an array of vivid colors and complexity). They are bright, glow in the dark, and they are strong.

Is "TOTEM" a great entertainment experience? Absolutely! Is it worthy of the $43.50 to $153.50 ticket price? Well ... I'll leave that to readers to decide (suggestion: though there is not a bad seat in the house, this show may be better experienced in the price level one or premium seating).

For a second take on "TOTEM" check out the AJC review by Wendell Brock, which provides more than a few apt notes on this tour experience (his colleague Howard Pousner also wrote some great reports about the tour, starting with the January 2012 advance story my team secured via P.R. circles last December).

Looking forward to the next Cirque du Soleil and to "TOTEM" talk with friends. Enjoy the show!

Photos via Cirque du Soleil by OSA Images

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