Totem is subpar Cirque

Russian Bar, Totem, Cirque du Soleil

Kym Barrett’s costumes for “The Russian Bar”, the best act in Totem, are a crazy trip.

There’s a sprinkling of top-flight acts in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, but this is not a top-flight show.

Robert Lepage wrote and directed Totem and, theoretically at least, his subject is the evolution of humanity. Lepage’s development of that idea never really makes much sense, though, and sometimes it gets problematic. In terms of direct references to evolution, one of the characters is a scientist, and there’s a brief reference to the emergence of homo sapiens, but that’s about it.

More troublingly, the show has a weird relationship to tribal cultures. One of its default positions is to focus on First Nations : there are two sequences of hoop dancing, and one truly bizarre act that involves noble First Nations roller-skating. But what does it mean when you start a show about evolution with a chanting, non-specific tribal people and jump from there right to the hoop dancer?

The first act of Totem only contains one spectacular number. Its name, “Unicycles with Bowls”, really doesn’t do it justice. In “Unicycles”, four gorgeous Asian women, exotically dressed by costumer Kym Barrett in animal prints, foliage, and flowers, ride sky-high unicycles while using their feet to flip little tin bowls onto one another’s heads. Yes, it’s nutty. The level of skill is also astonishing.

But a lot of Act 1—and Act 2 for that matter—feels like filler. The clowns aren’t that funny, and the pacing of the first act is awful: there’s no capper, for instance, we just wander into intermission.

Act 2 is better. Fixed trapeze artists Guilhem Couchois and Sarah Tessier are called upon to act out a coy romance—Totem’s gender politics are surprisingly retrograde—but they are clearly skilled. Greg Kennedy, who plays the Scientist, does a beautiful piece, a kind of juggling act: he stands inside a clear cone and sends illuminated balls flying around him on the inside surface of the cone. In terms of sheer sensual pleasure, it’s a highlight.

As is so often the case with Cirque productions, the best number in Totem is “Russian Bars”. This version involves ten guys. Some of them hold bouncy balance beams on their shoulders. The others propel themselves off those beams, fly and flip through space, and, miraculously, land with both feet back on the slender surfaces. The skill level is through the roof. And, again, Barrett’s costumes are a trip. The men wear wildly patterned body suits. that make them look like Ukrainian Easter eggs. And the little florets on their headdresses are a surreal finishing touch.

Still, other acts are disappointing: mediocre devil sticks, more dull clowning, an unnecessary repeat of the hoop dance, and the roller skating number. Clearly, what the roller skating team is doing—spinning on a small surface while assuming various acrobatic poses—is insanely difficult. But the staging is also insanely stupid: these noble pseudo Natives (Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini) arrive in canoes—and disembark fully wheeled. Without the ridiculous cultural overlay, this number would be way more fun.

It costs a lot to see a Cirque du Soleil show. Totem is not worth the outlay.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.


  1. Dan Williams says:

    How would you have felt about the show if this happened (as happened last night): the unicycle ladies were down to 3 (supposed to be 5 actually) and messed up over and over, and they CUT the Russian bars finale!

    I agree about the devil sticks. Seen better for free on the street.

  2. Wow, Dan, I’m really sorry to hear this. If the unicyclists’ performance was subpar and the Russian Bars act was cut, Totem would be very thin gruel indeed.

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