By Alan Viau
Photo credit : OSA Images
Costume credit : Kym Barrett ©2010 Cirque du Soleil

TOTEM is the latest Cirque du Soleil traveling show to come to Ottawa. Cirque shows are always breathtaking and guaranteed to dazzle the whole family.

I admit it: I am a Cirque du Soleil junkie. The first show I attended was “O” in Las Vegas. Since then I have seen 10 Cirque du Soleil presentations. Every performance is an inspiration. As a stage artist, I’ve learned so much by observing the near perfect execution of each show by the artists, musicians and technicians. I appreciate both the artistic expression and technical wizardry of these productions.

I delighted in seeing TOTEM when it opened in Montreal in 2010. As with most Cirque du Soleil shows, it is based on an idea – a theme – rather than a story line. TOTEM traces the journey of the human species from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. The characters evolve on a stage evoking a giant turtle, the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. Inspired by many founding myths, TOTEM illustrates, through a visual and acrobatic language, the evolutionary progress of species.

TOTEM is the brainchild of Robert Lepage. Lepage is known in Ottawa because he was the artistic director of the Théâtre français at the National Arts Centre from 1989 to 1993. This is the second Cirque du Soleil show Lepage has created. His first was KA in Las Vegas. KA is the most impressive show I have ever seen.

Lepage uses the magic of projection technology to augment the sets. For example, some of the projections on the marsh interact with the movements of the artists in real time. Infrared cameras positioned above the stage and around the marsh detect their movement and produce kinetic effects such as ripples, splashes and reflections in the water and the flames.

Since my wife is a costume designer, we pay particular attention to the outfits they wear. TOTEM’s costume designer, Kym Barrett, focused on innovative treatment of fabrics. Advanced printing techniques, fluorescent pigments, mirror fragments and crystals allowed her to “paint” on canvases as varied as Lycra and leather. The costumes constantly interact with and adapt to the show’s ever-changing lighting.

In the opening scene the marsh is populated by fish and frogs. Their patterns and colours came from real fish and frogs—including the most poisonous frog in the Amazon jungle—and are replicated by the pixilation of the image in the screen-printing process. The textures of the fabrics are also a close match to the skin of fish and frogs found in nature. The stage seems filled with a community of human amphibians.

Cirque du Soleil standards for excellence go beyond the stage. They hire over 150 local people during a stay in a city. My daughter was an usher when Quidam was in Ottawa and my son worked TOTEM in Toronto. I can confirm that Cirque du Soleil is a fabulous employer and a great company to work with.

I encourage everyone, of all ages, to go see TOTEM. The show is fantastic and the entire experience is memorable. It is always something special to attend a Cirque du Soleil show. You leave breathless.

Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM is playing next to Canadian Tire Centre (formerly Scotiabank Place) through August 4. See for details.

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