Cirque du Soleil's Totem express arrives in Brisbane

A scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Totem.
A scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Totem. Matt Beard

A HUMAN figure descends from the rafters, spinning and reflecting light from every direction.

Below is a marsh-like cauldron of reptilian life.

This is my first taste of Totem, the latest Cirque du Soleil show to tour Australia.

The live show - a blend of circus arts, acrobatics and music - is themed around the odyssey of the human species.

But Totem is no linear journey through the evolution of man.

Alternating between primate and modern myths, Totem explores indigenous cultures, creation stories and our innate curiosity which inspired us to take flight and explore space.

This is a more intimate Cirque show, although it still features all the hallmarks of the Quebec-based entertainment company.

The costumes are dazzling and intricate and the feats of strength, balance and skill are awe-inspiring.


The Singer

NATIVE Canadian Christian Laveau never had ambitions to join the circus.

The Wendake singer and drummer was approached by Totem's writer and director Robert Lepage after performing at a concert celebrating Quebec's 400th anniversary.

He was initially hesitant to join the cast or lend his voice, including specialised throat singing, to the show.

"I talked with the elders of my reservation, and my mum said 'What are you going to do in the circus? You are not a clown. I don't want them to show it's funny to be a native (Canadian)'," Laveau said.

After extensive negotiations between the company and Wendake leaders, Laveau joined Totem and has been with the show since its opening night.

"It's the most beautiful thing I ever did in my life," he said.

"We get to travel all over the planet.

 "I'm very proud to sing and talk in my mother language (Huron-Wendat) and express to them we are still alive and strong as we can be and we can still give the message of our culture."

A scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Totem.
A scene from the Cirque du Soleil show Totem. Matt Beard

His family and tribe's approval of the show was an important moment.

"My mum cried and my farther cried, not in front of me but my mum said his eyes were wet," he said.

"Two big chiefs came and when you meet those elders who have so much knowledge and they come to shake your hand and they say 'thank you', you know you are doing something OK.

"They don't play with the culture. They fight hard for our ancestors.

"It's more than a show, it's a sharing."

The current Australian tour, which takes in five capital cities, is a childhood dream realised for Laveau.

"Since I was a little kid I wanted to come here," he said.

"I'm from Canada so it's completely down under.

"Each Aboriginal I've met here, we have the same spirit. We have a connection and we feel comfortable. Our culture is so similar even though we are so far away from one another because the base of our culture is the respect of the earth."


The Acrobat

IN CONTRAST, acrobat Gael Ouisse wanted to join the company from the moment he saw his first Cirque du Soleil show.

The Frenchman, who has a background in gymnastics, was working as a firefighter when he saw Mystere in Las Vegas in 2003.

"It will remain with me forever," he said.

"I literally fell in love with Cirque du Soleil from that moment on.

"There were so many emotions in such a short period of time."

 Ouisse returned to his home in Montpelier and gave notice at the fire station.

"You should have seen the face of my boss at the time when I told him I want to leave because I wanted to be part of the circus," he laughed.

"He said 'OK, you saw something incredible maybe in Las Vegas'. He pulled out a white sheet (of paper) in front of me and wrote out my whole firefighter life in 10 or 20 steps to say in two years you'll get this certificate and how it would relate to salaries and how straightforward this life would become by staying there."

The call of Cirque was strong and Ouisse travelled to the company's headquarters in Montreal, where his acrobatic and acting skills were tested in an audition.

"I remember her (the scout) putting some music on and saying 'OK I'm going to shout out random words at you and you're just going to act them'," he said.

"I heard "You're a king' and she even pulled out some colours. I remember her saying 'you're blue'. It made me pause, I have to say. You try to be as creative as you can."

He was invited to help create Cirque's The Beatles LOVE production and performed in the show for four years before helping to develop Totem.

In Totem, he performs in the rings trio and the back-up hand-to-hand balancing act.

He is also currently developing a new act for the show.

 "It's a really interesting process while still doing the show to be able to create something," he said.

 "I carry a lot of pride proud to work for such a company. The people you work with are really passionate and professional.

"And the product you sell is really unique and needed in the world we have today with so many wars and terrorists. I think the people need that to detach from reality for a moment. It's a gift to be one of the people who give that to them."

A scene from the fixed trapeze act in the Cirque du Soleil show Totem.
A scene from the fixed trapeze act in the Cirque du Soleil show Totem. Matt Beard


The Show Runner

CIRQUE du Soleil has gone through its own dramatic evolution.

Starting as a company employing 73 people in 1984, Cirque du Soleil productions were seen by an estimated 15 million people last year.

The crew working behind the scenes are just as integral as the performers to this well-oiled machine, run centrally out of Montreal.

Totem company manager Genevieve Deslandes returned to Cirque in September after a two-year hiatus.

"I always say it was the best job I ever had," she said.

"I tried to settle; I tried to go home, but not everybody can do that I guess. So the day I got a phone call suggesting do you want to jump in and be the company manager for Totem… I was like 'why not?'

"It was like putting on a nice pair of fancy slippers."

The Montreal native, who has toured the world with Quidam, Dralion, Alegria and Kooza, overseas the day-to-day operations of the show.

"Waste management, parking, popcorn… It's very glamorous what I do," she laughed.

As Totem moves from city to city, and country to country, she manages the movements of 111 cast and crew and 81 shipping containers of props, set pieces and costumes.

"If a show still has the ability to give me goose bumps (after this long) then I'm in the right place," she said.

"There are a lot of moments when you feel alone with the artist on stage.

"You don't feel like there are 2600 people with you in the big top."

Totem is expected to tour for a further seven years. After Australia the company will travel to Singapore and Japan.

"We spend our lives saying goodbye," Deslandes said.

"The show is evolving and we can see it changing; it's organic. A show never stays still. Even if we keep a concept it still changes. We need to stay inspired."


Totem opens under the Big Top at Northshore Hamilton in Brisbane tonight and plays through May 24.

Topics:  cirque du soleil

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