Secrets of ‘Cirque du Soleil: Totem’ [BACKSTAGE + PHOTOS & VIDEOS]
Something wicked this way comes, just in time for the holiday season…
The ‘Cirque du Soleil‘ ‘Grand Chapiteau’ big top and its performers rolled into Atlanta on Friday with a new show, ‘Totem.’ Inspired by mythology, ‘Totem’s theme is evolution, from our original amphibian state to our ultimate desire to fly.
‘In each and every number there is an evolutionary factor,
which is the thread that runs through the show…’
- Jeffrey Hall, Choreographer
‘Totem is about the evolution of mankind, the human body, civilization and what each of us goes through in our lives’ says Cirque du Soleil spokesperson Frances Jalbert. ‘It goes from one part of the world to the next – since the show doesn’t present the steps of evolution in chronological order, it’s like you’re moving back and forth through time.’
‘Totem is about evolution, so it was appropriate
that the sets went through their own evolution…’
- Carl Fillion, Set & Props Designer
52 performers work the show from 17 different countries. They perform 11 acrobatic acts, most of which are new to Cirque du Soleil. The final act, ‘Russian Bars,’ was so popular in Cirque’s ‘Allegria‘ that they been brought it back for ‘Totem.’
‘All the images are drawn from nature, even when they seem quite abstract.’
Pedro Pires, Projection Designer
The turtle is the heart of many founding myths, representing the earth and carrying the weight of the world on its shell. The large oval framework on stage represents the skeletal structure of a huge turtle shell. It serves as both a decorative stage element and as acrobatic equipment, weighing 2,700 pounds with 2 horizontal bars completely covered in a non-slip finish.
‘The theme of evolution extends into the acrobatic acts in the show.
We selected them to reflect the evolution of human motor functions.’
- Florence Pot, Acrobatic Performance Designer
Through the magic of moving images, the island (AKA the stage) becomes a virtual swamp, a river, a marsh, a lake, an ocean, a volcanic island, a pond and a starry sky. The images in the projections were drawn from nature and shot for the show in Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala. Photographs by Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberte during his 2009 Poetic Social Mission aboard the International Space Station are also integrated into the show.
‘The most sophisticated piece of engineering on the stage is the human body.
It never ceases to amaze me to see what the artists are capable of doing.’
- Pierre Mass, Acrobatic Equipment & Rigging Designer
All of the costumes at Cirque du Soleil are handmade. It is the biggest costume workshop in the world with 400 people working on a daily basis.
‘Although ‘Totem’ is quite fantastical, there’s also a sense of reality…’
- Kym Barret, Costume Designer
Kym Barrett created the costumes for ‘Totem.’ She also created the costumes for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ all of the costumes in ‘The Matrix,’ ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ and Johnny Depp’s costumes in ‘From Hell.’
The Crystal Man, AKA The Human Disco Ball
‘Although ‘Totem’ is quite fantastical, there’s also a sense of reality,’ Kym says. ‘The costumes were inspired in part by documentary film. I wanted them to have a kind of documentary patina, even though we were inventing our own reality.’
‘I’ve been cut a few times, but real glass gives a better reflection…’
- Joe Putignano, The Crystal Man AKA The Human Disco Ball
The Crystal Man, played by Joe Putignano, opens and closes the show. His costume is covered entirely with 4,001 small mirrors and crystals made of real glass. It weighs about seven pounds, and Putignano is in the air most of the time. He says he has been cut a few times. ‘Real glass allows for the best sparkling effect, as opposed to say plexiglass,’ he tells me. But they check the costume every night for sharp edges.’
‘The fabrics’ textures closely match the real skin of fish and frogs…’
In the opening scene the marsh is populated by fish and frogs. Their patterns and colors came from real fish and frogs – replicated by the pixelation of the image in the screen printing process. The textures of the fabrics also closely match the real skin of fish and frogs found in nature.
‘Performers go through a 3-D scanner so masks are perfectly fitted...’
The monkey masks are all handmade, with each hair sewn by hand. Each performer goes through a special 3D scanner that creates a 3D replica of his or her head. That way when the masks are created, they fit perfectly and will not fall off.
‘The show deals with humanity in all of its diversity and richness…’
- Nathalie Simard, Make-up Designer
All of the Cirque du Soleil performers do their own makeup. ‘The show deals with humanity in all of its diversity and richness,’ says make-up designer Nathalie Simard. ‘I used the patterns and iconography of a vast array of different cultures to create the different characters. I’m just as inspired by all the artists, their energy and their performance to create characters that are a really good fit.’
‘The unicycles are very light, allowing them to easily maneuver…’
The unicycles are 7 feet tall but very light, allowing them to easily maneuver down the ramp at the beginning of the act. The Cirque du Soleil tent, however, is not so light. It weighs 11,500 pounds and takes eight days to set up. 65 trailers were needed to transport ‘Totem’s 1,200 tons of equipment to Atlanta. It will seat 2,600 and is 66 feet high, with 4 masts that stand 80 feet above ground.
‘The word ‘Totem’ suggets that human beings carry
in their bodies the full potential of all living species..’
- Robert LePage, Writer & Director
Cirque du Soleil ‘Totem’ is written and directed by Robert LePage, who also created ‘Ka,’ now playing in Las Vegas. ‘Totem’ explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel,’ he says.
‘Totem’s’ composers, who have worked with Cirque du Soleil since 2007, are simply named ‘Bob & Bill.’ ‘Each acrobatic number has its own respirations, its own rhythm, and its own arc,’ they say. ‘The music has to take that into account – not only in the interests of the audience, but in the interests of the artists too.’
The show’s band leader is actually from Macon. Charlers Dennard spent over ten years working as a professional jazz musician in New Orleans and taught jazz music at the University of New Orleans before joining Cirque du Soleil. He started out as the keyboardist for ‘Allegria,’ and moved up to the band leader of ‘Totem’ in 2010. Dennard is in charge of the perfect symbiosis between the eight-piece band and the action happening on stage every night.
‘The scientist represents reason and the quest to understand…’
One of the coolest acts in the show is ‘Manipulation.’ The Scientist represents reason and the quest to understand the universe in ways that can be quantified, measured and put into boxes. His ‘laboratory’ features an orchestra of glass containers filled with mysterious fluorescent fluids. He steps into a transparent cone and juggles with luminous balls that represent plants and molecules – making them chase after each other in spiral orbits.
‘‘ took in ‘Totem’ Saturday night.
In 1984, 73 people worked for Cirque du Soleil. Today the company has 5,000 employees including more than 1,300 artists from 50 countries speaking 25 languages. More than 100 million people have seen a Cirque du Soleil show since 1984, and close to 15 million are expected to see a Cirque show in 2012. The Real Housewives of Atlanta took in the show on Saturday night.
Jalbert says Atlanta has been a great market for Cirque du Soleil. ‘We have been coming to Atlanta since the mid-90s,’ he says. ‘Every time we open a new show it’s natural for us to bring it here. ‘Totem’ has been showing around the world for two and a half years, right now we’re on the east coast and are very excited. It’s a long run, we will be in Atlanta until December 30th. We hope people will come to see us!’
‘Dance styles as diverse as hip-hop and Bollywood came very naturally.
We researched Hindu dance, African dance, animism and TOTEMism.’
- Jeffrey Hall, Choreographer
- ‘Cirque du Soleil: Totem‘ runs through December 30th at Atlantic Station. Photos by Jordan McAuley and Jarrad Boty.