Cirque du Soleil's 'Totem' Opens in Strip District

Cirque du Soleil is a menagerie of incredible talents, some of the most splendid performers in the world, and in "Totem," every member of the cast is breathtakingly perfect.

If you’re keeping a bucket list, one item close to the top should be Cirque du Soleil. And luckily, since 2005, the avant-garde, Montreal-based circus has brought its tour to Pittsburgh, wowing audiences with its mythic color and physical feats. Cirque is more than two-and-one-half hours of spectacular entertainment—it is a holistic experience, a colossus of sound, light and acrobatics, which humbly unfolds under a makeshift big top in the Strip District.

cirque du soleil totem

A dancer performs with hoops in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem.

Daniel Desmarais, Cirque du Soleil Inc.   

When Cirque was established in 1980, its creators sought to redefine the circus experience, enunciating the traditional clowns and acrobats with exotic costumes and themed story-lines. Totem, the franchise’s latest production, continues a tradition of symbolic revue, where episodes of intense choreography string together into a larger epic. Cirque has produced better shows, like "Love," which embellished the Beatles’ legend, and lesser shows, like "Alegria," an awkward vaudeville that premiered in Pittsburgh in 2009. But Totem is exceptional all-around, and no visiting adult or child will leave disappointed.

In theory, Totem takes evolution as its blue note, and there are plenty of references of primates, tribal cultures and the perils of post-industrial existence. We are meant to leave Cirque’s tent with affection for science and cosmopolitan life, where Cherokee hoop-dance echo the beauty of astrophysics and space exploration. Like a lot of physical theater, Totem uses costumes and special effects to reference big ideas; in this case, Native American legends and the underrated aesthetics of the surfer lifestyle.

But who really goes to see Cirque du Soleil for its message? The draw of this show, or any show produced by the company, is much more basic. Cirque is a menagerie of incredible talents, some of the most splendid performers in the world, and whatever their superhuman skills, every member of this cast is breathtakingly perfect. These performers have journeyed from all over the globe, and their abilities are positively Olympian. If no theater or dance troupe in Pittsburgh can rival their pristine aerobatics and timing, it’s because Cirque has gathered the best from around the globe. For patrons, the performers blow minds. For artists, they are a revelation.

To describe all the cables, boats, projections, LED’s, roller-skates, unbreakable eggs, illuminated balls and enormous drums that make up Totem would ruin its endless surprises. But suffice it to say, having seen two Cirque du Soleil shows already, this critic was startled by the most magnificent act yet: An Adam and Eve sketch, played out by two acrobats on a single trapeze, which not only flaunted intricate movement, but also emoted the subtleties of a young relationship. Every bent knee, turned head, frowning face and jerked head bears significance, and the two performers will stir anyone who has ever endured a difficult love.

For years, Cirque made its name in its Las Vegas show, popular among tourists and visiting families. The troupe has toured its many productions throughout the world, using its wordless acts to its advantage. Cirque is universally expressive, and if it throws a few ethnic stereotypes our way, most people are willing to shrug them off. Master-jugglers and triple-flipping athletes will forgive just about anything, and so they should.

But Pittsburgh has become a theater town, and this fan-base is discerning. Our city has proudly gestated Squonk Opera and the Zany Umbrella Circus, companies of brave and relentless invention. Cirque du Soleil should not belittle what we already have, but demonstrate, somersault by somersault, how much is possible. For once, it’s OK to stare at the sun.

Totem continues through May 29. 20th St. & A.V.R.R., Strip District. Tue.-Thu., 4 & 8 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 5 p.m. $49.50-225. Tickets: 800/450-1480,

Categories: Arts & Entertainment