Hoop dancer

The Grand Chapiteau’s iconic blue and yellow swirl is the destination for throngs of Vancouverites this warm spring evening as we march excitedly towards the premiere of Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM.  Over the familiar aroma of popcorn wafts the scent of heightened anticipation as Cirque, the juggernaut of all circuses, is renowned for its grandiose mix of dazzling acrobatics and brilliant entertainment. 

The Tracker
[The Tracker]

According to writer and director Robert Lepage, “TOTEM explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel.” This framing vision streams through the show although the audience is not escorted on a chronological journey of species transformation. Rather, a character called the Tracker serves as both ringmaster and guide to another character, the Scientist, as he peers in on different stages of anthropomorphic progression through the seasons. 

Are there any appropriate words that can adequately express how the senses are engaged with each phenomenal stunt? Mind-blowing? Ecstatic? Wonderstruck? Whatever the emotion, it cannot be cocooned or arrested. While TOTEM’s encompassing concept is human evolution, Cirque’s visionary team (Guy Laliberte, Gilles Ste-Croix, Neilson Vignola) has forged an au courant evolution of the traditional circus act. 

Crystal Ladies
[Crystal ladies]

Even something as classic as juggling is transformed into a fresh spectacle with luminescent LED balls that spiral a myriad of patterns inside a conical structure. A collective, undiluted tension is shared while viewing incredible feats of coordination and balance. Case in point: a quintet of ladies toss bowls on their heads while riding outlandishly tall unicycles. 

A lovers’ quarrel, played out as a pas-de-deux on the fixed trapeze, is an unbelievable dance of physical agility and flirtatious storytelling. The sparkling pair appear to glide in air as gracefully as in water. The superhuman athleticism and primal strength demonstrated by acts such as hand balancing, rings, and the Russian bars left the audience breathless. 

Astonishing displays of precise choreography (Florence Pot, Jeffrey Hall) and singular deftness are exhibited in scenes with the carapace bars, foot juggling and hoop dancing.  

Both mesmerizing and terrifying, the feat of two roller skaters spinning at impossible speeds on a drum only 1.8m wide made the hairs on my neck stand up. If you take one of those hairs, split it in half, then split it again – that is the margin of error for any of the thrilling performances. TOTEM not only challenges the limits of physics and gravity but that of human endurance and expressiveness. I wished a neon sign could be flashed with the names of all 47 performers who propelled the show to euphoric heights. 


Comic interludes provided by heartwarming clowns served to balance the breathless intensity and coherently meld the narrative of science and fantasy. Carl Fillion’s set is a marvel in itself. 

TOTEM Set design

The stage is intended to mimic the “organic world” with its marsh of lush reeds that surround an oval island. Lucid images, captured from exotic locales such as Iceland, Guatemala, and Hawaii, are projected (courtesy of Projection Content Designer Pedro Pires) onto this island stage and serve to unite the stunning visual transformations required by each performance.

The Scorpion Bridge, an adaptive, mobile platform, is an imaginative piece of mechanical ingenuity. Aptly named, the structure can curl like a scorpion’s tail, rise, descend, extend, retract and morph into whatever the scenery necessitates. 

The radiant make-up (Nathalie Simard) and flamboyant costumes (Kym Barrett) are equally eye-catching. The dizzying array of textures, colours, and ornate details magically infuse together to catch the light or glow in the dark, and exquisitely re-create the perception of the changing earth seasons. Using his intuitive talents, lighting designer Etienne Boucher applies gorgeous paintbrushes of luminosity to enhance the visceral mood. 


Powerful, soaring vocals, sumptuous arias, and infectious rhythms make TOTEM an aural as well as visual sensation. Kudos for these gratifying efforts go to Guy Dubuc, Marc Lessard, and Jacques Boucher. A couple of aspects that can be overlooked in an undertaking of this calibre are the integrity of the acrobatic equipment design and provisions for venue amenities. 

However, since safety and efficiency is paramount to a show of this scope, a much merited nod is extended to equipment designer Pierre Masse for his meticulous attention. 

An astounding accomplishment in itself, the Cirque village only took eight days to assemble, underscoring the competence of the vigorous crew. The empty parking lot at 769 Pacific Boulevard was converted into a festive hub with concession stands, wet bars, merchandise kiosks, and plenty of flushable toilets with running water.

The tent of the Grand Chapiteau is supported by four massive pillars; my seat happened to be askew behind one of them, obscuring centre stage. Consequently, I missed two entire clown interludes, which, judging by the audiences’ raucous laughter, were worthy sketches. If possible, acquire middle seats and avoid the aisles, where viewing blockage may occur. Missing even a scintilla of this visual extravaganza would be hapless.

Unicycles with Bowls
[Unicycles with bowls]

TOTEM is a sensory feast that is sure to nourish every unimaginable craving. Indulge your primal desires and catch it at Concord Pacific Place through July 6.

Photos by OSA Images.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.


  • Pingback by A Behind the Scenes Look at Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM in Vancouver | Vancouverscape — June 4, 2014 @ 11:15 am

    […] reviewer Cora Li recently attended (and reviewed) Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM, and was by all accounts wowed, enough so that when there came an […]

  • Comment by Dan Williams — June 19, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

    Just make sure that, unlike June 18, the whole show is being performed (including the finale) and the unicyclists are not down to three riders from the B team.

  • Comment by Ariane Colenbrander — June 19, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

    Hi Dan,
    Wow, had no idea, Dan, that this would happen during their run. Were they down a couple of performers due to injuries? Thanks for noting this on our site.

  • Comment by Trish — June 27, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    I loved the show. This is my second Cirque show, so I’m just happy to see them when they are here. The acts were amazing and I loved the static trapeze duo.
    We didn’t have the unicycle act at all. So we don’t know what happened there. A bit disappointed since everyone seems to be raving about it.

  • Comment by Ariane Colenbrander — June 27, 2014 @ 8:50 am

    @Trish, Seems odd; that’s indeed one of the many highlights. I wonder whether there was a timing issue or a problem with one or more of the acrobats in the act. Sorry you didn’t get a chance to see them. I’m sure you’ll agree that the show is a highly-polished spectacle worthy of checking out. ^ac

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