It’s hard to walk into the iconic blue and yellow striped Big Top without expectations when you know you’re going for a show that has been performed in 30 cities and seen by over 3.8 million people.
Thankfully, Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM, currently playing at the Marina Bay Sands, didn’t disappoint.
In fact, audiences don’t have to wait until the show commences as the entertainment begins the moment you step into the tent, with clowns mingling with the crowd.
When the lights are dimmed and the show begins, the audience is transported into a new realm, where the impossible becomes possible.
Set on an island in the shape of a giant turtle shell, TOTEM is a show about the evolution of mankind, and puts forth the idea that the spirit of man is not separate from the chain of various species that exist in the world. It is a story told through a myriad of colourful performances, with a bit of magic injected in between.
Don’t try to make sense of the storyline, though, as it will only leave you frustrated at the end. This is a circus, after all, and as writer and director Robert Lepage believes, “a discipline in which performers go beyond” where we get to “witness the transfiguration of the human being.”
If there’s one thing that’s consistent and ties the acts together, it would be the role of the Scientist, a Darwinesque explorer who appears in the different worlds to collect data. But even the scientist has a few tricks up his sleeves, as he dazzles us with some physics-inspired tricks in his lab.
The two-hour show had enough acrobatic scenes to keep the crowd in constant wonder, but there were moments where it felt a little bit draggy.
One particularly underwhelming act would be the unicycles and bowls segment. Although given the understandably difficult task of balancing on two-metre unicycles in unison, the girls lacked finesse in catching the bowls, even missing their catches occasionally.
The comic relief lacked variety too, with rather repetitive slapstick humour that often required the help of the highly mechanised stage. There’s no doubt that the performers are highly skilled, so an extra trick or two would have been a good addition.
While the first half of the show was less impressive, the second half was much better. There were a few jaw-dropping moments, such as the opening act of the second half, which featured a heart-stopping performance by a fixed-trapeze duo.
Portraying a playful tease between two lovebirds, the performance demonstrated fluidity of what seemed like highly technical movements, nicely intertwined with some cheeky acting.
Children in the audience, though, seemed particularly taken with the duo that performed acrobatics on skates. When this reviewer spoke to a couple of kids that attended the show, the general consensus was that the skaters' performance was "beautiful".
Costumes, stage, music
If the acts are somewhat inconsistent, the costumes weren't. Each one was fabulous. From neon-bright colours to realistic ape costumes, attire played a big part in bringing out the showmanship.
One particularly impressive moment was when the “crystal man,” clad in a mosaic of reflective pieces on a velvet leotard, was lowered to the centre of the stage, and with the help of lighting and reflection, brought stars down to the audience. It was a moment of awe, with “oohs and aahs” heard from within the crowd.
The musicians should also be given their due credit. Tunes with indigenous influences and vocal rhythms from around the world were performed live, in sync with each act.
For added colour, instruments were sometimes replaced with stage props, such as turning a shelf of beakers filled with different levels of liquid into a self-made xylophone.
After the two-hour journey through various worlds and watching acrobats fly through the air, coming back to reality seemed like a dreaded chore. While there were a few criticisms to make, there’s no denial that Cirque du Soleil carries a certain magic underneath that big striped tent.
*TOTEM will run from 28 October to 6 December with tickets available on Sistic.