From amphibians to Neanderthals to primates to man, so goes the tale of the evolution of humankind and the overarching theme of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. The production traces the journey from primordial mist to the modern world, creating a visceral tale in the process. Evolution is not just at the forefront of the story, it is also prevalent in the production—under the big top and behind the curtains.
Amerindian dancer Eric Hernandez carries out a narrative using traditional Native American hoop dancing, crafting fixed and dynamic shapes in a ritual that represents the never-ending circle of life. His manipulation of the rings is second nature; Hernandez has been a competitive hoop dancer since he was 10 years old, inspired to learn the tradition of his Native American Lumbee tribe ancestors. Beginning with one hoop and ending with five, his routine is anything but repetitive—he was given a time limit (four minutes) and the freedom to choreograph his own performance; as such, it evolves regularly. “I’ve done 700 shows with Totem and I would say that after the first 50, I just had to do something different,” he says. “It changes all the time … it’s always motivating to go out in front of so many people and perform, [and] I always try and put something new in there.”
The story of Cirque du Soleil itself is one of marked progression. The Quebec-based organization began in 1984 with 20 street performers, and now hires 1,300 artists from over 50 different countries, and collaborates with world-renowned writers, directors, and visionaries. In this vein, Totem is no different—it was written and directed by Robert LePage, one of Canada’s most renowned performing-arts figures.
Totem is a visual spectacle, and having been there since its creation, costume designer Kym Barrett knows every detail of the roughly 1,500 wardrobe pieces in it. Barrett’s own nomadic childhood and experience in Hollywood with the likes of Baz Luhrmann and the Wachowski brothers prepared her well for life, and work, with the travelling troupe. Of all the productions during her 15 years with Cirque du Soleil, Barrett says Totem is her favourite. “We can take something so basic as a lycra unitard and either with the paint, the dye, all the accessories we put on top, really change it,” she explains. “There’s a real duality between the historical side of our evolution and how we’re still evolving. And we’re still going somewhere. We’re still changing.”