Next to Marina Bay Sands, on Bayfront Avenue, now sits the iconic giant tent known as Le Grand Chapiteau (The Big Top) and that can mean only one thing – Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest theatrical producer and indisputably the most well-known circus has arrived in Singapore!
Cirque is well known for its colourful shows which meld high-technology, dance and live music with circus acrobatics featuring a range of unique performance traditions from all over the world. After Saltimbanco (2000), Alegria (2002) and Quidam (2005), TOTEM, Cirque’s fourth production, traces the fascinating journey of the human species as it evolves, to its ultimate desire to fly. We were invited to attend the premiere on 28 October, and boy, the who’s who in Singapore were out in full force as I saw celebrity faces everywhere I looked.
The show opened with a central prop evoking a giant turtle’s carapace, which is said to be the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations. Some “amphibians” and “fish” cavorted around it and leapt from one parallel bar to another. This was followed by the next act, Hoops Dancer, where an “American Indian” used hoops to create shapes. We discerned a couple of hiccups in the stunts, though smoothed over with seasoned grace, but fortunately, these warm-ups for both performers and the audience were only to pave the way for more jaw-dropping acts to come.
Bollywood met the beach next, as a trio of two hunks and an equally muscular woman with the bod of a champion bodybuilder, competing with each other on the rings. Sometimes I feel like Cirque could be a champion Olympic-worthy gymnastics event with all the exercises rolled into one – first parallel bars in the carapace, then rhythmic gym in the hoops, and now this, followed by a “Crystal Lady” doing some foot juggling, spinning up to four squares of glittering material using both hands and feet, at fever pitch.
Now that was just the teaser. The first truly ‘wow’ moment was at hand. Five unicyclists juggled metal bowls in a magnificent display of balance, agility and grace. They cycled while throwing and kicking the bowls with perfect aim and caught the bowls on their heads while stacking them up high. During this scene, I recalled why I sometimes close my eyes watching such performances – I felt the stress on behalf of these talented women perched high atop their unicycles, with no redemption should they lose their balance. There were “native Americans” close at hand by the stage watching them like a hawk should any bowl misbehave. But fortunately they were not activated for our performance, for the unicyclists did a formidable job and kept themselves – and all bowls aloft.
I love the way Cirque, instead of using stagehands to move the props on and off stage, thinks up of innovative ways for its actors to do so seamlessly. A “raft” that was rowed onto the stage was actually a safety cushion in disguise , as a man teases, courts a young woman playing hard to get, both intertwining their bodies lithely on a trapeze high up. I gasped as they got higher and higher, all the while not skipping a beat as their rhythmic movements matched the music.
Interpersing acts which focus on raw strength and grace with those which feature high-tech or original contraptions (and humourous mini-skits in between), the next act featured a geeky Scientist in his laboratory. While a row of test tubes soon doubled as drums, a mysterious transparent cone came onto the scene, with the Scientist juggling balls that seemed to float or bounce around barely losing their momentum. As they changed colours rapidly, the Scientist caught them deftly, making me wonder whether those dancing balls were due to physics, human dexterity or just pure magic.
The Hoop Dancer at the beginning soon appeared on stage again with a female partner, creating more new figures with the hoops on their hand and feet. I didn’t notice how it happened, but was amazed at how they somehow ended up with two huge hoop globes.
TOTEM was building up to its finale and the next act was my personal favourite. A couple in white native American get-up and roller skates appeared and started to spin atop a tiny platform just 1.8 m in diameter, shaped like a drum. Perhaps it was just their exotic good looks and excellent figure they cut, or something about their solemnity and the electrifying bond between them – we assumed that they were a couple in real life and it turns out indeed that was true.
They started to spin faster and faster, with the man as the anchor as he held on to the woman, whose legs left the ground from the momentum. When they brought out a kinky-looking neck band and I wondered where things were going to go from here, they started to spin at even more incredible speeds, not just around the drum, but also with the woman revolving with a rapid corkscrew motion with that loop. Such a stunt can only be pulled off by two people with terrific chemistry – for there is no room for error, no ball or hoop to be picked but certain flying off the stage from the speed. The two of them, incredibly intense, for that instance without any other care in the world but to get that right. You’ll have to watch it to get what I mean.
The rousing final act was the Russian bars, touted as the highlight of TOTEM. The bars are extremely pliable planks just 10 cm wide. Wearing colourful psychedelic costumes inspired by lost civilisations in South America, several performers bounced, jumped, somersaulted and flew off, eliciting gasps from the audience when they landed perfectly on a different bar they started out with. One of them is 20-year-old Nikita Moiseev, who has been with TOTEM since its launch and who was born on tour as his parents have both been with Cirque for years. What is meaningful is that his father, Russian Alexander Moiseev, invented the Russian bars stunt in the 1970s. He remains a regular in this act to this day.
And that was the finale of the performance we caught. I had not read the synopsis of the story prior to the show, and I’m not sure if the human evolution part that it was supposed to portray came through, though in the immediate aftermath I had thought from its title, TOTEM that the colourful costumes on the whole did accurately reflect a notion of tribes or native American culture. The lack of coherence on the evolution theme notwithstanding, it didn’t seem to matter for everyone had a jolly good time. The individual acts had humour, variety and still inspired the oohs and aahs and the kids all seemed to enjoy it – and anyway, thrill seekers don’t need more than spectacle, which TOTEM undoubtedly is. It is meant to be more intimate compared to many of Cirque’s other shows as it is made up of several small acts, thus offering the audience an up close and personal experience.
The event was capped with a lively after-show party. It’s not often that a world-class circus is in Singapore – so go catch TOTEM! You have until 6 December to do so.
Ticketing information is available via SISTIC online and authorised agents and Marina Bay Sands.
Show run: 28 October – 6 December 2015