A huge tortoise shell looms below the sparkling figure gently spinning in a slow descent into the packed Royal Albert Hall. The tortoise shell is ripped from the skeletal dome upon which it rests as the “crystal man” reaches the top of the central prop for tonight’s performance of Totem by Cirque du Soleil. “He comes from space to spark life on Earth”, and so it is that 10 florescent, lizard forms jump into life as his glittering body reaches the ground. They dance and jump through the structure, landing with pinpoint accuracy and perfect grace on the bone-like frame. Two of the cast swing on parallel bars incorporated into the frame, their rotations and jumps perfectly coordinated to avoid an unthinkable clash of bodies. The first act ends with four of these lizard beings spinning on the two bars, a feat which blows the minds of the audience of families and Valentines lovers, setting the tone for the evening ahead.
The acts which follow are incredible. A beautifully choreographed trapeze act sees two reluctant lovers fall (pun not intended!) for one another 20 feet above the ground. Their bodies simultaneously repel and support one another as the artists contort into stunning shapes and then violently yet gracefully transition into sequences of jumps and flips. Earlier, 5 Japanese unicyclists had ridden into the arena over a pneumatically animated bridge on to the stage. Whilst balancing, rocking forwards and backwards in perfect time to the music, the girls take bowls from their heads and place them gently on their feet. As the audience hold their breath the bowls are flipped in the air to be caught on the heads of other artists – seemingly impossible and amazing to behold.
This was my first Cirque du Soleil experience and it surpassed all of my expectations. I arrived having seen snippets of past performances on TV and with the expectation that having seen so many stunts and effects in movies, I might be less than impressed with the live experience, a little desensitised even. Not the case. Seeing the rules of physics I am forced to live by so casually manipulated by other living breathing human beings was breath-taking.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the traditions of the circus have not been lost. Time between acts is well filled by clown acts, humorous and brief, where the audience is reminded of the circus’s own history, just as they act out mankind’s evolutionary tale.
Reviews I read before booking Totem, whilst positive, suggested the acts might be seen as repetitive or less than impressive. I can assure you that from the perspective of a Cirque du Soleil first-timer, this was not my experience. I can only assume that these reviewers are used to better (possible) or are of that ilk of armchair reviewer, casually complacent about the ease with which a performer should achieve such feats as those on display here. Either way, I walked away smiling, with a resolution to get myself down to the gym…