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Review Round-up: Critics Hail Totem 'Soulless'

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With their 15th residency at the Royal Albert Hall, following last year's Varekai to mark the company's 25th anniversary, Cirque du Soleil this year present Robert Lepage's Totem which opened on 5 January and continues until 17 February 2011.

Drawing inspiration from many founding myths, the show uses's Cirque's trademark visual, acrobatic and circus styles to examine the evolution of the species - with a little bit of magic thrown in for good measure.

As one of Canada's most celebrated performing artists and creatives - Lepage has credits as a director, scenic artist, playwright, actor and film director - many critics appear to have had strong hopes the Québécoise would be able to reinvigorate the Cirque performance. Totem, however, does not seem to have assuaged their fears of the status quo, with frequent reference made to the production's commercial nature and many using the word "soulless" to describe proceedings.

Michael Coveney

"Microbes and monkeys, swamps and springboards, lasers and lotharios... are dressed up in a luminous wash of New Age claptrap and Third World rock music. The lighting is spectacular, the acrobatics tremendous. But even avant garde former wunderkind Robert Lepage... cannot dispel the pervasive sense of notorious naffness that always surrounds Cirque. That... hasn't stopped me turning up... to see something as good as the second act love duets here between a Canadian trapeze act and an Italian roller-skating Indian squire and his squaw. The costumes are exceptional ... The Darwinian evolution theme is pretty much dumped as it's suggested ... As an eyeball feast, the show will suffice. But it's significant that by far the most beautiful and seductive sequence – nothing to do with the circle of life or the mysteries of the universe — is provided by five Chinese ladies in temple outfits on unicycles doing synchronised juggling with tea bowls, flicking them from their feet first into their own head-pieces, then into the others' and finally in all directions without spilling a single one."

Michael Billington

"Cirque du Soleil is often accused of a soulless efficiency. So it must have seemed a bright idea to get Robert Lepage... to bring his own brand of introspective wizardry to its latest production. In the end, however, he makes only a marginal difference ... The concept doesn't make much sense ... If you tried to impose a sequential pattern on what is basically a series of separate acts, you would probably conclude that humankind evolved from a troupe of juggling Oriental unicyclists ... The attempts at comedy are largely woeful ... The evening looks beautiful, thanks to a set by Carl Fillion and projections by Pedro Pires, in which a titled disc reflects either turbulent waves or shimmering waters. There is a stunning moment at the end when cast members float across the disc's apparently solid surface. But, since the show is supposedly about our progress from water to air, it seems to reverse the evolutionary cycle. Like much else in the evening, it is visually impressive without making logical sense."

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

"As predictable as a banker’s annual bonus, the Cirque Du Soleil gravy train pulls into the Albert Hall this month with the usual loud report on its publicity whistle ... Sadly, even Lepage’s unique style is crushed under the wheels of the Cirque’s marketing machine. It all looks and sounds fab, crammed as it is with acrobats, pounding music, gorgeous ­costumes and lavish staging. But there is something soulless at its supposedly radical, eco-conscious heart ... Scientologists may be taken in by the idea that monkeys ­consorting with aliens on parallel bars suggests the origins of life on Earth ... Gasp at the Chinese gymnasts on 10ft unicycles! ­Marvel at the muscular lovers writhing on the trapeze! Thrill as Pocahontas slips out of a kayak and spins with her big chief on roller-skates ... But the throbbing world muzak that serves as a backdrop to all the excitement is just aural filler ... I wound up feeling like I was stuck on the Heathrow Express, being tortured by jingles on BBC News 24 ... Didn’t the circus used to be a dodgy place that you could run away to? Frankly, I’d rather have Zippos. Come back Billy Smart, all is forgiven."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"It’s easy to admire Cirque du Soleil, much harder to love it. The circus acts are usually superb but there is something curiously soulless about this world-conquering Canadian organisation ... the show has become a licence to print money. Robert Lepage, one of the most imaginative and engaging theatre-makers working anywhere in the world today, is both writer and director of the new show ... Even Lepage hasn’t been able to rouse the company from its complacency ... There’s a genuine coup at the start when the ensemble is discovered performing amazing acrobatics on a gigantic turtle skeleton, and a neat re-creation of the famous image of evolution in which an ape is shown metamorphosing into man. But as far as narrative and depth go, that’s just about it. The lighting and projection effects that often seem to flood the stage with water are brilliant but otherwise you would never guess that a man as inventive as Lepage was at the helm .... Overall, there are surprisingly few moments that leave one in a state of slack-jawed wonder and disbelief ... Newcomers to the show will doubtless be more amazed than I was, but far from revolutionising Cirque du Soleil, Lepage’s production turns out to be just more of the same old same old."

Paul Taylor

"The Royal Albert Hall proves to be an excellent substitute for a big top as it plays host to Cirque du Soleil's now-customary January visit to London ... But while the piece is spectacularly vaunting, it also emerges as conceptually vacuous ... A glittering entity entirely encrusted in glass facets... dangles down from the heavens and provides the spark that drives the world into crazy action ... Each of the acts that follow is internally beautifully structured on a rising arc of daring. But the show as a whole lacks any urgent sense of dramatic progression – the randomness of its sequence of turns a bizarre flaw in a piece that aims to illustrate our evolutionary progression ... But Totem's handling of its Darwin-figure is embarrassing ... More than one kind of missing link here, I fear."


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