Cirque du Soleil brings ‘TOTEM’ to life

Gael Ouisse and Alya Titarenko practice a routine that requires strength, balance and trust. While the routine is not a part of the regular show it could be added to any performance and both performers must be ready to go. Photo/Michael Boylan.

The Grand Chapiteau is back in Atlanta. Cirque du Soleil has launched “TOTEM,” an awesome combination of acrobatics, comedy, dancing and derring-do, at Atlantic Station and the show will run until Dec. 30 of this year.

Recently 64 trucks brought the show in and set the arena up in eight days. “TOTEM” is like its own little village, only needing to hook up with the local water system. The cast and crew reside off-site during the run, but backstage there is a kitchen, laundry and school for the production and their family members who travel with the show, as well as everything they need to put on the breathtaking show they present 10 times a week. The school on-site has three full-time teachers and seven students—one minor performer (Nikita Moiseev – Russian Bars) and six children of touring artists. The Chinese unicycle performers are also minors and partake in school onsite as taught by the Chinese interpreter.

There are 17 different nationalities represented in the cast and crew and 11 different languages are spoken. However, the cast all understands English so that they can all communicate with each other.

“Inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples, TOTEM explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel,” said writer and director Robert LePage. “The word TOTEM suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living species, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the TOTEM.”

The centerpiece of the show, the first thing the audience sees when the show begins, is a turtle skeleton. This one weighs 2,700 pounds and includes two horizontal bars and is completely covered in a non-slip finish. The skeleton can be raised and lowered. The idea behind the turtle skeleton is that in many myths and legends, the turtle represents the earth and carries the entire weight of the world on its shell.

“TOTEM” was created with LePage coming up with the basic theme and then 12 different creators brainstorming ideas dealing with the set, costumes, music, lighting and more. Once those ideas begin to gel, the acts themselves are created and the show, which never stops evolving, comes together to create a spectacle on par with the other Cirque shows being performed around the world. In addition to the five other big top shows touring, there are resident shows in Las Vegas, Disney World and Los Angeles. There are also several arena shows touring the world as well.

It is clear to anyone in the audience that the cast is made up of professional athletes in peak physical condition. There is no set training regimen that they must go through because the directors know that the cast members are often their own best trainers. There are two physical therapists on staff and at times trainers can be brought in for specific workouts or programs.

“The show keeps you in shape,” said Gael Ouisse, a member of the Rings Trio, in the show. He joined Cirque du Soleil in 2005 with the creation of LOVE. He stayed in Las Vegas for four years prior to joining the cast of TOTEM in 2009. Ouisse stressed the importance of never getting too comfortable on stage and always anticipating and being aware of what is happening. “You don’t want to become a machine. You have to give 100 percent.”

Alya Titarenko, also a member of the Rings Trio, agreed, adding that the performance element is also part of the challenge. She started her career with Cirque du Soleil in September 1997. She worked on various shows, including “O”, Saltimbanco and LOVE before joining the new production TOTEM in 2010. After a few years in Las Vegas, Alya was ready for a new challenge—the touring life. In addition to her career with Cirque, Alya has twice won the title of World Champion in Sport Acrobatics and in Fitness.

More often than not though the cast uses their time off stage to practice, watch video of the previous performance like an athlete studying game film, and making sure they are operating at the highest level before taking the stage. There is a major sense of trust and friendship among the cast and crew and they know that everyone involved in the production is giving it their all.

“TOTEM” thrills audiences with acts such as the Bars, Fixed Trapeze, Roller Skates, Unicycles and Russian Bars, but the show also features world class world music and hilarity from two clowns as well. The show blends the immediacy of high-level acrobatics being performed in an intimate setting with incredible visuals and state of the art sound.

“TOTEM” runs through Dec. 30. Tickets range in price from $40-$153.50. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com for more information.

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