Cirque du Soleil evolves out of creative rut

If you thought  Cirque du Soleil was getting a bit derivative, think again. “Totem,” Cirque’s latest production to hit our area, renews the daring and the vision that made this whirlwind of gymnastics, acrobatics, theater and music so compelling for so long.

“Totem” tells a story, in a sense or senses, of humankind and beyond, taking an evolutionary stance that won’t really offend either creationists or atheists, while still keeping an edge.

From frogs to apes and cave men, to businessmen and beach bums, the Cirque cast takes a journey from the primal marsh that both dazzles and occasionally even inspires.

While Cirque productions often struggle with marrying the wizardry of the athletic performances and clowning with vague and sometimes new age-y plotting, “Totem” has a theme that, while not chronological or even logical, incorporates a myriad of traditions neither condescending or demeaning. From the beginning, when the “Crystal Man” descends from the big top, bringing life to the teeming stage underneath, to Native American incantations, to Darwinists and scientists conjuring up another creation story, to the acrobatic escapades of space travelers, the show suggests that mankind’s journey is both irresistible and ongoing.

Of course, Cirque being Cirque, the message is delivered through the thrills and near spills of 54 performers — and through the epic sets, costumes and humor.

Among the highlights: The mating dance on roller skates of two performers in Native American dress, Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta, whose romantic and physical attraction takes place on a drumhead. Also wonderful: a troupe of Chinese unicyclists who toss and balance metal bowls on their heads; and a fixed-trapeze pairing, Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie DuCharme, that evokes a first date, albeit one in mid-air.

“Totem” was written and directed by Robert Lepage, the creator of “Ka,” which received lukewarm reviews but has been a mainstay in Las Vegas. Sets were designed by Carl Fillion — most memorably the large oval “turtle” carapace that represents the earth, while also carrying the weight of the world, and the acrobats, on its shell. Also memorable is the reed-lined image “marsh,” a set piece that represents the organic world and provides a projection venue, displaying video shot around the world of everything from ocean waves to swimming sharks to boiling lava.

In recent years, as Cirque has grown into a global enterprise trying to take its once magical formula into themes as disparate as the theatrics of Michael Jackson and the music of the Beatles, the French-Canadian performance troupe seemed to have become a prisoner of the expectations born of its once stunning innovation and creativity.

This time, however, the creators, directors and performers have constructed a “Totem” that shows Cirque du Soleil  is still evolving.

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Of the 54 performers in “Totem,” only one has any roots in Central and Northern California. Umi Miya is a gymnast who grew up in Japan and later taught the sport while living in San Mateo.

In an interview this week, Miya, who appears as an acrobatic frog in the show’s opening sequence, and later cavorts across stage dressed in a monkey suit, said he has been touring with the production for nearly two years.

Miya joined Cirque in 2009 after submitting a performance video to the company in hopes they’d hire him. He moved to Montreal and began practicing, and practicing, for the performance — a discipline he and the other performers continue to be immersed in. “Totem” opened in Montreal in April 2010.

For Miya, 30, who took up gymnastics at age 5, it’s both demanding and immensely rewarding — even though it’s a life on the road, living, rehearsing and performing as part of a huge and diverse cast and support staff, 120 people overall, from 24 nations.

“I never get bored, or tired of it,” Miya said. “Physically, sometimes I’m tired, but never of the show.”

Miya said the challenges are considerable, especially since he, like all the performers, worries about making a mistake in the demanding exercises and feats on stage. Plus, he had to learn a new craft — to be an actor, “to use body language” and to show “feeling and emotion.” Then there is the daily makeup, the wear and tear on the colorful costumes, which have to be lightweight and flexible for the gymnasts and acrobats, while resisting rips and tears. “Totem” travels with more than 1,000 costumes, washed every day, and accessories.

“Every scene is  an individual part of evolution,” Miya said. “In my scene we are focusing on the life brought from the Crystal Man. The basic idea comes from Native American history. But this is still entertainment — I want them to see a show.”

The performers, said Miya, feed off the audience: When the audience reacts in amazement of wild applause, “I feel that and I can get energy from them.”

He said he loves the Cirqu-s life, and has no plans to leave. Right now, he shares a small apartment in a South Bay complex with a Cirque technician. “I love traveling,” Miya said.

It’s a Cirque-directed life. Food, living arrangements, transportation, health checkups are provided — even school for those traveling with children.

“We just think about performing,” said Miya.

Cirque du Soleil

When: March 2-April 8

Where: Taylor Street Bridge, 176 Asbury Street., San Jose

Tickets: $38.50-$360.

For more information: Call 800-450-1480, www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem

This review also is being published in this week’s Santa Cruz Sentinel Guide.

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