After watching Totem at Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, I was speechless.
Yes, I was speechless because it was incredible, but I was also speechless because I didn’t know how I felt or what to think about the performance.
I was not really sure how I could categorize my experience there. I was, and still am, a wee bit confused about the whole shebang.
Cirque du Soleil, for those who may have not been, is a circus taken to unprecedented heights. I did not know what to expect, so I had the same expectations going in as I would have had had I gone to a show at the theatre, and my expectations were simultaneously unmet and greatly surpassed.
In many ways, Cirque du Soleil taps into a visceral, primitive response that theatre rarely does. When trapeze artists were lifted 40 feet into the sky, or when young ladies rode on unicycles four times their height while kicking bowls onto each other’s heads, or when acrobats performed tantalizing feats of amazement without using any safety harness, it was exhausting to watch.
It was exhausting because there were so many moments when I felt like I was in the performer’s shoes, so my adrenaline was pumping strong because my empathy made me feel like I was 40 feet in the air and about to fall, or that I was about to screw up in the act and disappoint myself and my colleagues. At times, I could even feel fear for what might happen if the performer made a mistake and it cost them their job.
There was also an amazingly designed set – complete with a sliding main stage that could turn into a trampoline and a platform that could move like a scorpion tail; live musicians playing beautiful original music; and perhaps most impressively, an incredible use of technology and dazzling lights to help create illusion and wonder that constituted genuine treats for my senses.
The problem is I did not expect that. I was used to seeing a different type of show, which thrilled me in a completely different way: by making me think about the story and characters in the play or musical or film, reflecting the themes and metaphors of the show onto my own life.
Not to say that one is better than the other, but I went in expecting one and got the other.
However, Totem was confusing not because it was completely the opposite of what I expected, but because it was a mix of both physical thrill and thought-provoking beauty. There was a particular scene that stands out quite vividly in which a young man tries to seduce a young woman, who is resisting his advances, and their whole scene takes place high in the air on a trapeze, but they never lose their character’s intention during the beautiful choreography. In a lot of ways, I think that is what I expected the entire show to be: a cohesive story being told through physical movement and athleticism, but only some of the acts were stories, and it did not all fit into the greater theme of creation and evolution, which Totem is supposed to be about.
Like Montreal, the Cirque du Soleil’s place of origin, the show is truly one-of-a-kind: full of rare, curious, and talented individuals who simultaneously fit together for a purpose, and yet at times clash and seem to be off in their own isolated worlds.
The transitions between acts were not always smooth, and the acts were at times chaotic, nonsensical, silly, and seemingly out-of-the-blue, but never was it boring.
And that’s exactly how Montreal feels to me: full of surprises, with so much going on (e.g., three festivals happening on a Thursday night), sometimes inherently contradictory, sometimes seeming to be without purpose (other than for a good time or simply because they can), but always full of passionate and delightfully strange individuals (myself included), who push boundaries of what is expected and acceptable, and truly celebrate uniqueness while looking down on conformity.
In fact, I was at the Just for Laughs festival and two young ladies were dressed as tongues – with complete make-up, taste-buds in front, and blood vessels on their back – and by golly they were the proudest, most confident tongues I have ever seen. I would have been more than a little embarrassed had I been in their shoes, but they were running around actually making fun of other people in their flamboyantly rouge outfits.
I guess that’s why they call it Montreal.