FEATURE: Cirque Du Soleil's TOTEM Flies Into Vancouver

FEATURE: Cirque Du Soleil’s TOTEM Flies Into Vancouver

Costumes seen in Cirque du Soleil have a reputation for being elaborate and edgy. While Totem, its latest show to hit Vancouver, is no exception, it is different in that so many of its costumes begin with a simple unitard as a base. This core canvas allows the show to celebrate humanity in its most physical form: through the body.

According to Amanda Balius, head of wardrobe for Totem, this celebration of bodies was central to the show’s costume design. “For our costume designer, it was very important … that we don’t try and hide body types—we want to try to accentuate body types, and really bring out that everybody’s different and that’s okay,” she explains. “Evolution has shown us that we’re all going to adapt to things differently.”

Most of the costumes begin with the unitard base to emphasize these true body shapes, with all of the colours used in the fabrics as examples of hues found somewhere in nature. Balius points out that the bright costumes of the Cosmonauts, who are in the Russian Bars act, draw influence from Mayan textiles.

Gael Ouisse & Alevtyna Titarenko perform "Hand-to-Hand" in Cirque Du Soleil's Totem

Gael Ouisse & Alevtyna Titarenko perform “Hand-to-Hand” in Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem. Photograph by Bar Perry.

Totem follows humankind’s story from the amphibian state to their quest for flight, and it opens in Vancouver on May 15.  The show has been part of Cirque’s repertoire since April 2010, and has since been to 24 cities.

The story takes place on an island shaped like a giant turtle (the skeleton weights 2,700lbs.), and explores our connections with animals we share origins with, and the many species that live on earth with us. The performance incorporates “primitive and modern myths,” as well as aboriginal stories of creation, to tell stories that attempt to understand some of life’s most complex questions.

“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 Robert Lepage, writer and director, in a press release. “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.”

Eric Hernandez (as Amerindian dancer) performs "Hoop Dance" in Cirque Du Soleil's Totem

Eric Hernandez (as Amerindian dancer) performs “Hoop Dance” in Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem. Photograph by Bar Perry.

The acts within the show demonstrate the diversity we’ve come to expect from Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, including everything from roller skates to trapeze artists, and the performers use their bodies in every way possible in order to communicate their story.

Unique from other Cirque du Soleil shows, Totem is the first to draw influence from First Nations. One of the main characters, the Amerindian Dancer, acts as a storyteller for the show. Balius emphasizes that he is not meant to represent one specific First Nation as the storyteller, something they hoped to demonstrate through his costume.

“The designs on the unitard are designed to represent a mixture … we want him to represent all First Nations.”

“There was a lot of consultation … it was a very open collaboration,” says Balius. “Of course we want to do something very stylized and meet people’s expectations for Cirque costumes, but at the same time bring that side to it, which is something new for Cirque, we’ve never looked at the First Nations in that way.”

Cast of Cirque Du Soleil's Totem at the media preview

Cast of Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem at the media preview. Photograph by Bar Perry.

The storyteller’s costume includes a Hopi cross, and cowry shells which are used throughout the show’s costumes as a “nod to our beginnings,” according to Balius.

Eric Hernandez plays this role of the Amerindian dancer, and is one of two hoop dancers in Totem. He’s been performing with Cirque since 2012, when a casting scout tracked him down after watching his video on YouTube. The hoop dance is a traditional act that has been done for hundreds of years, and Hernandez first learned it when he was 10 years old, when he decided to explore the traditions and rituals of his ancestors of the Native American Lumbee tribe. He learned the hoop dance from his uncle Terry Godell.

In Totem, Hernandez explains that by beginning with one hoop and ending with five, he is able to demonstrate the evolution theme of the show. “As I add hoops it shows different plants and animals and how they grow … you see all the plants and animals come together to form the world that we live in,” he says. “It’s a wedding ceremony dance and it also tells the story of the different plants and animals that the Natives saw.”

“There really is a duality between the more scientific idea of evolution, and evolution of us and our humanity…” says Balius. “And how our mind has evolved, not just our body. I like that duality.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem premieres in Vancouver on Thursday May 15, and runs through July 6. Tickets are available here. Read more about Totem here.

All photographs by Bar Perry, taken for Lords of Dogwood during an advance press preview of Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem in Vancouver, BC on April 22, 2014.