Laliberté had been trying to lure Lepage back to the big top since he
directed KA, Cirque’s theatrical offering at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas,
in 2004. Lepage refused; the internationally-acclaimed playwright, actor and
director was busy appearing in theatrical works and directing operas. Two years
later, Laliberté asked: “What do you want to do?” Lepage’s answer: an intimate
tent show, inspired by the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. “I wanted
to do something that would be about evolution,” he says. “Evolution is about the
body, how you go from a nucleus to an amphibian to a mammal to standing upright
and eventually flying. There’s enough space in that idea to go into the origins,
go into the past, talk about the present and project ourselves into some sort
of poetic ideal.”
TOTEM traces the fascinating journey of the human species from its original
amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly. The characters evolve on a stage
evoking a giant turtle; the tortoise is symbolic (or totemic) within many cultures,
he explained. Inspired by many founding myths, TOTEM illustrates, through a visual and
acrobaticlanguage, the evolutionary progress of species. Somewhere between science
and legend TOTEM explores the ties that bind Man to other species.
[ Set & Stage •
The visual environment of TOTEM is an organic world, a marsh lined with reeds
near an island (the stage), on which images are projected (we’ll get to that in a
minute). Set Designer Carl Fillion gave it curves and non-linear forms to reflect
the natural world. The large oval framework on stage represents the skeletal
substructureof a huge turtle shell that serves both as a decorative set element and
as acrobatic equipment. The motifs on the surface of the stage itself are a
collage of hand-drawn images inspired by the patterns on the plastrons of
several turtle species. At the start of the show it is covered with a cloth
printed with the shell markings of a forest turtle, reproduced through macro
photography. During early creative meetings, ideas were limited only by one’s imagination.
In one meeting, Lepage took a model of the set — the carapace, an oval frame
representing a turtle skeleton — and tilted it on its side. "You could just see
the rigging designer, Pierre Masse’s, face," choreographer Jeffrey Hall recalls,
his mouth falling open in mock shock. This idea stuck. In the show, the
1,200-kilogram carapace opens like a clamshell as well as rises to the top of the tent.
TOTEM is considered a "hybrid show" - the first Cirque du Soleil Big
Top show to be created in such a way that it can be adapted to the reality
of arenas and other venues from the very outset.
Bordering the upstage is the marsh and stream. Tilted slightly forward, the image
marsh acts both as a stage entrance and as a projection surface. Through the magic of
moving images it becomes a virtual swamp, a river source, a marsh, a lake, an
ocean, a volcanic island, a pond and a starry sky. The reeds conceal the artists
and some set elements before they enter. To save weight and facilitate storage on
tour, the reeds are inflatable. But the reeds aren’t the real shocker in this
set's design... it's the Scorpion Bridge.
The “Scorpion Bridge” serving as a mobile platform connects the marsh to the
scene features variable geometry, allowing it to adapt to each tableau. In one of
the clown numbers, for example, it becomes the prow of a boat then rises to become
a plane in flight, and finally a rocket taking off. In another scene, the bridge is
configured to look like a vertical totem pole. During the rings trio number, the
Scorpion Bridge turns into an Indian carpet that unrolls on the beach in a reference
to the Bollywood aesthetic that inspired the overall look of this scene. The concept
of the Scorpion Bridge was loosely based on a retractable pedestrian bridge in London.
Built of steel and weighing 10,000 lbs, its 8 powerful mineral oil hydraulic motors
allow it to rise, descend, extend, retract and curl in on itself like a scorpion’s
tail. Its reflective surfaces, which shine like mirrors, are made of stainless steel
plates. The base of the bridge houses lighting equipment, a laser, speakers and
cameras. During the show, the bridge is monitored by an operator using four infrared
At the back, the musician’s platform, approximately 10 feet off the ground.
The lighting in Totem intentionally extends the colors in the projections of
the marsh, using colors that Boucher borrowed from nature, with greens and blues
inspired by ice, and the reds and yellows by fire. "In Totem, each mast has 11
James Thomas Engineering PARs, five ETC Source Fours, and two Clay Paky Alpha Spot
HPE 1500s. The conventionals are stacked so they are 10 units high by two wide,
with the same symmetrical arrangement on all four masts to give a similar view to
everyone." Boucher added A.C. Lighting Chroma-Q Plus scrollers to ensure a diverse
range of color combinations.
"There is a Clay Paky 1500 placed low and high on each mast to give a good angle
on almost everything," adds Penney, who notes that the upstage two masts have extra
ETC Source Fours as specials, as well as Clay Paky Alpha Beam 700s to create air
effects. A grid houses an additional 16 PARs with scrollers for toplight color, as
well as an arrangement of Source Fours with breakup gobos that create a full wash
on stage. "There are also three Clay Paky 1500s spread out for good coverage,"
Penney points out.
Just upstage of the grid is a truss that links the two upstage masts together.
This supports the three projectors that cover the marsh projection surface, which
also serves as an entrance onto the playing area, or island, where the primary scenic
element looks like a large, abstract turtle carapace that functions as both a
decorative piece and acrobatic equipment. At the center of the marsh is a hydraulic
bridge, built by Scène Éthique, with seven main axes of movement allowing it to
travel upstage and downstage plus lift and lower in different combinations, creating
anything from a wooden bridge to the clowns’ water ski boat and a vertical totem
pole. The underside of the bridge houses lasers, loudspeakers, lighting equipment,
Additional Source Fours with scrollers provide backlight and light the reeds
upstage, while three small trusses hung over the audience add lower front fill.
"There were many rehearsals during creation whose only purpose was to validate the
lighting looks," says Penney. "Basically, it was a long process of Etienne making
the looks and then making sure that they would work with the artists." Lighting and
projections are run by the same operator but on separate cue stacks. "We chose this
method just in case there were any problems, one would not affect the other," Penney
says. "We have a main MA Lighting grandMA2 light plus one as full backup, and we
have three media servers: a main, a backup, and a controller."
As Penney notes, Cirque du Soleil big top tours are much different from the
typical load-in and load-out schedule of an arena, Broadway, or rock ‘n’ roll tour.
"We pack up everything with us," he says. "Load-out takes about eight hours for
lighting and sound, and about 12 for carpentry, automation, and rigging. Load-in
takes eight days, but it takes approximately 30 hours for lighting to set up and six
to eight hours for focus of conventional and moving light positions, and projection
The last three days of load-in are for training and to get the big top site ready
for public. "In addition to the setup time, we have eight to 10 hours of maintenance
with all of our equipment on the ground every load-in while the big top is being
built," Penney points out. "We check the focus of the lights and projections before
every show, so we can make sure every show is as good as the last. The design, I
feel, really pulls the audience in. The difficulty we have in the big tops is that
there are very limited positions to hang lights. Etienne did a very good job of
using the positions available to give every seat in the house an excellent view of
Cascading images of water in every imaginable form set the scene. "The basic
idea was to create a marsh, an animated watery surface from where life emerges,"
says image content designer Pedro Pires. Totem is a visual feast where the
projections and lighting create a series of natural environments (lake, ocean,
pond, volcano) in which an upstage raked platform, designed as a marsh bordered
with reeds, serves as the main projection surface."I thought a concept of
metamorphosis between images could be interesting to simply illustrate the idea
of evolution in the show," explains Pires. To do this, his images embrace natural
phenomena such as erosion, evaporation, melting, freezing, growing, etc. "I began
to think of a watery surface that, at a certain point, dries out, leaving only
sandy ground. Then, an earthquake would break that ground revealing flowing lava.
The cold lava would bring minerals and crystal found in metals, and so on."
The imagery segues seamlessly from one scene to another, morphing from the
clowns in the show water skiing with a boat that turns into a plane, to a rocket
that explodes in the sky, setting fire to the reeds all around the stage to
create an aboriginal ceremony. "The reeds can also be seen as the hair of a giant
aboriginal mask on which the people evolve," says Pires, whose landscapes of outer
space were derived from actual photos shot by Cirque du Soleil’s founder and
artistic guide Guy Laliberté in his Poetic Social Mission aboard the International
Space Station. "I went to his house to see his footage, and he gave me a photo
bank of 9,000 space images," notes Pires, who modified some of these images to fit
the blue black-light ambience of the Russian Bars number in which cosmonauts are
trying to break free of the Earth’s gravity.
At another moment, Pires has grass grow over the blue planet to create a moving
underwater seascape for the arrival of frogs and beach acrobats coming out of the
screen. "This sequence was shot in a pool with acrobats in costumes and makeup," he
explains. "The trajectory and the size of the characters had to be very precise to
fit with the live characters seen against the projections. I wanted all of the
projections in Totem to be realistic, as if we are there, as if we are traveling
through different regions of the world, in different times, and as if the acrobats
on stage are evolving beside real water surfaces."
Pires found inspiration in nature itself, travelling to various locations,
including Iceland, Hawaii, and Guatemala, to shoot the environments. "I had to
shoot them myself with a specific angle to fit the stage and the viewing angle
of the spectator," he says. "I shot the lava flowing in the sea in Hawaii, but
there was too much security at the site, and we were too far to see the red burning
lava. In Guatemala, there was no security perimeter around the active lava site of
the Pacaya volcano. We climbed up an hour in the mountain and arrived just a few
feet from the red-hot flowing lava. Children were dipping wood sticks directly in
the lava." Pires was lucky: Pacaya erupted six months later killing three people.
With three VYV Photon Show media servers feeding images to four Christie Digital
Roadster S+20K projectors, some of the images are interactive in real-time with a
system of infrared cameras to make the images highly kinetic. "I wanted the
projections to be ‘alive’ in the storytelling of the show yet not too distracting
for the acrobatic numbers," notes Pires, pointing out that "one review says that
the buildings surrounding the big top seem very dull after the show compared to
what they experienced visually in Totem. That makes me happy because that’s exactly
what I wanted people to feel—the sense that the magnificence of nature has somehow
been evacuated from our modern civilized world, and that it’s a good thing to
remember its beauty and fragility."
For sound designer Jacques Boucher, the big top offers opportunities to design
massive sonic landscapes that make the most of the vast space. At the same time,
it creates its own unique challenges in adapting technology to meet those artistic
visions.Totem is the first Cirque production to incorporate Avid's VENUE live sound
environment, with Venue Profile Systems at both front of house and monitor positions.
As assistant sound designer Jean-Michel Caron explains, the Venue systems have more
than met the rigorous demands of the show's intricate sound design.
"Cirque productions present very complex sound design challenges," says Caron.
"For some of the shows, large and complex matrix systems are used. For Totem, we
wanted to find a new approach that would support Jacques' design with a less
expensive system, and the Venue system turned out to be the solution we were
"My plan for the sound design was very clear in my head," says Boucher.
"Typically, this type of design would call for a system with very sophisticated
matrix routing. But once I began to look at the configuration of the Venue [system],
I discovered it would be possible to do everything I needed to do with it-much more
than we had expected."
"The Venue's ability to configure so many output busses enabled us to do a lot
more than we could do with any other digital console," says Caron. "We got very
creative with cue and aux busses, and ended up doing a lot of things the console
was probably never designed for. But the console performed really well."
"This was the first time we'd ever worked on the Venue, and we found it very
easy to get used to," adds Boucher. "Even though there are a lot of possibilities,
it's easy to reach whatever function you want to reach, very quickly."
Boucher gives the Venue system high marks for sound quality as well. "To be
honest, I never imagined the sound would be so nice," he says. "I was very pleased.
Music is a very important element of this show, and the music sounds really good.
And I guess people really like the music, because at the end of each show we're
selling a lot of CDs."
"We've been really happy with the Venue's sound quality, and also with the
onboard processing," says Caron. "All the effects we're using-whether it's EQ,
compression, reverbs, or anything like that-are the plug-ins that are included
with the console. And the Profile is really portable, which is great for a