A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Cirque du Soleil's 'Totem'

It’s almost like a small town has been set up. There are enough trailers and mobile homes to look like a residential block. People are having idle conversations off to the side. Others are making eye contact and quick gestures to one another as they go about their afternoon. Yes, it’s almost like a small town, this Cirque du Soleil village established in downtown Atlanta. The only difference is that its residents all have the same job — they work at the circus.

Cirque du Soleil spokesman Francis Jalbert is our guide around the magical tent city called Totem. As he points to dressing areas, practice facilities and offices, you can hear the joy emitting from his gut. He’s at home. “Each Cirque du Soleil show is so unique,” says Jalbert on Totem, which is one of 21 Cirque shows either touring or in residency around the globe right now. “Each one has its own creative team and its own theme so you’re always going to get different emotions from it.”

Totem, which opens in Atlanta today, deals with the evolution of the human species and it does so through an unparalleled visual and acrobatic language. Sets of waterfalls and swamps are meticulously erected. Moves are precisely choreographed. And according to Jalbert, costumes are given the utmost attention. “Each hair is individually stitched,” he says, holding up a monkey mask that’s realistic but not too Planet of the Ape-y. It’s this otherworldly blend of realism and mysticism that has kept audiences in awe since the circus’ 1984 inception as a group of street performers.

And try not to get so hung up on the whole Cirque versus circus debate, either. The townspeople are okay with the label. Many of them even embrace it. “I’m very proud to work at the circus,” says Jeff Lund, Totem’s do-everything, be-everywhere company manager. “I feel very fortunate to say I’ve got the best job in the world. This is my office. This is my playground. This is the most inspiring office you could ever work in.”

Like a proud parent, Lund runs down a list of cities where the production, all 1,200 tons of it, has been this year and where it’s still to go. After Atlanta’s run, it’s on to Miami. And then to the next city and then the next city after that. The schedule is so demanding, he recalls being home just six days in 2011.

Fabio Luis Santos, an acrobat from Brazil, is another Cirque citizen. He’s been with the company since 2009. Santos, much like many of the other stars of Totem, comes from a sports background. And while gymnastics may have prepared him for all the aerial exercises during the vibrant show, nothing could have gotten him ready for the nightly experience.

“When you’re there,” he says, “the lights, the music gets you into the Cirque du Soleil world. All the magic and all the acrobatics — it’s hard to describe. But the feeling is not to believe in the normal world. You’re transferred to a magical world where everything is possible. That’s what Cirque tries to make.”

Tumblers, jugglers, costume designers, cooks, logistics specialists, technicians, riggers, directors and a host of others make up this temporary village of about 120 people from 17 countries. Still, it feels like home right now. And for the next six weeks, they’ll open their doors to the residents of Atlanta. Come late December, the stage will come down and everyone will move on. But if Santos, Lund and Jalbert have anything to do with it though, there will be plenty of magic left behind where a big tent once sat.

 Photo Courtesy of Kym Barrett

Tags: , , , , ,