The Love Birds Steal the Totem Show

Cirque du Soleil is touring Australia for the eighth time with Totem.

Subtitled “the Odyssey of the Human Species”, and written and directed by the Canadian, Robert Lepage, Totem premiered in 2010 and has been touring ever since.

Yes, there are circus performers and comedians representing the evolution of human species, among them Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, primates and primordial creatures. But Totem does not follow any logical chronological story.

Instead, the chapters in the odyssey are given labels – Evolution, Seduction, Nature, Culture, Attraction, Passion, Science, Elegance and Innovation but the labels and overarching theme of evolution are not so much a narrative as they are a frame into which existing circus acts have been slotted.

Of these, one stands out. The Totem program lists it as ‘Attraction’ although the duet for a man and woman was initially created under the title Love Birds. In their exceptional performance, the couple performs virtuosic movements and holds on a fixed trapeze bar. Their elegant yellow and green costumes represent a species of parrots known as love birds.

The muscular strength of the two artists, Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois, is extraordinary but they have more to offer than that. The Love Birds have a story to tell, and they tell it well, not only in movement but also in their artistry.

Their “love me, love me not, love me” playfulness reminds me of Titania and Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps because Tessier resembles the dancer, Alina Cojocaru, an outstanding Titania in the ballet version of the Dream.

Tessier, a Canadian, has trained in gymnastics and figure skating but she also shows an understanding of the lines of ballet technique.

She met the Frenchman, Cauchois, at the National Circus School in Montreal, and the couple spent three years working on their trapeze technique before joining the cast of Totem in 2012.

Two years later, the Love Birds are still on the road. What might they do next?

I’d like to know and hope to see their development as both artists and circus performers.

Totem revolves around quickly changing vignettes that leap from the first act depicting evolutionary frog/serpent creatures to a surfing scene for three men – one dressed in yellow budgie smugglers, reminiscent of the swimmers worn by Tony Abbott and two muscle men whose control is phenomenal as they hold hoops and fly on ropes, competing for the attention of a woman whose sugary-sweet pink costume defies her extreme muscular power and control.

American Indian dancers manipulating hoops are followed by five Chinese women perched on unicycles. Wearing elaborately embellished costumes, and mask-like makeup they balance stacked metal bowls on their heads.

Using only their feet, they toss the bowls from one woman’s head to another in a brilliant display of coordination and timing.

Could this be the most intriguing circus act ever? Maybe so, but it’s not the first time it’s been presented by Chinese circus performers.

Just as impressive was the Russian, Pavel Saprykin, in his hand-balancing act that entailed superhuman strength in his shoulders, arms and back muscles.

A web search shows that he was already astounding his public with this act seven years ago in the Moscow State Circus when he was only 19. How long, I wonder, can his body sustain the physical burden?

I would have been equally amazed by the roller skating duo of husband and wife, the Spaniard, Denise Garcia-Sorta and the Italian, Massimiliano Medini, if I hadn’t seen the roller skating duo Denis Petaov and Mariia Beseimbetova in much the same act in last year’s cirque show, Empire in the Spiegeltent.

Who is copying who? Both couples end their performance with a tour de force in which the man places a double ended loop around his neck then fixes one of the loops to the neck of the woman, then spins her around with so much speed that it seems as though she might fall or injure her neck or spine with the centrifugal force.

The Cirque Shanghai has also performed the roller skate/neck loop act.

Although Cirque du Soleil has become a brand name that no longer excites as much as it did a decade ago, it still has the capacity to engage circus newcomers and more importantly, children aged from about 8 to 14 who’ve never sat in a tent and thrilled to a circus before, as well as their grandparents whose memories of “circus” may recall the horror of lions and their tamers in cages, scary clowns and trapeze acts designed to instill the fear of a tragic fall.

After the Sydney season ending on 30 November, Totem will tour to Melbourne (January 21 to February 15), Brisbane (April 10 to 26), Adelaide (June 11 to 5 July) and Perth (July 31 to 16 August).

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Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois, Totem, Cirque du Soleil

Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta, Totem, Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil, Totem, Evolution

The real love birds