06/16/2014 02:52 EDT | Updated 08/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Cirque du Soleil's 'Totem' Lowers the Bar

Members of the Canadian performance group, Cirque Du Soleil perform Totem at the Royal Albert Hall, London, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Jonathan Short)


Cirque du Soleil must be suffering from that boredom borne of endless success. Decades of acclaim must eventually become a yawn. The desire to lower the bar and take it easy must be powerful. That may be what's happened here. "Totem" is a poorly constructed series of disconnected acts that wow but rarely stupefy. Clowning is poor and visual effects are stunning but infrequent.

A parade of remarkable (but rarely thrilling) acts take the stage, one after the other, with a rhythm closer to "The Ed Sullivan Show" than traditional Cirque. This revue approach is disappointing not only because the show has no flow, but because it does not build to a climax.

That is not to say that "Totem" lacks impressive performances. Four acts in particular inspire awe and delight. The show opens with acrobats who actually fly as they shift from one raised horizontal bar to another. Later, a trio of acrobats uses gymnast rings to demonstrate feats of strength and physical dexterity high above the crowd. Much impressive vertical spinning ensues. A great act.

A very unique act features five women (in exaggerated, Asian-inspired eye makeup) on unicycles two meters high. Each has a stack of metal bowls on her head. They remove the bowls, stack them on one foot (still balancing on the unicycle) and then kick the bowls into the air. The bowls land, one after the other, perfectly stacked as before on each performer's head. The act continues with the performers kicking bowls onto each other's heads. Sensational.

A trapeze duo allows us to watch the courting ritual between a man and a woman. Each wants, then rejects the other until the inevitable happy ending. The story is told with leaping, swinging, falling and catching. She is lithe and light, he is agile and strong. She falls from the trapeze and he catches her in mid-air. The best routine of the show. Those familiar with Cirque shows will be disappointed to learn this is one of very few aerial acts.

The show's treatment of world cultures is alarming. Though the dictionary tells us a totem is any symbol of any culture, you just know from the war paint and feather headdress on the show's advertising material that this is going to be one clueless, demeaning salute to North America's first environmentalists, those low-tech nobles, the First Nations.

We're reminded of this ill-considered symbolism each time a couple of guys in leather costumes and head feathers "paddle" quietly, serenely, nobly around the upstage platform in those ubiquitous canoes. In terms of this show, First Nations seem to be situated, symbolically, somewhere between cavemen and a white guy with a briefcase. Anyone with the audacity to suggest that a Cirque show could use Hollywood stereotypes to display a love for the natural environment would be correct.

Other noble cultures costumed like the singing dolls at Disneyland's It's a Small World include South Asians (silks and exotic music), Asians (exaggerated eye make-up and exotic music), Spanish (flamenco) and Africans. For the Africans, four performers wear black half-masks and elaborate headdresses, one of which includes a bunch of bananas. That's right. Bananas.

Conceived by Robert Lepage, the acclaimed opera and theatre director, "Totem"'s theme is unclear. It's as if the director was handed a a set of available acts and invited to somehow connect them.

Some green people writhe on the stage at the start and a silver-sequined human in a body suit is lowered to the stage. Blue people join the green people and cavort. They return to the stage frequently, between acts. What does all this mean? Who knows.

A glance at Cirque du Soleil's website says this is about nature and evolution and science and a few other things that are not communicated by the performance. Some visual effects, Lepage's trademark, are very good. The water-skiing element, with the boat headed straight for the audience, works well. Those canoes really do seem to be gliding across water rather than a wooden platform. Unfortunately, these effects are mostly situated too far upstage to make much of an impression.

Cirque du Soleil's "Totem," directed by Robert Lepage, at the Grand Chapiteau, at Concord Pacific Place, Vancouver, until July 6. Buy tickets here.

Cirque du Soleil: Totem