I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert or aficionado on circus but I have seen a few in my time. From the biggest – Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Three Ring show in Madison Square Gardens to one of the smallest – Gifford’s in England. I remember, when I was a child, there were three huge travelling shows in the UK, all of which have disappeared, as indeed has Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.
Circus has gone through many changes in the past few decades with the demise of these travelling shows. Time was when circus was a traditional family affair where acts were handed down through generations, but that’s all long gone. Now there are hundreds of circus schools around the world, turning out young performers with no previous connection to the milieu. And, what’s more, performing animals in circus have become unacceptable; it’s now all about human skill and imagination.
But oddly enough, in spite of, or maybe because of these changes, circus is still incredibly popular and the most popular is, beyond doubt, the Cirque du Soleil. Since its creation forty years ago by two French Canadian street performers in Montreal, it has gone on to phenomenal success with over twenty five shows – all different – playing around the world. And it’s not difficult to see why, as I discovered at the Malieveld in The Hague.
Gone are the days of muddy fields and sawdust, of hard wooden benches with a draught swirling round your ankles. Le Cirque’s Grande Chapiteau, or Big Top, is clean, warm and welcoming and has a permanent rather than temporary feel about it – which is not surprising as the average stay in each venue is over two months.
Each of the shows around the world has a distinct theme and Totem is based around man’s evolution. And although most of the acts are conventional circus fair, they are each given a new twist and are tied together with costume, style and presentation, as well as lots of in between bits to carry the theme forward.
I think the most original aspect of the show, and one that really separates it from other circuses, is the visual presentation. The ring is in fact a raised circular stage and the rear quadrant is a set made up on a semi-circle of three meter high grass/bamboo/reeds. In front of that is a sloping disk onto which are projected ever changing images to match the mood and act – this ranges from slimy primeval swamp to a sunny beach with waves gently lapping and from frozen artic wastes to a lily pond with fish gently gliding through it. Around the disk is a sort of moat so canoes can glide to and fro. The centre section can be raised or lowered for an even wider variety of visual effects. The lighting and costumes are spectacular, as is every aspect of the show.
So, what about the acts themselves? At the risk of repeating myself they too are . . . well . . . spectacular. The . . . errr . . . spectacular opening sequence mixes dozens of slithery lizard-like creatures climbing around an organic-like structure with an acrobatic parallel bars act. This structure, which puts you in mind of a DNA double helix, is hoisted aloft but is always present.
There are lots of apes and native North and South Americans throughout. Each act is presented in context and one of the most beautiful was the roller skating act which arrived, as though for a wedding, all in white, in two canoes. There was an amazing Chinese unicycling act with five girls catching metal bowls on their heads. Continuing the scientific theme of evolution, there was an excellent juggling act with glowing balls which took place in a giant glass cone performed by a Darwinesque character complete with white coat and beard while other weird machines and scientists buzzed and whirred in the background.
And so it went on, each act as remarkable as the one before – there were two aerial acts, a pole balancing act, a couple of really funny clowns, a carpet spinning act and perhaps the most impressive, the penultimate sequence called Innovation which involved three acrobats being hurled into the air from flexible bars. The costumes and choreography for this were particularly amazing.
Well, I have run out of superlatives but, in spite of the spectacularly high price of tickets, I would urge you to see Totem by Cirque du Soleil if you love live entertainment and are looking for an exciting and truly unique experience. Michael Hasted 11th October 2019
Cirque du Soleil’s Totem runs in The Hague until 8th December.
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