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What it’s like to step backstage at Cirque du Soleil’s Totem

What it’s like to step backstage at Cirque du Soleil’s Totem

A whole new world


While Cirque du Soleil’s travelling shows have awed millions of audiences around the world, we catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes

For a show about creation, the human species and nature, Cirque du Soleil's Totem transports you far away from earth. You're not just sitting in an audience facing a stage with an elaborate set up; you're instead sitting in some kind of cosmic confusion that borders the mesmerising, the mind-boggling, the energetic, the funny, and of course, the nervous (trapeze artistes dangling by each others' hands while hanging high above the stage? You bet you'd be gripping your seat in anxiety.)

Totem, to put it simply, is two hours of spectacular sequences and acts, brought to life by highly trained, professional performers whose backgrounds range from traditional circus, gymnastics, clowning, acting and music. Totem brings alive the evolution of the human species, beginning with an amphibian state, and a desire to fly. A giant turtle shell is present on the stage, representing the symbol of origin that was present in many ancient civilisations. And ultimately, the performances explore the ties between man and other species.

Walking into this world-class Cirque du Soleil production, is like indulging in the child-like fantasy that never leaves us, even as adults. The massive signature blue-and-yellow tent, for one, evokes a sense of mystery and anticipation just before you step inside. And once inside... whoa! It's not only air-conditioned; there are concession stands, merchandise booths, information booths and the works. Not to mention, the entire entrance tent smells like delicious fresh popcorn. 

The show itself, as I mentioned, is simply awe-inspiring. Energetic, vibrant and comedic, you can't take your eyes off the stage as performers do charming comedy routines, intricately skilful juggling sequences, and of course, the crazy acrobatics that cue the "oohs!" and "ahhs!" from the audience.

Beginning its run in 2010, the Grand Chapiteau (also known as the Big Top) tour of Totem has brought this mobile mini-village to numerous cities in seven countries, with over 1,600 shows under its belt. The show has a support team of 72 technicians and other staff, and 46 performers who hail from 17 different countries. 

We were invited backstage following a flawless Totem show at Cirque du Soleil's stop in Singapore, on Bayfront Avenue just next to Marina Bay Sands. And here are five interesting things that opened our eyes to what goes on behind the perfection, creativity and passion that makes Cirque du Soleil.

Performers mostly do their own makeup

Yup. All 46 of them have to spend an hour or two before each show applying the elaborate makeup on themselves. A couple of Cirque du Soleil documentaries have revealed that performers have to go through make-up classes as there aren't enough make-up artists to do it for them each day. The performers are taught exactly how to do their individual makeup, much like a step-by-step guide on how to apply it with different strokes for different areas of the face, using different brushes and such. So not only are the performers well-versed in an all-round range of the performing arts and inhumanly physical abilities, they probably can do make-up better than the rest of us.

The costumes are all made in-house and customised

Totem's wardrobe is nothing short of amazing. It's sequin and colour heaven. Turns out that the elaborate costumes you see on stage are all created in-house and rotated every six months because of the wear and tear. Even the fabrics and accessories such as wigs, headgear, shoes and such are made in-house, and dyed and painted by artisans. And of course, effects like gloss, reflective elements, sparkles and shine are manually added to present the full impact on stage. Most of it - from the crystals and sequins, to the hairs on the wigs - are crafted by hand. Each costume is also specifically customised for every individual performer. Performers have to get moulds done of their heads to fit into headpieces and masks, as well as get their feet measured for the perfect shoes.

Pre-show preparations may take more work than what happens on stage

A performer may appear onstage for less than ten minutes, but before the show starts, that's where a massive amount of preparation takes place. Hours before the show, their routines often include hours of warming up, practicing, and preparing for the show. Although they often perform about eight times a week, the performers are constantly practicing and rehearsing. So the perfect routines you see on stage are the product of many years of practice and hard work endured by the performers.

The production is incredibly high-tech

The idea of a travelling circus may seem like a very traditional concept for many, but it was quite surprising to find out how "wired" the production is. There are sensors everywhere - mostly for safety - for example, the ramp that constantly moves during the show, has sensors so that it doesn't shut on any of the performers or technicians during the show. And of course, Totem gains its air of awe and mystery from its use of lights, multimedia and video projections. And apparently, these video projections also have sensors to add live effects to what the performers are doing onstage. These may be small details that are added to the production and not many in the audience may particularly pay attention to it, but it's pretty amazing if you think about the intricacies that take place behind the final product. 

The Artistic tent, to an outsider, looks like a massive playground for adults

...or more specifically, adults who can contort their bodies and fling themselves around a large, suspended space. As we stepped backstage, there were performers - out of costume and some half-made up - scattered all over this massive, padded jungle gym. A couple of men - presumably "frogs" - were at one corner, reviewing their frog routine where just less than two hours ago, they'd been swinging in and out of the giant turtle shell skeleton. Further in, a group of women were working out with exercise balls, while a few other performers were working out on gym machines. It's like a whole different universe back in the Artistic tent, which holds a fully-equipped training area, gym, dressing room, wardrobe area and physiotherapy room. But it's an eye-opening glimpse into a world that continues to inspire and awe millions of audiences around the globe.

Totem by Cirque du Soleil is showing at Bayfront Avenue next to Marina Bay Sands, Singapore until 13 December 2015. Head here fore more information.

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