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Review: Cirque du Soleil makes all the right moves under the big tent with exhilarating “Totem”

"Totem" plays at Atlantic Station (Photo by Pouya Dianat)
"Totem" plays at Atlantic Station through December 23. (Photo by Pouya Dianat)

With a lot of practice, human beings can make a pointless but difficult task — say, riding 7-foot unicycles while catching bowls on their heads — look totally effortless. It’s a pretty straightforward principle, and its rock-solid corollary — for people who can’t do it, watching it done is entertaining — has become the foundation of Cirque du Soleil, which started from a group of 20 street performers in Quebec to build a worldwide entertainment empire, with 21 elaborate touring and resident shows. One of the recent touring shows, the three-year-old “Totem,” has pitched its tent at Atlantic Station and is running in Atlanta through December 23.

The Cirque du Soleil aesthetic takes away the elements of a traditional circus that could seem seedy or cruel or childish and adds a bit of artsiness in the music, costumes, lighting and overarching concept. It’s impressive, if kitschy, and Cirque has turned its strengths — pacing, structure, shape, knowing what audiences want to see — into an exact science.

Some recent Cirque shows have seemed a bit formulaic, the effortlessness and seamlessness turned bland and too familiar. The Cirque show “Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour,” which came to Philips Arena this summer, was a particularly egregious example. It lacked intimacy, vividness and excitement and seemed to have lots of filler, with very few impressive stunts. Philips Arena is appropriate for a big rock show, but it’s too huge and cavernous for human stunts. Even actions that would look big in a circus tent seemed suddenly tiny and far away at Philips.

Fortunately, “Totem” gets it right. It takes place in one of Cirque’s classic tents. In the entrance area, you see ordinary blacktop under your feet. It’s old school. The show seats about 2,600 people, but there’s always a feeling of intimacy and proximity. (Sometimes very close. Be forewarned: the seats are small.) More importantly, you’re close to the action. The weight and physicality of a human body in motion is never far away, which is crucial to a show like Cirque.

The overarching theme of “Totem” has something to do with human evolution, and I would say that another of Cirque’s strengths is that the stunts can somehow make a general audience comfortable with abstraction. It’s a nicely loose narrative, more dreamlike and jumbled than structured and specific.

There are 10 stunt acts in all, and it seems like more, even though the show is thankfully low on filler. It’s a packed production, and I don’t imagine many audience members asking themselves, as the lights come up, “That’s it?”

Most impressive among the acts, and getting the most audience response, is a troop of women from Mongolia riding seven-foot unicycles and catching stacks of bowls on their heads (I’m just guessing when I say it takes practice); pole climbers; acrobatics involving narrow bars that can also act as bouncy springboards; juggling inside a plexiglass cone; and a couple on roller skates on a small round stand. The costumes are gorgeous, and there are some great video effects on a tilted screen at the back of the stage.

Cirque has turned out some less than stellar shows in the recent past. I was no fan of “Immortal,” and the quickly canceled “Banana Shpeel” in 2009 was an infamous stinker. And the Cirque aesthetic has been creeping into other media, with mixed results. I watched all the operas in Cirque Artistic Director Robert Lepage’s “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera and hated them all with the burning fury of a Norse god. (Sliding in belly-down and headfirst on a ramp is a great way for a circus clown to make an entrance, but for the soprano playing Freia in “Das Rheingold” at the Metropolitan Opera, not so much.)

But Cirque du Soleil fans will be pleased to know that “Totem” is a total return to form. The show is very good at doing what Cirque is so good at doing.

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