When you finish reading this fine story, gently put aside your newspaper, step outdoors, and look towards the south, towards the hills of Palos Verdes. You’ll notice a scintillating glow emanating from just over the crest. What’s going on in San Pedro? Simple. The circus has landed. And not just any circus, but Cirque du Soleil with its regional premiere of “Totem.”
“We worked with world-renowned director Robert Lepage who’s the director behind ‘Kà’ in Las Vegas,” says Francis Jalbert, “but his dream was always to do a big top show.”
The decision-makers in Montreal, where Cirque is based, were agreeable. “Usually, for other shows, our founder Guy Laliberté will come up with a theme or an idea just to start a creation. For Lepage it was: Do whatever you want; we’ll follow you in there.”
Jalbert is the publicist for “Totem,” and knows everything there is to know about it. At the moment, we’re actually sitting on the stage of the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, only a few blocks from where the familiar blue-and-yellow tent is about to be hoisted.
“It’s a very well-oiled machine right now,” Jalbert continues. “We’ve done more than 12 hundred performances, and San Pedro is our twenty-second tour stop. We started in April, 2010 and we’ve been to the Netherlands, the U.K., Canada, and the United States.
“If you look at the art pieces that Lepage [has done], there’s always a huge interest in where we come from and where we’re going. With ‘Totem,’ the idea was we’re going to do a show about evolution. We’re going to go from the amphibian to the ape to the modern man, but we also explore the infinite potential of human beings. Meaning that what separates us from other species is that we try to improve ourselves and lift ourselves onwards and upwards, like going on a quest into space. So that’s the main theme behind ‘Totem’ and what links the acts together. What’s interesting is that we don’t present those scenes of evolution in chronological order.”
In this sense, as Jalbert adds, “It’s very Cirque du Soleil. We’re taking the audience back and forth into time and from one part of the world to the next.” In short, “Totem” crawls out of the mud and flies up to the stars, but in between is where all the fun happens, with acts from 15 countries – Belarus, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Spain, Ukraine, the U.K. and the U.S.”
In one respect, “Totem” has its feet on the ground: “Usually we take people into this fanciful, imaginary world,” Jalbert says. “Here it’s all based in reality. The acts that you see on stage portray a certain era or a certain culture, so everybody can kind of relate to what they’re seeing.”
Hoop dancer Eric Hernandez is descended from the Native American Lumbee tribe, although he grew up in Pasadena and was in college, majoring in sociology, when Cirque du Soleil tapped him on the shoulder and invited him to be a part of their new show. Intrigued by the culture of his ancestors, Hernandez was drawn to the traditional hoop dance, which was often performed at wedding ceremonies.
In costume, Hernandez gathers up his hoops and demonstrates what he does onstage in “Totem.” Needless to say, it’s seamless and dazzling. But is it the real deal?
“The creators of the show did a really good job in making sure that the hoop dancer was Native American and that he came from a Native American background,” Hernandez says. “Our singer sings in his native modern language [and] the costume I wear is similar to the costume [I wore] before I came to Cirque. It’s all traditional. It’s not like I never hoop-danced in my life and Cirque du Soleil taught me how to hoop dance. I brought my culture and my emotion I have for the dance to Cirque du Soleil, so it’s really genuine.”
“It’s very important for the creators of the show that we respect the native culture,” Jalbert says; “that we don’t try to imitate it.” This respect, he adds, is there even when the company is mixing together the costumes and styles of different tribes. “The voice that you heard in the music that Eric performs to is a native from Quebec City, singing in his native language. It is important to integrate those elements culturally.”
Also, a bit of self-promotion – in this case, on YouTube – can lead to bigger and better things.
“I’ve been doing this dance since I was about ten years old,” Hernandez says, “and I’ve always competed in a world champion hoop dance competition in Phoenix, Arizona. Cirque du Soleil contacted the competition when they wanted to find a hoop dancer for the show.” This was how Hernandez came to their attention. “They actually researched me and found a YouTube video on me and kind of used that as my audition. Then they contacted me and offered me a contract.” Sensing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Hernandez put his university studies on hold.
Preparing himself for what is physically and mentally a demanding performance is an ongoing effort.
“It involves a lot of cardio training,” Hernandez says, “and I gain that cardio just by doing the dance itself.” As for the technical aspects, it comes down to “having that focus and the endurance at the same time. I’d say that’s where I focus the most on my training, [by] doing it, learning new manipulations with the hoops, and building my endurance. It’s mainly cardio and being able to focus, and – if I make a mistake – to be able to have my cardio hide the mistake by artistically getting back into the technical things. But as a character in the show and being a soloist, and projecting to the crowd.”
As for the specific hoop dance that Hernandez performs, it has its significance, as when Hernandez evokes an eagle and grows it, or evolves it, as he adds more hoops.
“The dance is supposed to tell a story about the different plants and animals that the natives saw, and we see in the end how they all come together to form the world. The hoop itself represents eternity and that’s why they put it together to perform before a wedding ceremony, traditionally.”
That said, how does Hernandez keep his act fresh and energetic, night after night?
“We do ten shows a week,” he replies. “We have one day off a week, so we’re always performing. The biggest thing that keeps me motivated and entertained is trying to do new things all the time. If I want to try something new I’ll practice it backstage, and I’ll tell myself, I’m gonna put this in – in ten shows I’m gonna try this new trick.
“And I think that’s important for every artist, too, because we grow as artists by pushing ourselves this way. Also, it’s motivational just to go on stage and feel the performance with 27 hundred people. That gives you goose bumps enough just to have energy, because they give you that energy – so you just have to give it right back.”
Jalbert steps in to say that, unlike most Broadway shows, Cirque du Soleil productions are constantly changing or evolving in small ways, especially with new cast members bringing in their own energy.
“If you see ‘Totem’ two years from now,” he says, “conceptually it’s the same show, but what is being performed on stage is always growing, getting better and better.”
Part of that “better and better” is ensuring that what plays well in one country doesn’t insult the inhabitants of another. Certain friendly gestures in one area of the world can mean something rude elsewhere. Along the same lines is the matter of crowd reactions. In Miami the audience laughs and screams, Jalbert says, but in London they’re reserved.
“The crowd changes, always,” says Hernandez. “Especially by city, if not by night, Sunday afternoon with kids compared to a Friday night with people bringing their girlfriends on dates. It’s always a different crowd.”
Hernandez began performing with Cirque du Soleil in March of 2012, but this is the first time his artistry with the company will be on view within driving distance for his friends and family. It’s a big deal for him.
“I’ve been in this ‘Totem’ world for maybe a year and a half,” he says, “so now I’m coming back to where I’m from and I’m gonna show all these people what I’ve been doing.”
A view from the top
“Totem” is no simple outfit in which everyone piles into a van or two and off they go from town to town. The show has 120 touring employees and artists, along with 48 others, the latter mostly family members. All in all, it’s quite an entourage and someone has to be in charge. That someone is company manager Jeff Lund.
“I manage the entire production,” he says. “I’ve got three directors underneath me – an artistic director, technical director, and operations director. They all report to me, but my job is to oversee the entire operation. When we get to the local community I do a lot of local activities, press events, that sort of thing. Sort of the mayor of the show (he’s also “mayored” “Mystère,” “Kà,” and “Believe”), to make sure that we are doing what we say (we will) – and we do give back to the community.”
In other words, Lund is Cirque du Soleil’s goodwill ambassador.
Behind the scenes, though, Lund negotiates contracts and contract renewals for the company’s employees, both performers and non-performing, working staff. “I just watch the overall flow of money in and out, because I’m ultimately responsible for the bottom line of ‘Totem’ itself.”
Rather ironically, Lund has a degree in aeronautics, but the circus was in his blood – at least after seeing “O” in Las Vegas. He applied for a job.
“I got my start at the ‘O’ box office selling tickets,” he says, “and then I became an usher, production coordinator, assistant company manager, and company manager. So I really understand the importance that every role plays in creating what you see on stage. Although the artists get all the accolades at the end of the night with the applause, for me the vision the people see up on stage is a collaboration of the guy cleaning the bathrooms, the box office ticket seller, the chef making the food in the kitchen, as well as the wardrobe lady doing the repairs on the costumes.
“So those applause are ultimately for everybody that’s involved in what we do,” Lund continues. “I also believe we’re all equal to the show. The artists play an important part, but if they don’t have food, if they don’t have great costumes and if the lights aren’t on, then we don’t have the magic experience that we tend to create.”
Any bets on whether or not Lund enjoys what he’s doing?
“For me it’s not even work, it’s a lifestyle,” he says, joking truthfully that he gets to play at the circus. “And I always say that when things get tense – because they do, it’s a business at the end of the day – I always take a step back and I tell people: We work at a place where grown men wear makeup, a lot of people wear Spandex, and we play make-believe. And if you can call that your place of employment that’s not bad, right?”
Totem opens tomorrow (Friday) at the Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro, 3011 S. Miner St. (outer harbor of the L.A. waterfront at Berth 46). Tickets, adults $55 to $135; children $45 to $125; seniors, students, military $50 to $130. Through Nov. 10. Opens in Irvine at the Orange County Great Park Festival Site on Nov. 21, and in Santa Monica at the Santa Monica Pier on Jan. 17. More information at cirquedusoleil.com/totem.