Cirque du Soleil's ‘Totem’

Cirque du Soleil celebrated the 1,000th show of Totem, its story of mankind’s evolution, at a new setting.

Now performing on grounds adjacent to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens after its traditional site in downtown Miami went under construction for Museum Park, Cirque settled its 167-foot Grand Chapiteau into its new digs on the Miami-Dade and Broward County line just fine.

In fact, 10 performances were added before opening night.

Totem, the 28th show in the Cirque franchise, poetically imagines mankind’s emergence from primordial lagoons to modern day, with an amusing image of a businessman nattering away on a cellphone, oblivious to his surroundings, as Darwin’s stages of man, from ape onward, trail behind with puzzled expressions. Somewhere amid the amphibians and aboriginals, the Shang Dynasty unicyclists and the Russian Bars acrobats, Totem merges Dances With Wolves and Xanadu in its most impressive stunt, the penultimate act, Roller Skates.

In Roller Skates, married couple Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta, dressed as Native Americans, skate and spin at a furious pace atop a small drum just a few feet in circumference. Garcia-Sorta attaches herself to Medini’s neck and swivels like a pendant caught in a hurricane as the two twirl in formation. The gasps and applause you will hear from the 2,700 or so people seated around you are well earned.

Set and prop designer Carl Fillion effectively conveys Totem’s numerous aquatic themes without actual water. He bookends the show with two of its most memorable images: Carapace offers a gymnastics romp for a foursome of neon-colored human tadpoles who soar in the air from monkey bars built into a tortoise shell, or carapace, a symbol of origin in many ancient cultures such as Chinese, Mayan and African. To start, Crystal Man, a frequent presence, descends from the ceiling as an unfolding disco ball in an outfit stitched together with 4,500 minuscule mirrors and crystals. The show concludes with its most striking effect as performers seem to gracefully swim underneath an aqueous, tilted stage, then emerge full-form from the imaginary water.

Writer-director Robert Lepage’s Totem is at its best when the focus is on the athleticism in set pieces such as Russian Bars, Roller Skates and the first act’s Asian quintet of women who toss and balance silver bowls atop their heads all the while pedaling oversize unicycles. Totem is otherwise writ smaller compared to some of Cirque’s 28 shows, its set pieces eschewing Kooza’s death-defying giant ferris wheel contraption in favor of the smaller drum for Totem’s roller skaters or the charming fixed trapeze duo.

As such, Totem initially feels underwhelming and the emphasis tilts toward comic schtick — a Beach Blanket Bingo bauble featuring two buff lifeguards in sequined swim shorts who compete on rings for a lovely lass’ affections. There’s some fisherman buffoonery and slightly risqué clown humor involving a camera and a crotch.

The most pointless diversion offers apes screeching while white-clad laboratory techs clank chemistry sets with beakers and test tubes filled with glowing pink, green and blue liquids. The act culminates with a mad scientist who does a juggling act with colored light balls in a glass funnel. Pretty, but as a bored teen might say, Whatever.

But as Totem pulls together its Olympian feats, livelier-than-usual music, and brilliant lighting projections into an agreeable, sometimes majestic whole, few will leave the Grand Chapiteau unsatisfied.