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The stage is a giant turtle that represents the origins of life on Earth. The shell opens to reveal amphibians and fish on parallel bars.
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WHO DOESN'T like an afternoon at the circus?
But this was no ordinary circus. This was Cirque du Soleil, the renowned Canadian traveling show capturing elements of Olympic gymnastics, big-top shows and heart-stopping aerial performances.
A friend had a birthday, and four of us took in Cirque's limited-engagement "Totem" show on a glorious Sunday afternoon at National Harbor, just across the Wilson Bridge
There have been many variations on Cirque's core theme of aerial acrobatics, and most of us have at least heard of their performances. This year alone, according to Cirque du Soleil (pronounced "Sirk doo So-lay"), 21 unique shows are being presented simultaneously in different parts of the world.
"Totem," which is here through Oct. 7, showcases Cirque's inimitable aerial artistry built on the theme of human evolution, complete with an odd little "Darwin" character who appeared from time to time to keep track of center-stage happenings.
It was 21/2 hours of rapid-fire team aerial acts, every one guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. If our reactions were typical--and they surely must have been--nobody left Cirque's Big Top arena disappointed.
We couldn't decide which was best--the opener with "frogs" leaping around on a 60-foot turtle-shell structure, the Native American dancers, the balancing beam performers or the unicycle riders. We couldn't decide which of the amazing acrobats were our favorites or, for that matter, any of the more than half dozen other acts.
There was a live half-hidden band, clowns to work the packed house and always, always, something to keep you exclaiming, "How do they do that!"
This globe-girdling group has been
If you get the chance, see it. We went to the matinee, and the show ended with plenty of time for a celebratory dinner "down the hill" at National Harbor's planned new mini-city-by-the Potomac. You'll search online in vain, by the way, for anyplace called The Plateau, where Cirque's blue-and-yellow tents are found. It's a flat dirt field beside the Beltway, half a mile uphill from National Harbor.
PEER INSIDE PRODUCTION'S PRIVATE WORLD
BY KATHERINE SHAPLEIGH
OXON HILL, Md.--It literally takes a village to pull off Cirque du Soleil's "Totem."
That village includes tents that visitors to the Grand Chapiteau, or Big Top, never see.
The fantastical "Totem" has 120 touring employees--including 53 artists from 18 far-flung countries.
During their Washington- area stint, the workers are living in nearby apartments. Some are accompanied by spouses and children. Two memorable roller skating lovebirds in the show, for example, are married and have a 6-year-old who travels with them.
There are 23 children--between 6 months and 17--traveling with "Totem." School-age kids and some of the younger performers attend classes.
Workers practice and prepare for shows in the Artistic Tent. They socialize and eat in The Kitchen, where 200 to 250 meals are prepared each day.
Last weekend, I got a brief look inside the Artistic Tent, which houses costumes, makeup stations, dressing rooms, training space and a physiotherapy room where I spied a pair of hospital-style beds.
Everything in the ward-robe section is meticulously organized and labeled. Large cubbies, for example, contain bags of shoes.
A towering makeup cabinet, also labeled, is nearby. It's a dress-up dream. Drawers open to reveal piles upon piles of glittery, brightly hued MAC Cosmetics.
One performer, the first one prepping for the day's first show, was having lizard-like spots airbrushed onto his face through the holes of a plastic template.
With the exception of details like the airbrushing, performers do their own makeup. It takes up to three hours at first, and then between 45 to 90 minutes depending on the complexity of their costume.
Each performer has a thick photo binder documenting each step required to transform his or her own face.
Performers remain in makeup, touching up between shows, on days with multiple performances.
The same attention to detail is devoted to costumes. One table was lined with monkey masks made to fit the unique measurements of each performer's face. Hair is hand-sewn.
Thick, leotard-like body suit fabric is custom painted, allowing some costumes to take on new looks as lighting changes.
Costumes are laundered, maintained and repaired by staff members.
In the training area, a recording of a previous show played on a large television screen. A dry-erase board nearby was like a giant playbook, with the day's date and time, names of performers and more.
As pre-show activity picked up, it was curtains for my behind-the-scenes visit. But I walked away with added appreciation for the human efforts behind a superhuman show.
Katherine Shapleigh: 540/374-5461;
WHAT: Cirque du Soleil's "Totem"WHERE: The Plateau at National Harbor, 201 Harborview Ave., National Harbor, Md., 20745 (Take I-495/I-95 Outer Loop. Stay in local lanes. Cross Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Ttake Take National Harbor Exit 2A.) WHEN: Through Oct. 7. TICKETS: From $33 adult, $25.75, child. Online: nationalharbor.com/cirque-du-soleil-totem/about.html