The onstage excitements include acrobatics and juggling, feats of balance and strength, roller skates and unicycles and a sensual static-trapeze duet, high-tech projections and eye-boggling costumes. But the real trick to Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem,” which begins performances Sunday at Boston Marine Industrial Park, may be the logistical mojo required to move a show like this around the world on tour.
Think cast, crew, family, and significant others numbering around 175, who come from numerous different countries, and who all need to be fed and housed and schooled and carted back and forth to work for up to nine weeks per city, for years at a time. Think 65 tractor-trailers worth of stuff, including the Big Top — the “Grand Chapiteau” — which seats 2,600 and is made from almost six tons of canvas. And then there’s the hiring of 250-plus locals in each city to set up, run the show, and then tear it down.
And it’s all under the command of a native of Sharon, N.D., a hamlet with a population of 96 at the last census.
Actually, the family farm was four miles outside Sharon, notes detail-minded “Totem” company manager Jeff Lund, 40. And does that North Dakota farm boy feel different after a decade with Cirque du Soleil? On the phone from San Diego, the show’s pre-Boston stop, Lund pauses. “I think I feel a little more worldly,” he says.
“Totem,” which debuted in Montreal in April 2010, was written and directed by Quebec-based Robert Lepage, who created the Cirque show “KÀ.”
As usual, the spectacular acrobatics have an artistic throughline, but “Totem” tilts more toward the natural world than the New Age mysticism that is often the focus of Cirque shows. While the totem pole is invoked as a symbol of the evolutionary progress of humans and other species, the true centerpiece is the turtle.
The stage is designed to evoke a giant turtle shell surrounded by the reeds of a swamp or marsh in which the action of “Totem” plays out. The characters include a Darwinesque scientist, his environmentally conscious tracker, a non-tribe-specific Native American hoop dancer, and the Crystal Man, a literally dazzling character who represents “the life force” while wearing a leotard covered with 4,500 separate reflective elements.
But, as is customary with Cirque shows, the scarcity of linear plot and philosophical specifics leaves much of the action open to interpretation.
“It’s not a play where we force your mind from A to B,” says artistic director Tim Smith. “Yes, we give them a concept. Yes, it meant a lot for the creators when they were conceiving the show. But the pictures are very broad and very avant-garde, and most of the people in the audience have their own ideas of what it means.”
It’s all a long way from the Lund family farm. Growing up amid the wheat and barley, Lund got interested in flying thanks to an uncle who was a pilot. He earned an aviation degree in college and ended up working for the Washington, D.C.-based National Business Aviation Association, promoting the corporate-jet industry.
But by then he had caught the entertainment bug. Lund had worked summers in college running the roller coasters at a Minnesota amusement park and even attended a training program at Walt Disney World. After five years with the aviation industry, he decided to have another crack at his dream, ending up at an event-production company in Las Vegas. That wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but he remembered seeing Cirque’s resident “O” show at the Bellagio, and got a job taking tickets. He figured it was at least a foot in the door.
On his first day of work, he says, the show was canceled. It was 9/11. “The very next day they actually put a hiring freeze on all jobs, so if I hadn’t got in that day, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Lund says.
He kept his day job, working at “O” at night, switching to ushering and eventually moving up through the ranks at other Cirque resident shows in Las Vegas. Last June he took over “Totem,” one of five big-top shows the troupe has on the road. “The training is like: Here’s the keys, have at it,” Lund says with a laugh.
Perhaps a briefing book might have come in handy when getting all those people with all those different passports from San Francisco to London for an engagement and then back to San Jose, Calif., a trip the “Totem” troupe made a few months back. But they have a travel coordinator, and a chef who is in charge of accommodating stage crews who crave meat and potatoes, as well as highly trained performers who tend to prefer steamed vegetables and lean proteins.
There’s probably no adequate preparation for a job that requires you to watch night after night as a group of Chinese acrobats wheels around the stage atop 6-foot unicycles, tossing bowls into the air with their feet and catching them on their heads. “That’s one where you’re always holding your breath,” Lund says with Midwestern calm.
It will make it seem more restful when he returns to North Dakota on his break this fall.
“I’ll harvest with my father on the farm, which brings me back to what is out there, and that’s a good life. I have no problem jumping on a tractor or a combine,” says Lund, who carries two iPhones to handle his “Totem” workload. “He’s happy to see me when I come home, because I’m another person on the farm that can do manual labor.”
Return of Tawny Heatherton
A few months back, we introduced you to Tawny Heatherton, a disco one-hit wonder and Hollywood survivor who may or may not be the niece of 1960s starlet Joey Heatherton.
What we know for sure is that Tawny is the creation of actor and director David Drake, and that she comes to life when he slips into a dress and that wig he wore when he was Cindy McCain for Halloween. Tawny had successful cabaret runs in Provincetown last Christmas and in New York in February, and now she’s coming back to the tip of the Cape to spend the summer at the Crown & Anchor.
With onstage musical direction by pianist John Thomas, Tawny will perform in “Tawny, Tell Me True” in the Crown Cabaret Room on Sundays at 10 p.m., from June 17 to Sept. 2 (no show July 8). Tickets $25 at www.onlyatthecrown.com.