Whatever the ostensible theme of a Cirque du Soleil production may be, the true subject is always the human body: its elasticity, its expressive capacity, the sheer wonder of the things it can do.
"Totem,'' a Cirque production that has arrived on the South Boston waterfront, is visually ravishing. You'd expect no less from Robert Lepage, the brilliant Canadian writer-director behind "Totem,'' who is a dab hand at whipping up technology-driven stage phantasmagoria. And controversy: Lepage's production of the "Ring'' cycle at the Metropolitan Opera raised plenty of hackles and blood pressure among critics and Wagnerians.
For "Totem,'' at Boston Marine Industrial Park, Lepage has concocted a loose narrative about the development of the human species from its amphibious state to the age of space exploration. We're meant to think about life's origins and about the unpredictability of evolution, but not too hard. As usual with Cirque, the story line is mainly a pretext for showcasing the virtuosity of its astonishing acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, hoops dancers, balance-beam artists, and other performers.
And, as usual with Cirque, there are times when that virtuosity is wrapped in a big old slab of Vegas cheese. Who knew, for instance, that early Native Americans favored not moccasins but white roller skates?
With winking self-awareness, Lepage nods to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey,'' complete with excitable apes (that is, humans in costume) and cavemen who are driven into a frenzy by something mysterious in their midst. No, not an obelisk, but a crisply attired (though not for long) businessman who suddenly strides onto the scene, a cellphone glued to his ear.
Lepage also borrows, from Greek tragedy, the device of deus ex machina, represented in "Totem'' by a silver-clad fellow called the Crystal Man (Brockton native Joseph Putignano), who periodically descends from on high, at one point bearing a glowing, presumably life-force-giving orb for the humans.
Who do quite a bit of glowing on their own. My favorite was the trapeze duo of Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme, who use their faces and bodies to tell a timeless love story. While sharing a single trapeze, they perform an aerial ballet of repulsion and attraction, rejection and flirtation, wriggling away from each other one moment, their bodies entwined the next, ending in a contented domestic snuggle.
Cirque performers specialize in making the impossible look easy, but let's face it, nonstop perfection can be boring. So it's interesting to watch the audience's reaction when something goes awry, as it did on opening night with four unicyclists (Hao Yuting, He Xuedi, Wen Xin, and Wu Yurong).
While balancing on their unicycles, each used a free foot to toss bowls onto the others' heads. But a few bowls missed their mark and clattered to the stage. The performers doggedly continued their routine, though, and spectators rallied to their side, cheering extra-loud when ensuing attempts were successful. It was as if the mishaps helped refocus the audience's attention by reminding them how insanely difficult these feats are.
At the beginning of "Totem,'' which plays out on a set by Carl Fillion, the stage is encased in a large, green turtle shell that opens to reveal figures in amphibian-like garb and masks. They proceed to use the carapace as parallel bars, hurtling about at high speeds. At the rear of the stage is a simulated pond; as the show unfolds, changes in that pond illuminate the passage of time, via projections by Pedro Pires.
Unlike Cirque's marvelous "OVO'' (performed in Boston in 2010) and its mediocre "Dralion'' (seen locally last year), "Totem'' does not feature the crowd-pleasing trampo-wall, off which acrobats propel themselves en masse. While you certainly can't call "Totem'' understated — a word that's not really in Cirque's institutional vocabulary — Lepage takes pains to train our focus on individual artists, such as the disc-spinning foot-juggler twins called the Crystal Ladies (Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova), or the 10 astoundingly strong and agile guys who bound and somersault onto balance beams, or, yes, those aforementioned roller skaters in Native American garb (Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta), whose revolutions reach a velocity that is almost alarming, given that they're operating on a narrow, drum-shaped surface.
In one hypnotic sequence, a white-bearded scientist (Greg Kennedy) stands inside a large, translucent cone and somehow keeps a host of illuminated balls whizzing around him, faster and faster, like whirling atoms. It's one of the moments in "Totem'' when the show's concept seems like more than a gimmick; however fast we move, Lepage seems to be saying, the forces of the universe are always moving faster.
Don Aucoin can be reached at