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Totem, Royal Albert Hall, London


Cirque du Soleil has a highly successful formula that surrounds strong, polished circus acts with bombastic glitter and vaguely uplifting sentiment.

What’s interesting about Totem is that this show manages to streamline the formula, diving from setpiece to impressive setpiece with much less waffle.

The show was directed and written by leading stage director Robert Lepage, who creates brisk and effective linking scenes. As with most Cirque du Soleil shows, there are characters, but Lepage gives them fairly short shrift. Instead, he concentrates on the theme of water, conjuring up fluent and unexpected imagery.

Film projections flow across a sloping platform at the back of the stage, suggesting waterfalls or lapping waves. In one sequence, the water retreats, leaving the slope as a beach, with the shiny stage surface for the ocean. In another, filmed figures swim into view, then emerge from the screen as flesh-and-blood performers. Behind them, the musicians lurk in the tall bulrushes of Carl Fillion’s set.

Within this framework, most of the acts keep up the momentum. Jugglers, unicyclists and trapeze artists plunge and whirl. Even the clowns, often groan-worthy with this company, are sharper and speedier.

The bombast does creep back in the second half. Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta have a spectacular adagio act on roller skates, but keep stopping for solemn poses and pauses, waving a significant feather about. Once they get going, though, they’re astonishing, with Garcia-Sorta swinging at death-defying angles from Medini’s neck.

On the fixed trapeze, Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme flirt without getting bogged down in sentiment, always ready for unnerving drops or intricate catches. Nobody tries to explain what the team of dish-juggling unicyclists has to do with any of the themes; they just get on with kicking bowls into the air, and catching them on their heads.

A man holds a pole steady on his shoulders as a team of acrobats climb up it. High in the air, one man takes the weight of another, dangling him from two wires. Both stretch out into horizontal poses, even as the pole curves under their weight.

Russian bars are flexible enough to bounce when acrobats land on them. For the show’s finale, acrobats flip in unison from one bendy bar to another, folding and unfolding themselves in midair.

The twin foot jugglers were my favourite act. Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova turn squares of cloth into spinning cones, balanced on feet or hands. They always seem to have room to lift another whirling square, even when one sister is balanced upside down on the other’s upraised leg.

Until 16 February. Box office 0845 401 5034.