Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM Comes to Baltimore: We Interview the Artistic Director

Events — By Tawanna Browne Smith on March 30, 2011 at 3:26 am

Artistic Director Melanie Laland and head of wardrobe, Amanda Balius sat down with me last week to talk about Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM before it cartwheels into Baltimore on April 7th. We spoke briefly about the show, the creative process, inspiration, cultural influences, and overall meaning.

TOTEM charactersNileGuide: So, when did TOTEM begin?

Melanie: It began April 16th [2010] in Montreal and we went on to Quebec, Amsterdam, London, we’re in Charlotte – our first city in the U.S. – and Baltimore will be next.

NileGuide: Tell me a little about the creative process that you employ from inception to actual development.

Melanie: To create the Cirque due Soleil show it takes about 2 years where they, all the creators, sit around and they work out the concepts and figure out the steps – which acts and what they’re gonna do. From there it goes into production which is about a six-month period of  intense working out the kinks and dealing with all the acclimation to their ideas and then the show goes on the road. I’ll let Amanda speak a little bit more because she comes at it from a wardrobe aspect

Amanda: Especially when it comes to the costumes, once a designer has met with the director of the show and they’ve kind of hashed out what they want, where they want the look of the show to go, the designer goes back and then she starts working. In our case for Totem, it was Kym Barrett, who, it’s her first time with Cirque. She comes from more of a film background so she was very eager to work with the artisans in the costume shop. With Cirque du Soleil, [its’] approach is costuming as that rare mix of fashion ideas mixed in with the costume realities and taking new steps to find ways to do things that are very different. And kind of always trying to stay on top of trends and on top of new techniques and even working with building some new techniques for ourselves so it gives us more of a wide range of things to pull from.

NileGuide: So you [Amanda] come sort of at the mid-way point of the process or towards the end?

Amanda: For me, I started in January of last year. But at that point designs were already done and the costume shop was starting to build. And then we worked with the artists to make sure that with the training, that the costumes helped them, and you know, made adjustments as we needed to.

NileGuide: Melanie, how many members are on your team and what are some of their backgrounds?

Melanie: I have 11 members on my team. I have Amanda who’s my head of wardrobe and she works with two women in her department. I have a stage management team, coaching team, and I have a performance medicine team. So all of us together, we kind of work with the artists on a daily basis in keeping the show quality and integrity up to top level in putting the show on every night.

NileGuide: What cultural influences did you draw from for the creative process?

Melanie: Well, since its sort of the evolution of man that the story is speaking about we kinda took from many different cultures like the Mayans and then the Native Americans and then you would also go sort of Bollywood you know, and there’s a little bit of hip hop in there too in the Bollywood and hip-hop scene. So we’ve really like reached out to the world to kind of put this show together.

NileGuide: And does that also affect the direction of the costuming?

Amanda: Oh of course. We actually have, and what Melanie was saying with the influence of the first nations around the world, so that the Peruvians, the Incans, even the ancient Japanese, ancient Asians – we actually have characters that are a mixture of cultures – of first world cultures – to kind of show that marriage between how all first nations basically came from the same place, and that they just arrived differently.

NileGuide: And which characters specifically so that I can point that out to readers?

Amanda: In our rollerskate number we have a group that’s part of the marriage and we call them world tribe. And they come out and they’re basically cleansing and preparing the space with their own rituals and their own blessing to the space. And its those characters that are really a mixture of different cultures.

TOTEM sound deep? Well, Amanda and Melanie assure me that even though there’s a lot going on underneath the surface, the show is “actually really fun and you can just go in and watch it. You can just take it in.”


Photo courtesy of OSA Images.