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Fun for Kids at Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM (Parent Review)

Forgive the rhetorical question, but can anyone make acrobatics more exciting than Cirque du Soleil? The Canadian circus phenomenon has umpteen touring productions in at least umpteen cities, and what keeps us all coming back for more goes beyond the gymnastics, the tumbling, the trapezes, the unicycles, the silks, the flying rings, the trampolines, and the tightropes. It even goes beyond those unexpected flourishes like the steampunk waterskiing flamenco rollerskating bullfights. What takes our breath away is the all-out drama of a celebration of the human body. Or, as my 10-year-old more succinctly put it midway through TOTEM at the Santa Monica Pier, "Talk about impossible!"

Most Cirque du Soleil shows are reasonably child-friendly; some are a little louder or more menacing than others, and some have a touch of the risqué about them, but as a rule anyone over the age of five or so is likely to enjoy Cirque's ultra-circus experience. Of the productions I've seen over the years - both at the Pier and in Las Vegas - TOTEM is firmly at the more child-friendly end of the spectrum. No one ever seems to be in danger, and none of the characters feel like bad guys. The music is occasionally a bit loud for a sensitive little one, but not really any louder than many movies. The five-year-old in our party had earmuffs to help her feel in control at loud moments, but it didn't really turn out to be much of an issue.

Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM at Santa Monica Pier

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The evening begins with cast photo ops in the outer tent, followed by a pre-show of top-notch clowning in the audience. When the focus shifts to the stage, we are immediately surprised by images in motion that no one could have anticipated. And before you ask - there really isn't a bad seat in the house.

Unlike some of the Cirque du Soleil shows that have set up at Santa Monica Pier in recent years, this one is not especially reliant upon large-scale props or special effects; the magic of TOTEM is, from beginning to end, the human body - what it can do, and how great it looks in exotic costumes. Sometimes we see people become frogs or chimpanzees; other times we're treated to troupes of unicyclists  balancing objects on their heads. An homage to Santa Monica's Original Muscle Beach brings beach acrobats to their spiritual homeland, swinging through the air on their own traveling rings, while another act conjures the Peking Acrobats, spinning more than plates on more than every limb. Bodies create impressions of evolution, volcanic eruptions, and space travel.

One of the wonderful things for kids about Cirque du Soleil is the lack of dialog; the clowning sequences have some sounds and utterances that feel like words, occasionally even mixing in an actual word among the chatter, but for the most part we are left to interpret the meaning of everything we see according to our own perception. This might mean that adults see something more sophisticated than kids see at times, and that meaning may or may not be intentional, but nothing ever feels inappropriate or inaccessible. Some sequences may feel overtly sensual, but only to someone who knows what that is. The suggestions of sexuality didn't register with either the 10-year-old or the 5-year-old in our party. They just saw people in seemingly impossible positions, and they were delighted.

Cirque du Soleil at Santa Monica PierThe show is long - two and a half hours with a 30 minute intermission - which may be an issue for some kids; an 8pm show doesn't let out much before 11pm. But our kids were transfixed, and the variety in the action seemed sufficient to keep the majority kids at the premiere engaged throughout. The stage transforms from one landscape to another, and the costumes, in classic Cirque fashion, are a feast for the eyes. The show, in short, wants for nothing and is a treat for the entire family, from beginning to end.

TOTEM plays at the big tent by Santa Monica Pier through March 16, 2014. Tickets range from $50-$150. Parking in the adjacent lot costs $6-$12 (depending on the day), or a shuttle is offered to the public lot at the Civic Center. A bicycle valet is available at matinee performances.

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