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All the world's onstage

Cirque du Soleil tackles an ambitious subject — the history of civilization — at its show 'Totem' at the Great Park.

November 14, 2013|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Crew members pull out a blue-and-yellow tarp as they work on setting up Cirque du Soleil's tent in preparation for "Totem" at the Orange County Great Park festival site in Irvine on Thursday.
Crew members pull out a blue-and-yellow tarp as they work… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

Christian Laveau laments the cinematic representation of Native Americans.

In many Hollywood movies, they live in teepees on the periphery of modernity, ride horses, dress in swatches of animal skin and plumed headdresses, and are armed with spears and brute force.

"It makes me sad, as we are true cultures that are still alive and deserve respect as any other," said the resident of Wendake, a reservation in northwest Quebec, Canada, about the cliches in popular culture.

Laveau, 40, is one of three indigenous performers — the other two are from the United States — in Cirque du Soleil's production "Totem." Director and playwright Robert Lepage stumbled across his talent at a summer powwow, unbeknownst to Laveau.

The two got to talking and Lepage made an offer, which was met with trepidation by the man in question, his parents and their nation's elders, all of whom were afraid of being portrayed, yet again, as clowns. And, at first, Laveau said no.

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But, when Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte heard Laveau's voice on a recording, he was captivated by the inherent spirit. And he wasn't willing to take no for an answer. He summoned Laveau to a meeting and ran the concept of the show by him.

Now, four years later, Laveau — who has worked closely with his tribe's leaders and Lepage to ensure accuracy — draws comfort from the fact that "Totem" pays tribute to his heritage.

"They gave me a very special place in the show," he said. "I sing in my mother language with great privilege. For many in the audience, this is the first contact with natives, so we have to show the truth."

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The history of humankind

Laveau is among "Totem's" 47 cast members from 15 countries who will be in Irvine at the Orange County Great Park starting Nov. 21. The engagement, which comes on the heels of a successful run at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, is slated to run through Dec. 29.

"'Totem' carries you through the evolution of man and our civilization," said artistic director Tim Smith. "It brings you through our constant need to progress forward, which we have done successfully for many years, and to go upward into space."

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