A tiny curled-up crystal creature descends from the heavens like a spider. As it falls, the orb unfurls to reveal a speck of stardust. Thus the dawn of creation begins in "Totem."
One of the most magical Cirque du Soleil productions in years, "Totem" traces the origin of the species from amphibious creatures frolicking about in a primal swamp to muscle-bound beach bums and astronauts hurtling through space. It's an epic journey through time created by avant-garde theater wizard Robert Lepage, famed for multimedia masterpieces such as "Far Side of the Moon" and "The Andersen Project." Here he succeeds where he failed in "Kà, " his first Cirque venture, with the marriage of the physical and the metaphysical.
Shot through with the surreal tableaus for which Lepage has become celebrated, this glittering Odyssey does what so many Cirque projects have failed to do: find a way to marry the athleticism of the show with some deeper meaning. While "Totem" has many moments of old-school circus razzle-dazzle, from cheesy clowns to jaunty jugglers, this visionary director always keep the mind as engaged as the eye. Beguiling bits of history and anthropology guide the way as monkeys and cavemen pass the torch to businessmen with suits and cell phones.
Lepage doesn't tell the story of evolution in a conventional manner. Instead, he suggests that mankind has always been moved by the same irresistible urge to reach onward and upward. Almost every act is suffused with the desire to fly, to cast off the chains of gravity and explore the skies.
In less metaphorical terms, the show can also be seen as a simple celebration of the poetry of the body. The dizzying parade of foot jugglers, unicyclists and pole-vaulters has us agog with their sheer physical prowess. They don't seem bound by the laws of physics like the rest of us mortals.
The shimmering set (Carl Fillion), which shifts from the earth to the stars on a dime, never detracts from the artistry of the acrobats.
A grove of bamboo separates the musicians from an ecosystem teeming with fish, flowers, swimmers, lava, speedboats and even at one point a spaceship. A giant turtle shell hangs above the stage, a reminder that so many of the world's cultures share the same origin myths and legends. We may not remember this rich folkloric heritage, but it binds us to our ancestors just the same.
Lest that seem a bit lofty, this is also one of the sexiest Cirques around. The sensuality of the production grounds Lepage's esoteric flights of fancy in the immediacy of flesh and blood yearnings.
In one of the cheekiest interludes, two abs-of-steel beach boys (Yann Arnaud, Olli Torkel) flex and preen to impress a bikini-clad beauty (Alya Titarenko). They eventually tire of kissing their own biceps and take their seduction competition to a higher level while flipping and twirling through aerial rings.
There's also a charming midair pas de deux (Rosalie DuCharme, Louis-David Simoneau) that's flirty enough to make you blush, but gawky enough to evoke the awkwardness of adolescence.
But the showstopper in this evening of gobsmacking spectacle is a highly erotic mating dance involving roller skates, a drum and a long wet kiss. Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta unleash a feverish level of body heat in this celebration of undulation. They clutch at each other and writhe ecstatically as they skate on the top of a small drum, oozing so much raw sexuality that it feels voyeuristic watching them.
It's as if the irresistible drumbeat of biology drives the species forward. The world-music score harnesses that impulse through a collage of Indian, Native American and African rhythms.
Of course Cirque always showcases world-class acrobats, but there's often something a little perfunctory about the way the acts are strung together. Not here.
The weightlifters seem like a commentary on how little we have evolved when it comes to mating rituals. The scientist (Greg Kennedy), a tousled-haired Darwin type who follows the primates around, may be a genius, but he's also a bumbler who ends up juggling LED balls in a giant laboratory vat. The tribal hoops dancers (Shandien Larance, Nakotah Larance), who possess a mind-boggling speed and dexterity, suggest that man has always been fascinated by the circle as a symbol of the cycle of life.
In a culture obsessed with the future, there's something revelatory about spending a few hours enchanted by the mysteries of our collective past.
Cirque du Soleil, directed by Robert Lepage
When: March 2-April 8
Where: Taylor Street Bridge, 176 Asbury St., San Jose
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $38.50-$360, 800-450-1480, www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem