A staple of London’s January scene, Cirque du Soleil return to the Royal Albert Hall with TOTEM. Daniel Perks attended a gala night to raise funds for Sentebale, a charity co-founded by Prince Harry. Yes, he was in attendance.

An acrobat descends from the rafters, cocooned in a glitterball costume. Neon lizards on parallel bars explode from a turtle shell, effortlessly leaping out of the primordial soup. Musicians are hidden by grasslands, a welcome onslaught of rhythmic percussion.

Evolution proceeds inevitably onwards. And TOTEM makes its presence known.

TOTEM Royal Albert Hall

Image courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

As the latest Cirque du Soleil production to grace the Royal Albert Hall, 20 years after circus’s most famous company first trod these boards, TOTEM looks back but never quite pushes forward. It lacks innovation in its technique, which while flawlessly performed, feels as though it could do more, say more, be more.

Does the concept, the visual, overshadow the acrobatic capability of this show?

At times, yes. TOTEM’s artistic process is to track evolution, a look at the progression from amphibian to avian, from monkey to man to preening machismo. But it confusingly crosses its timelines and as such loses itself at times in the idea over the execution.

TOTEM Royal Albert Hall

Image courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

But the acrobats themselves are as close to flawless as can be expected. Unicyclists throw and catch bowls from foot to head in a masterclass of accuracy, complexity and finesse. A trapeze duo flirtatiously clambers over each other in competitive transitions to gain the upper hand. Cheeky, staccato piped music underpins the skill of these artists, serenely hanging in mid-air, acting out in faux frustration – the effort it must take to seem effortless.

TOTEM Royal Albert Hall

Image courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

Most spellbinding of all are the rings, male flexing of muscle completely overshadowed by the power of the female. In an epic fusion of Bollywood and breakdance, the two male acrobats attempt to impress with feats of strength while the woman sunbathes. Unperturbed, she ties her hair back and shows the audience a spectacular display of muscled grace. Take that, preening Neanderthals.

And yet, from inspiring women to the men that incessantly demand their attention, Cirque du Soleil takes several steps backwards when it pits a slimy Italian clown against an angry ringmaster in a Toreador-styled bull ring. The diablo tricks are effortless and arrogant, but does this scenario have a place in modern society anymore?

TOTEM Royal Albert Hall

Image courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

TOTEM ends with a futuristic vibe. Still in neon, the Russian bar acrobats appear to indicate an alternative future for reptilian evolution, as they precisely leap and twist from one flexible bar to another. It’s a conceptual contrast from the hopeful contortionist who grounds the fluid movement of amphibian and reptile – beautiful shapes with emphatic characterisation.

More than elegant and effortless, Cirque du Soleil’s ending feels cool. Not modern, innovative, or forward-thinking, but good circus done well with the imagery to boot. TOTEM sacrifices depth for aesthetic too often for comfort, but it cements the world-famous circus company as pushing visual boundaries and playing with artistic theme.

★★★★☆

TOTEM plays at the Royal Albert Hall until 26 February 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.