All the world's onstage

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.

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."


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."

Created by Lepage in 2010, the two-hour spectacle features a high-bar act by artists dressed as frogs, a group balancing bowls on their heads while perched on seven-foot unicycles, and dancers armed with hoops and others on roller skates. Along with a trio performing on suspended rings to the accompaniment of Bollywood music, guests will view Guilhem Cauchois and his partner on a trapeze.

The 24-year-old Frenchman's love affair with the circus began when he was 7. While other children his age were taking tennis or soccer lessons, he trained in juggling, theater, trampoline and tumbling.

"Inside one discipline, I could learn many different skills," he said. "What I found was that the art form combined acting, dancing and acrobatics. I could do so many different things with my body."

Quickly realizing that he wanted to devote his life to the craft, Cauchois focused on overcoming his fear of heights so that he was free to learn new tricks and choreography. Under Cirque du Soleil's trademark blue and yellow big top, he joins his partner, Sarah Tessier — the two met at Montreal's National Circus School and regard one another as siblings — for the playful and seductive discovery of young love.


An eye on safety

Earlier this year, Cirque du Soleil, which last came to Irvine in 2010, made headlines for a much more serious reason. At a show June 29 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, acrobat Sarah Guyard-Guillot died after falling 94 feet during a midair battle scene in "Ka" when the wire rope connecting her to a safety harness detached.

The accident was the first of its kind in Cirque's 29-year history.

Nearly two weeks ago, another performer was injured after falling from the "Wheel of Death," a pair of spinning wheels in which the daredevils walk, during a Las Vegas show.

Smith believes these accidents should be seen as anomalies. He said such occurrences are investigated with a fine-toothed comb and safety procedures amended when needed.

Cauchois agreed.

The trapeze is attached to the tent's roof, and he and Tessier have a safety mat beneath them in case of a fall. It's risky, no doubt, but always under control, he remarked, and overshadowed by the many pleasures of his unconventional family and home — or homes, as the case may be.

"We are all good friends, always traveling and moving together," Cauchois said. "We discover new cities together, try out restaurants and walk around. It's a really rich life that we have the chance to experience."

By contrast, Laveau didn't transition to life on the road quite as seamlessly.

Accustomed to a quiet life among about 2,000 fellow Wendake, surrounded by mountains and lakes, Laveau struggled while following the production to Pittsburgh, New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other fast-paced metropolises. Today, however, he feels grounded and has come full circle, supporting others who face homesickness and a need to belong.

"I had a chat with the parents of a 20-year-old girl and they told me that now I'm her big brother," Laveau said of a young Native American who is now part of the troupe. "They asked me to take care of her like a sister because they won't be around to do so. Now, it's on me."

If You Go

What: Cirque du Soleil's "Totem"

Where: Orange County Great Park, 6950 Marine Way, Irvine

When: Nov. 21 through Dec. 29

Cost: Prices vary; visit website


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