Top of the Totem Pole

Cirque du Soliel Hoop Dancer Eric Hernandez (Photos: OSA Images, Costumes: Kym Barrett, ©2013 Cirque du Soleil Inc.)

Eric Hernandez spins and jumps effortlessly through five hoops that he swings around his body and forms into geometric shapes as he dances to the rhythm of a Native American drum. The hoops somehow keep from getting caught on his headdress.

The 23-year-old Native American hoop dancer is gearing up for a series of upcoming performances in Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM at the Port of Los Angeles. In a few weeks, the world renowned touring company will raise its blue and yellow big top in San Pedro’s outer harbor for a run of more than 30 performances of the critically-acclaimed show from October 11 to November 10.

“I’m close to home. I’m definitely going to have a lot of friends and family come to the show,” says the Covina native, catching his breath. Hernandez began dancing at the age of 10, quickly excelling and winning competitions across the country before being tapped to join Cirque du Soleil in 2011. He found himself catapulted into touring life with TOTEM traveling North America, most recently wrapping up a run of shows in Columbus, Ohio.

“A lot of my friends and family know of Cirque du Soleil, but they don’t know much about it, and I’ve been in this world for the last two years, so to be able to finally show them what I’ve been doing is definitely exciting,” he says.

Hernandez and another hoop dancer are featured in the three-year-old show written and directed by Robert Lepage, which traces humankind’s evolution from amphibians, to their ultimate desire to fly.

“Compared to other Cirque du Soleil shows that are based in an imaginary world, I would say this show is really based in our own nature, and that it’s a very funny show as well,” says Cirque du Soleil publicist Francis Jalbert. “By the theme of evolution, we’re bringing to the stage different scenes and sequences from the past of humanity. It’s kind of like the audience is traveling around the world and back and forth in time from one act to the next.”

Under the intimate big top, acrobats fly overhead and perform on a 2,700-lb. turtle skeleton apparatus representing the earth. Stunning images from around the world are projected onto a marsh at the center of the tent and infrared technology creates effects that actually respond to performers’ live movements — a footprint in sand, or a ripple on water.

TOTEM features dozens of artists testing the limits of the human body on bars, rings, unicycles and trapezes, and performing gravity defying balancing acts while taking humanity from the earth to outer space — all in beautiful and intricately designed costumes against stunning visuals and live music.

It’s a world-class entertainment experience, and for San Pedro, a gem of an opportunity that the Port spent years trying to make a reality.

When Cirque’s trailers roll into town this month, the company will be hiring 150 local laborers to raise and tear down the tent, and an additional 150 staff to run concessions and the box office.

“We’re excited to be here, San Pedro is an up-and-coming area and it’s fun to be a part of that. Being able to provide a product like this to an area that may be reinventing itself is really exciting for us as well,” says company manager Jeff Lund. “And we love waterfronts.”

When the show came to the Philadelphia area earlier this year, it actually set up on the Camden waterfront in New Jersey, which is similarly going through redevelopment.

The Downtown Historic Waterfront District (PBID) has arranged discounts with eight restaurants in downtown San Pedro for Cirque du Soleil ticket holders.

Lund says he hopes the show will not only bring new visitors to San Pedro, but bring Cirque du Soleil to new audiences. The tent seats more than 2,600, which means days with two shows could see 5,000 visitors.

“I hope we can assist San Pedro in their community development, and that we might expose a community that’s never seen a Cirque show before to our product,” he says. “Usually most people walk away from seeing TOTEM thinking ‘How can they do that?’ People are just awe-inspired. They’re amazed at what the human body can do, and that inspires them.”

The cast of TOTEM consists of 47 artists from 15 countries and 73 crewmembers from nine countries. Eighteen children join their parents on tour.

Hernandez says Cirque du Soleil has brought hoop dance, which is rooted in Native American wedding ceremonies, to a broader audience. “I don’t think hoop dancing or even Native American traditional dances have ever been put on this scale of entertainment.”

While the shapes he creates are based in traditional hoop dance, he says the dance he performs in the show is a little more fast-paced and high energy. “The main image is the eagle, which you see with two, three and then five hoops,” he says. “The audience can kind of interpret the shapes the way they want to. I can say something is a crocodile and others say it’s a snake.”

Jalbert hopes audiences will be blown away and inspired by the show. “As soon as you step into the tent, you forget about reality and dream with us. For two hours you get to escape reality and see what the human body can do.”

“It’s super great when a community like San Pedro supports and welcomes us because we know we’ve got your support,” Lund says, “It’s a mutual win-win.” spt

Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM will be at the Port of Los Angeles from October 11 through November 10. For tickets and more information, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.