Connie Chats on Opening Night: Totem

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Connie Danese
Connie Danese

Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, written and directed by Robert Lepage, is open under the Cirque’s famous blue-and-yellow big top at the Santa Monica Pier. On this opening night in January, Cirque apparently enlisted the Weather God as co-producer in charge of atmosphere, because it felt as if we were celebrating by an ocean in the tropics.

Soleil is French for sun or sunlight. Like the English equivalents, it can be used to indicate people who bring light to others by brightening their everyday life. Maybe that’s why the universe conspired to ensure our traditionally cold winter weather would cooperate with Cirque’s delightful mission. Given the current situation on the East Coast, opening night on a pier at the Hudson River would not compare. The dry, warm nighttime air was an odd but welcome perk as celebrities arrived without boots, umbrellas or windbreakers.

Kristin Bauer (HBO’s True Blood) is a staunch animal activist who also works to promote programs that do not test cosmetics on animals. “As a big animal lover, I’m so happy this is a non-animal circus; everyone performing volunteered to perform. I see all the Cirque shows. I think they’re amazing. You can’t imagine what they’ll do next, so I always expect the unexpected.”

Kristin Bauer
Kristin Bauer

Another Cirque fan, Dot Jones (Glee) mentioned her affinity with animals. “What I love about Cirque is that it’s all people, no animals.” Jones recently celebrated her birthday by going to Vegas and seeing her favorite Cirque production again. “I went two weeks ago, and it was my fifth time seeing O. I’d see all of them every day if I could.

“When you think of the quality of athleticism these kids have…and I say kids cause I’m old; I’m 50.” She laughs, “There are a lot of Olympians in the company and not just from the US but all over the world. They’re beautiful and elegant and breathtaking. O is one of my favorites. I love the water and the diving. If you haven’t seen it, you must. My favorite part is watching the acrobats. I admire their strength because I grew up in theater and was a power-lifter so it takes me back — makes me wish I were still in that kind of shape. They’re inspiring.”

I interviewed Neil Patrick Harris at two earlier Cirque shows, Ovo and Iris. This time Harris and his fiancé David Burtka each carried one of their beautiful twins Harper and Gideon onto the Red Carpet.

Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.
Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and twins Harper and Gideon.

The proud dads posed for photos with the children, but Harris understandably wasn’t stopping to “chat”. He is a big fan of Cirque but also a dad who dashed up the aisle during Act One carrying one of the children who apparently needed to “go”; they quietly returned at an opportune moment and seemed to be enjoying their family night.

The Harris/Burtka clan was seated directly in front of me and behind Ray Liotta (The Place Beyond the Pines), who also posed on the carpet but didn’t “chat”. I’ve  seen him play so many scary-bad-guy roles, but I was nevertheless surprised that he projects a commanding, stern image in person — even at a circus — or maybe that’s just a good way to avoid a microphone. Liotta was dressed all in black and stopped for photos, but his eyes seemed to project “don’t ask” to nearby reporters, and we didn’t.

Mario Lopez (Extra) was apparently on a child-free “date night” with his lovely wife, Courtney Mazza. Lopez, who is also a dancer, said, “Unfortunately, I’ve never done gymnastics, but one of our kids will soon be taking classes and my wife has done it, so we love the acrobats.”  What does he like best about Cirque? “ We love the music and storytelling. It’s just magical and takes you away, right? I come back to all of them and always look forward to seeing the newest. We have no idea what this one is about, but it’s always a heck of a show.”

Beautiful actress Jaimie Alexander (Thor) arrived with boyfriend Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) who brought his two daughters (with ex-wife Jennie Garth) to see the show. Alexander wasn’t “chatting” but Facinelli introduced his youngest daughter, Fiona. “It’s her first time at Cirque and we’re all very excited to be here.”

Carrie Ann with "Totem" performers
Carrie Ann Inaba with “Totem” performers

Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing With The Stars) smiled for cameras then completely surprised everyone when she suddenly dropped down into a split while posing with Cirque cast members. “I love Cirque. I toured with Madonna in ’93 and did one of those pole things at the top of the show. Cirque called me for an audition at one point and I remember being really, really flattered. It’s a high point in any performer’s career to be called by them. It was to do the pole stuff — not acrobatics or gymnastics.” Inaba slyly grinned, “I learned from a stripper, so it was a really interesting act I did for Madonna’s tour called The Girlie Show.”

Inaba is consistently fascinated by Cirque. “There’s this mystique and always a storyline that allows you to add your own interpretation. I love it because it’s different each time and there’s so much space in the story that you can add your own ideas. Anyone who has a creative inkling will find this a fun, exciting and never boring experience.”

When judging Dancing With the Stars, Inaba is often brought to tears by the beauty of certain dances. She laughs, “Always.” Does Cirque ever affect her that way? “Oh yes. Mystere moved me to tears every time I saw it. When that stage opens up and you see the creature kind of walking through with the four legs, I cry every single time; it’s magic. Every time I see something at Cirque du Soleil it’s always a magical night.”

Allison Janney
Allison Janney

Allison Janney (CBS, Mom) gets more beautiful with the years. Her newer look with long straight hair is fantastic. She dressed in tight pants, ankle boots, and sweater, with a perfectly tied soft scarf draped around her neck. “I’m always excited to see something at Cirque du Soleil,” she said. “It’s always a perfectly magical night.” During the show, while performing an impossibly difficult segment of a routine, one of five synchronized cyclists missed catching a bowl on her head — more than once. They were nevertheless awesome, and at the end Janney showed her deep appreciation of the performers by being first to leap to her feet and applaud those incredible ladies.

Cavorting on the red carpet with magnificent Cirque acrobats, Jason Alexander (Tony winner, Seinfeld, the last artistic director of Reprise) seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. “These shows are all so different. You can’t believe human beings can execute those moves. And, they execute on every level, not just the performers but the machinery and technology and design is extraordinary. It’s one of the most imaginative companies. You keep thinking wow…wow.”

Alexander returns often, because “It makes you feel like a kid again. I couldn’t do that on my best day”, he laughs, “nor would I try. This is a circus that can always bring me way back in time and make me remember how I felt when I was about seven or eight years old. I’m excited to see this new one. I have no idea what it’s about.” I explained that it depicts mankind going from the amphibian state to men with cellphones. “Ah, somewhere in there I must fit in, I’m sure. I’ve got to be somewhere in that hierarchy.”

Get in touch with your inner child and experience the very special magic of Totem at the Grand Chapiteau on the Santa Monica Pier through March 16.

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**All photos by Matt Beard.

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Connie Danese

Connie Danese