For 2 1/2 hours, Cirque du Soleil’s Totem will make you forget your worldly problems and simply appreciate being a human.

Cirque du Soleil

Photos by Ezra Ekman

Totem debuted in Montreal in spring 2010 and makes its home in San Francisco until December 18 under the classic Grand Chapiteau, a blue-and-yellow tent setup just outside of AT&T Park.

Totem tells the story of mankind, beginning with the appearance of amphibians and ending with the notion of space exploration. The show starts with performers dressed as frogs and (what look like) lizards emerging from a giant turtle carapace that is suspended from the ceiling when not in use.

With 11 acrobatic acts—among them synchronized unicycling, a rollerskating duo whirling around on a platform only 1.8 meters wide, and a trapeze artist balancing by his neck muscles—the show is obviously impressive (an understatement). But even moreso, it’s just plain fun to watch.

Each act is lively, colorful, and in some parts extremely suspenseful, moving seamlessly from the natural world to the scientific world and exploring man’s place in the grand scheme of Earth’s past and future. The soundtrack is inspired by several world music styles and includes a Bollywood number, a Spanish flamenco number and a distinct Native American and Eastern influence.

Opening Night Highlights

Rings Trio: High above a summer beach scene, two rather hunky male trapeze artists compete for the attention of a female trapeze artist, who deftly outdoes them both.

Unicycles and Bowls: Five unicyclists on seven-foot tall unicycles perform a synchronized act of flinging bowls with their feet and catching them with their heads. When this show is over, someone call FIFA.

Fixed Trapeze Duo: An acrobatic representation of young courtship between a male and female trapeze artist, twisting and balancing their bodies about each other in a cat-and-mouse game of chase.

Manipulation: The Scientist and his simian assistant take the stage for a Blue Man Group-esque performance with the science lab orchestra, featuring giant test tubes filled with fluorescent liquids that serve as percussion instruments. The Scientist stands inside a transparent cone and juggles colorful, lit-up balls that spiral around the walls at high speed.

Russian Bars: A futuristic act with ten performers dressed as cosmonauts, leaping and flying across flexible glow-in-the-dark bars.

Scene changes are marked by prerecorded video projections that establish the natural environment, often including some body of water—beach, lake, river—that the performers can interact with, thanks to infrared cameras above and around the stage. The band and any offstage performers are hidden behind a wall of tall reeds, emerging from the marsh at the beginning of each new act.

At capacity, the Grand Chapiteau only holds a couple thousand people in a semicircle seating area. Once you’re inside it’s surprising how small and intimate the space is, and no matter where you sit you’re not that far away from the action—a noticeable difference from April’s performance of Quidam! at the Cow Palace.

The evolution and celebration of human experience is the perfect theme for a Cirque du Soleil show, as the acrobatic feats are a marvel, a celebration of what we’re physically capable of. Notably, some of the performers left on the ground while their comrades performed insane balancing and climbing acts were visibly nervous, which took away from the spectacle.

The show offers some bits of comic relief centered around a scrawny, Italian-speaking doofus and his barely-smarter, silent friend, but as the theme is not very weighty to begin with these few segments ended up more of a distraction.

So what can we learn from Totem? Sure, we’re all a bunch of apes. But some of us are apes with amazing abs who can balance their weight on one hand and ride seven-foot unicycles. And that’s pretty awesome.

See more images from the show.