Cirque du Soleil is famously protective about the artistic process that goes into its elaborate shows. So it's refreshing to speak with someone like Robert Lepage, the acclaimed Canadian director, who is relatively forthcoming about working for the Montreal company and its owner, the elusive billionaire-of-mystery Guy Laliberté.
Lepage is a veteran of two Cirque shows — "Totem," the 2010 touring production that is running in Santa Monica through mid-March, and "Kà," the long-running Las Vegas show at the MGM Grand.
"Cirque gives you the time and resources to push in the right direction," said Lepage from his offices in Quebec City.
"It's a generous environment. For some directors, they get lost. If you have too much freedom, you get lost. But not me."
For "Totem," Lepage created a show about the evolution of the animal kingdom, which he married to Cirque's signature brand of acrobatics and aerial stunts. The show debuted in Montreal and has since toured the world, including recent stops in Orange County and the Port of Los Angeles.
"I was thinking, within the human body, we are all animals. At points, we resemble tadpoles, climbers, mammals, monkeys," Lepage said, "and our aspiration is to take off and fly away. So you see within the evolution of one human, all animals are present."
In "Totem," the evolutionary arc of the show begins with performers embodying apes and culminates with the arrival of contemporary man and wireless technology.
The director said that Laliberté can be quite hands-on when it comes to fine-tuning a Cirque show. The billionaire (whose hobbies include poker and space tourism) co-founded Cirque in 1984 and continues to head the company.
"He's not there all the time, but you have these regular pitches and rehearsals you have to show to him. I get along with Guy but others find it tougher," Lepage said.
Lepage said that money is never an issue for Laliberté. In 2013, Forbes estimated that the Cirque co-founder's net worth is $1.8 billion.
Laliberté has cultivated an image of an unconventional business leader, describing himself in rare interviews as "head clown." But few outside the company know the precise nature of his management style.
"Some can feel a bit bullied by him," Lepage said. "There are points where we didn't agree. He can come in a week before and say this or that doesn't work. So you have to be prepared for that."
Like most Cirque shows, "Totem" features an international cast. Alevtyna Titarenko, who hails from Ukraine, has been with Cirque for 15 years and with "Totem" since its beginning.
"Of course, it does get tiring," she said. "But as long as you can keep yourself motivated on stage to give the feeling of the act you're supposed to give, then it works."
"Totem" also features vocal performances from Christian Laveau, a performer from the Huron-Wendat tribe in Quebec. Laveau performs in his native tribal language throughout the show.
"Guy and Robert respected the language," he said. "I also asked elders in the tribe for their permission to sing in the language."
Lepage is the head of the innovative Canadian theater company Ex Machina, which has performed around the world and brought "The Blue Dragon" to L.A. in 2008. The company is renowned for its visually arresting productions that mix technically complicated mise-en-scène with artistically challenging material.