Going Out

THE Q&A: TOTEM is different, unforgettable — and you’ll regret it if you miss it, says Cirque de Soleil’s Neilson Vignola

The blue-and-yellow big top tent of Cirque de Soleil is making its way back to Ottawa. This July, TOTEM arrives in Kanata with a spectacular production that showcases man’s evolution through the use of stunning visual and acrobatic language. Over two million people have seen this show — and its cast of 46 acrobats, actors, singers, and musicians from all over the world —since its 2010 premiere. Ottawa Magazine’s Jessica Nasrallah sat down with Neilson Vignola, Director of Creation, to learn more about the production, as well as about his unique job.

Neilson Vignola, Director of Creation, Cirque de Soleil

What does a director of creation do?
“My job is to make sure I get all my creation team – 10 to 12 people – to the opening night,” Vignola explains. Easier said than done. This can take up to two years, sometimes three and involves a lot of research and different steps along the way. This task is Vignola’s “biggest challenge and greatest pleasure.” He is heavily involved with the production team and performers, as well as the big guys in the head office. Vignola “deals with the politics” between both sides. The Director of Creation can also decide who is acting and who isn’t on a performing night so that to make sure the team is in the best possible shape. Overall, Vignola’s goal is to “ensure we make the best show possible and that we deliver what we promised to deliver.”

What are the major themes represented in TOTEM?
Vignola breaks down the key stages of life that helped evolve the concept of the show. “In Robert Lepage’s mind we start with crawling, then we stand up, then we start walking, then running, then jumping, and then what do we want to do next? Fly.” With this in mind, TOTEM explores the evolutionary journey of man, the importance of water to human life, mythology, and different cultures. This is where the significance of the turtle – the symbol of origin for many ancient civilizations which takes center stage — developed from.

The turtle shell that forms part of the stage references creation myths from various cultures.

What’s the best part of working for Cirque?
Vignola loves the “freedom, flexibility, and openness” he is given to be creative. “Cirque is not afraid of trying different things which is great … TOTEM helped us to go somewhere else … it’s a different flavour,” says Vignola.

How does the Director of Creation handle negative feedback?
Criticism forces Vignola to really think about what he is doing. Even when he doesn’t always agree with the negative feedback, Vignola says there is always something to consider or look into. He understands that he and his team “can’t please everyone,” but says “we do please most people.” Vignola says he feels it is important to asses any negative reviews or comments he receives in order to improve his work. 

Advice for aspiring directors?
When asked to provide advice to young directors, Vignola laughed and said, “chance.” He quickly got serious and stressed the importance of “keeping your target” by making sure your team is always headed towards the right vision. He warns that one should never lose sight of the goal – advice useful for everyone. Vignola views the job as all about “having passion and believing in what you want to achieve.”

Why go to Cirque?
Vignola insists that TOTEM is “an experience you won’t forget.”  It’s “very different and very interesting” he adds. Vignola encourages Cirque de Soleil newbies to let yourself go, enjoy, and be open. He hopes that people will see the show more than once because they will probably miss something the first time around. With the extra week added on to the Ottawa tour dates hopefully anyone interested in going to the show will be able to make it. Vignola concludes, “you will regret it if you miss it.”

 ~ Jessica Nasrallah