Two beach boys, with sunglasses, spiked hair and surf shorts, battle against one another to see who’s the baddest on the beach. They move to Bollywood-meets-hip-hop music, sending energy off in all directions. Their muscles — unbelievable examples of flawless strength — flex and fire as the two flip themselves in circles, land hand stands, and nail iron crosses while holding onto metal rings. And through it all they smile and flirt with the nearby audience, seeing who can get the greatest applause.
It’s a scene one might imagine in California’s muscle capital Venice Beach, or among the bronzed beauties of Florida’s South Beach. But this battle takes place 30 feet in the air, high above a gasping audience in Cirque du Soleil’s production of Totem. Now in its forth year of touring, this is just one vignette in Totem’s larger story about the evolution of mankind. And for Olli Torkkel, the boy in blue (who also plays a Neanderthal to comic effect elsewhere in the show), this is the job of a lifetime.
“It was really perfect timing for me,” the 35-year-old Finnish man says. He had met some Cirque scouts while competing with the Finnish National Gymnastics Team for more than 10 years, but at the European Gymnastics Championship everything changed. “I’d just gotten back from an injury. I knew I had reached the highest level that I was able to reach with my abilities and my body. I still wanted to do gymnastics, but at the same time I could compete for probably one or two more years. I was ready to jump into something new.”
The talent scout heard that, and a month later Torkkel got a call.
“They said there would be a good role for me on rings in a new creation called Totem,” he says, a mixture of youthful excitement and disbelief still present in his voice. “I loved what I’d seen from Cirque, and I was lucky that they had a role on rings. And to be part of creating a show was great.”
Unlike traditional theater where there’s a set script that gets developed primarily between the director, producers and writer, the creation of a Cirque show can be more fluid. Here there are the creators and director supplying an overall vision, but when it comes to individual acts there is a great deal of collaboration — and not just with the performers. From dance and acrobatics choreographers to the lighting, music and technical team that hurls the aerialists skyward, everyone has an impact on how the performers dazzle the crowds with their final creation.
However, for Torkkel, the toughest part wasn’t performing those physical feats 8 shows a week. It wasn’t even sailing over the audience, which he says was “really exciting in the beginning, and now you forget the height. Mostly.” The greatest challenges he faced involved his love of gymnastics, and dealing with an audience.
“The theme is more hip-hop style, so we needed to [move away from] the gymnastics style of pointing toes and having clean lines,” Torkkel explains. “We had to learn hip-hop on rings, and make the same gymnastics moves look different, look more cool, and more difficult.”
Where Torkkel was used to performing for gymnastics judges, now he had to make crowds smile, laugh and cheer. Not an easy task, especially when touring, because each city brings new audiences with differing cultures and attitudes. While Americans were enthusiastic to shows, Europeans were more reserved, so Torkkel needed to accept that in each city things would be different. Now, during a show’s first week in a city, he and his crew try to figure out how to work the crowd so that they get the reception they want.
“There are so many new things to learn about how to make the audience react,” Torkkel says. “It’s a matter of such small details — when to turn, when to smile, when to try to get that reaction from them. But as we started to perform, I realized it really doesn’t matter if you do the trick perfectly in the right gymnastics technique. All that matters is what kind of emotions you give to the audience, and the reaction they give you. I’m still learning, but that’s the fun part. Absolutely a lot of fun.”
And if the cheers under the Cirque tent are any indication, the crowd is having a lot of fun as well.
You can see Olli Torkkel on rings in the North American touring production of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. For information and tickets, visit the Cirque du Soleil website.
Below is a video about the athletes in Totem, with a couple clips of Olli in action.