Flying High Under the Big Top

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Cirque rehearsal web

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor

SANTA MONICA.–On their way to the stage for rehearsal, Umihiko Miya and Riki Fujimaki barely took notice of what would be an astounding sight for most people: four young women on unicycles, kicking steel bowls into the air, with another cyclist catching them all on top of her head.

Such is the life in Cirque Du Soleil.

Miya and Fujimaki are performers in “Totem,” the newest production from the world’s most celebrated circus, running though March 16 under the big top at the Santa Monica Pier.

Fujimaki, left, and Miya show one of their amphibian-style costumes. They also apply their own makeup, a task that takes up to two hours. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Fujimaki, left, and Miya show one of their amphibian-style costumes. They also apply their own makeup, a task that takes up to two hours. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

“I never thought about ever joining a circus,” said Miya, 32. “The idea just popped up one day, because I love traveling and performing. Also, I could make money, so I thought it was perfect.”

Both men have world-class experience in gymnastics, and are part of “Totem,” which features frog-like creatures swinging from high bars and soaring above a large nest of a stage.

Miya, who speaks in a confident, baritone voice, said he had dreams of making it to the Olympics, but alas, it was not to be.

“Most of my friends made it,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Once his competitive career was finished, Miya moved from Tokyo to Panama to coach the national gymnastics team there and to help develop a physical education curriculum for the country.

On a whim, he sent an audition video to Cirque Du Soleil, but got a stunning surprise when they called and said they did not want him to audition.

“They offered my a contract right there on the spot,” he recalled.

Fujimaki, a 23-year-old from Chiba, also competed in gymnastics, and had received his teaching certification when a friend suggested he also look into joining Cirque.

“I wasn’t supposed to be anything serious, just for fun,” Fujimaki said. He was shocked when he learned  he had passed the audition and began training in Montreal in 2012.

The amphibious creatures who climb and soar about the giant centerstage “turtle” in "Totem." (OSA Images)

The amphibious creatures who climb and soar about the giant centerstage “turtle” in “Totem.” (OSA Images)

Like all Cirque shows, “Totem” is filled with emotion as much as the physical spectacle, and the two Japanese athletes had to learn how to perform, to convey emotion and connect with audiences without the use of language.

“Entertainment has no one answer,” Fujimaki said. “Every night, there’s a different audience, so we have to be ready each day, to feel the audience, for their looks and their smiles, and at some point, I was able to find my own voice.”

For the outgoing Miya, performance was a natural fit.

“Honestly, I never struggled to be open or show my emotion, I’ve always been this way.”

The Santa Monica engagement of “Totem,” is now through March 16. Tickets are available online at www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem.

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