TOTEM (touted as the best show in years by the fabulously successful Cirque du Soleil franchise) stars 23 year-old hoop-dancing sensation, Eric Hernandez. I spoke over the phone with the dazzling young performer who was traveling on his way to open TOTEM in three southland venues: The Port of Los Angeles, The Orange County Park Festival Site and The Santa Monica Pier.
Cris Franco: Eric, thanks for making time in your super-busy “Cirque” schedule. Cirque du Soleil always presents a jaw-dropping ethereal spectacle, featuring world-class performers executing near impossible feats of athletic artistry — all wrapped up in a show with a really weird name. I know what a “totem” is, but what’s TOTEM about?
Eric Hernandez: It’s about evolution – which is TOTEM’s theme. It’s also about humankind and our relationship to nature. It combines rarely seen cultural acts from around the world as they journey on a physical and spiritual evolution. It’s an amazing show.
CF: And you’re amazing in it! What’s your background?
EH: I’m a local boy from Covina, California. I’m part Mexican on my father’s side and Lumbee Indian on my mom’s side.
CF: I hear you were discovered on YouTube?
EH: Kind of. Cirque du Soleil was looking for a traditional hoop dancer for TOTEM. Arizona’s Heard Museum, where I participated in lots of hoop dance competitions, recommended me. And after watching one of my YouTube videos, Cirque called me and offered me a show contract. Like over the phone. They gave me two weeks to decide. I never thought about putting college on hold, leaving home and going on tour with the circus, but I did!
CF: How would you describe hoop dancing?
EH: It’s a traditional, Native American dance that tells a story by showing different image with hoops. The hoops can resemble plants and animals and, in the case of TOTEM, how nature’s elements combine to form our world — it’s an ancient dance.
CF: Most young people are into twerking. Meaning, they’re not into learning their parents’ dances much less their great-great-great grandparents’ dances. What inspired you to venture into this very demanding and ageless art form?
EH: My mom comes from North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe, so as a kid I’d seen it performed at tribal gatherings and I thought it was really cool. Then when I was 10 my uncle, Terry Goedel, who is also a world-class hoop dancer himself, noticed that I was interested in dancing and he taught me how to do it.
CF: It’s a highly athletic and evocative art form. It’s thrilling to see how every dancer executes each move differently.
EH: That’s what’s so cool about hoop dancing. Although it’s a traditional dance and everyone does similar images – we each have our own way of arriving at those images. The style I’ve developed with Cirque is a lot more — “circussy” now. It’s showier, flashier and faster than originally done. Because I have to project to the 2700 people in the audience, my movements need more energy than what you’d perform at a traditional powwow.
CF: How does it fit into the TOTEM theme?
EH: It helps tell the story of how all nature interconnects. How all-living things relate to each other. TOTEM has artists from all over the world, each bringing their talent and traditions to create a story of creation. We begin crawling as acrobats play monkeys and frogs and we end flying like the Russian acrobats who are catapulted into the sky.
CF: What are you trying to accomplish when you perform?
EH: I want to have the audience feel something. That’s why I love working in the big top where you can really sense the audience breathing. We perform 10 times a week and every time I go on-stage, my mind set is that I want to connect with the crowd. To really try and feel their emotions and make them feel something, too.
CF: And you create all the spellbinding visuals using only your body and five hoops.
EH: I used to dance with up to 14 hoops, but because Cirque needs a speedy dance, you can be more agile with five.
CF: What images are you trying to evoke?
EH: You’ll see a bird, eagle, crocodile, flowers, butterfly and in the end, the hoops come together to form the world. That’s the message of the dance. The eagle is the main image and when the hoops are stacked upward they’re like a totem, the ladder of life.
CF: TOTEM is being called the best Cirque show in years by virtue of its message.
EH: The message is that we don’t own anything in this world – we’re the stewards. The hoops tell us to pay attention to a higher power, not just our physical existence. We have to pay attention to our spirits, that’s the part that’s always gonna be in existence.
You can see Eric Hernandez’ inspiring transcendent hoop dance along with all the other enormously gifted specialty artists performing in Cirque du Soleil’s epic TOTEM by logging onto: www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem
TOTEM opens October 11th at the Port of Los Angeles; Irvine: opens November 21st at the Orange County Great Park Festival Site; andSanta Monica: opens January 17, 2014 at the Santa Monica Pier.