Cirque du Soleil ("Circus of the Sun"), the circus style entertainment company and producers of several acclaimed shows including Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, returns to DC through Sunday, October 7 with its touring big top production, Totem. Written and directed by Robert Lepage, Totem is an incredible, visually stunning show that depicts the evolution of mankind.
Totem features continuous live music and a dizzying array of talented performers that sing, dance, prance, jump and soar above the interactive set.
For generations, kids all over the world (I can't be the only one) have dreamed of running away and joining the circus. I couldn't think of a better circus to run away to than Cirque du Soleil.
One of the talented performers bringing her talents to Totem is Esi Acquaah-Harrison. The versatile singer is an accomplished session and background vocalist who has been a part of several choirs, revues and touring productions. The Washington Informer sat down with Acquaah-Harrison to discuss several topics including what she was doing before she decided to become a singer, what inspires her and life on the road with Cirque du Soleil.
The Washington Informer: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Esi Acquaah-Harrison: Well, one of the things was to sing but I didn't actually think of being a singer but one of the first things was a police officer. I wanted to be a police officer [laughs] or a teacher. Even though I was singing very, very young It wasn't the sort of thing I thought I would do. My models were teacher, police officer, nurse, that sort of thing.
The Washington Informer: Growing up, you spent time in Ghana. How did your time there influence you musically?
Acquaah-Harrison: I did get a big musical influence there because during my teenage years, I did listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Amazingly, even though the internet wasn't a big thing when I was growing up in the late '60s, '70s we still got a lot of music from America. So, although I listened to a lot of highlife, which was Ghana's music, I also listen to a lot of soul music from this part of the world so a lot of my influence comes from here. The school band I was in, we played a lot of songs from bands from here [America] [laughs] So that's been part of me.
The Washington Informer: What artist from America were you listening to?
Acquaah-Harrison: When I was still in Ghana, people like Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, The O'Jays, [laughs] The Ohio Players. I'm telling my age now [laughs], Teddy Pendergrass, Otis Redding. The greats from way back, they really influenced me in those early days.
The Washington Informer: You didn't really get into singing until high school and then later in London as part of The London Community Gospel Choir. What made you decide to take singing seriously?
Acquaah-Harrison: When I was growing up I always had this picture in my mind, I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but I would be singing to thousands and thousands of people [laughs]. It wasn't until in my late 20's when I was living in London, I actually started to take going to church very seriously and God very seriously and joined the gospel choir.
The first choir I joined was one from my church and that eventually lead me to The London Community Gospel Choir. I thought well, you know, even though it's a gospel choir and it's not a paid choir, all the time, I thought well, in your late 20s you've got to use your time wisely so this is quite serious [laughs]. Gradually, people started to hear about me and I started to get paid work. A lot of the paid work I got was from being part of the gospel choir.
The Washington Informer: You were working as an accountant back then, how did you balance being an accountant during the day and a singer at night?
Acquaah-Harrison: It was crazy. Very often I would go home and pray that I had just one job [laughs], it felt like two jobs. The accountant work, obviously, that was my bread and butter, that's what paid my bills. Many, many people in the music industry today they have another job and they do the music on the side.
Singing was always a passion but it was fast becoming something which I knew I could professionally. My full time job I had no choice, I had to do. The singing on the side I would often do things like prepare for gigs, in terms of learning words, on the metro, we call it the underground in London. I would be on the underground, with my in-ears, listening to the music, learning the songs - sometimes moving my mouth without actually making any sound [laughs], because it was full of people. It was lot of hard work and I had to decide I'm going to put aside one or two evenings every week to do nothing to make sure I got rest.
The Washington Informer: Your first major role was "Rafiki" in The Legend of the Lion King at Disneyland Paris. How did it prepare you for your role in Totem?
Acquaah-Harrison: Disneyland Paris was an amazing experience. What that prepared me for was learning about not just having to do show after show after show, but doing show after show consistently. We had a vocal coach who would come in twice a week not just to work with us but actually assess the standard of what we are doing. He watched at least one show and then he would comment on it. So that really put me into a thinking of okay, yes I know the job but I've got to keep some consistency and quality. From that respect, that really helped me. Also, I had the chance to do not a lot of acting but a little bit of acting so coming to Totem I think they had very little work to do with me in terms of what I had to do and be acting-wise. It's not that I'm on stage so much but I found that they gave me the ideas, gave me some direction and I tried to take that on and it seemed to work out right, you know? Prior to that, all the other singing I had done [was] a lot of session work and on stages doing real live work. Live Aid, many years ago was one of them, I backed Maria Carey, I sang with Luther Van Dross, I did lots of real work like that. All of that prepared me for being in front of people and not have any stage fright.
The Washington Informer: That leads me to my next question regarding consistency and quality. Totem will be in DC now through Sunday, October 7, you'll be performing the show as many as 10-12 times a week. With such a busy performance schedule, how do you keep your performances fresh?
Acquaah-Harrison: Well, every day is a new day. Some days you wake up full of life and some days you don't. So I first allow myself to perform from where I find myself. So, if I feel, we're human, everybody has ups and downs, a little bit down for whatever reason I say okay, I'm down but I still got to go to work so I still do my warm ups and everything but the thing in my mind, this is something I cultivated when I was at Disney, that there is somebody out there who's never seen this show and when I go to shows myself I know I come away, when the performance is very good, very inspired so I feel I've got to inspire somebody with what I do, no matter how small that is. And one of the other ways I keep it fresh is try to focus on something else that I'm not doing so I might take a scene from a different part of the show completely and try to enjoy that and that gives me some freshness, some energy to then give somebody else. I just use different creative things.
The Washington Informer: Totem is a MASSIVE production; 170 people, 65 trailers – the site takes eight days to build. What is it like traveling with such a large production?
Acquaah-Harrison: It's something that is totally new to me. I came to join the company with the creation of Totem and the whole creation experience was something new to me but very privileged to be the first person in the role, you know? Set the standard. When you're traveling with so many other people, first of all, what's great is everybody is there for reason - I don't say this as the cliché phrase that is used but everyone has a job to do. So when people ask me 'Esi, how much are the tickets?' You know something? Go to website because that's somebody else's job [laughs]. The nice thing is everyone there has their job and I think to an extent, because of that, everyone is respectful of someone else. I am respectful off the trapeze artist. I don't do what they do and they don't do what I do so together we really pull one another along and get on with it.
There are so many nationalities and within that nationality different cultures - different mindsets, different walks of life, different educational backgrounds. Working with a production like this, if you are open, you learn how to live with others. That's how I see it. I see this experience not just as a great job with a well-known company but as a way for God to work on me, so I can learn more how to live with others and then about myself.
The Washington Informer: For anyone who hasn't seen a Cirque du Solei production, what can people look forward to when they come to see Totem?
Acquaah-Harrison: They can expect very skilled athletes and acrobats performing within the themes that Totem is which is the evolution of man and its legends and myths of the evolution of man. So they can expect costumes to exude that and express that but within that they'll see great high bar act, they will see great trapeze, people juggling and spinning with their feet and their hands [laughs].
They will have very interesting music that's in their face and I will put my head on the block and say the music very much fits each act. If it's intense and moody, that's what they will feel. If it's up and happy, that's what they will feel. And they will sometimes, without realizing it, they will find their feet tapping and they'll be joining in [laughs] or they might shed a tear you know? That's what it does to me and if that's what it does to me then it will do it to somebody else.
And I hope, my hope is that they'll go away and they'll take one thing with them that will inspire them in their personal life to say, my gosh, I mean, I feel a bit dreary because of the economic situation or whatever it is but gosh, those people have inspired me and I'm going to think again about that other things that I wanted to do and I put aside. That's what I hope and I think if we can do that, we've done our jobs.
Cirque du Soleil is back in Washington with its touring production TOTEM, under the blue-and-yellow Big Top at the Plateau at National Harbor.
Tickets for TOTEM can be purchased online at www.cirquedusoleil.com/totem or at the Cirque du Soleil box office, located inside the entrance tent at National Harbor. (Regular box office hours are from 2 hours prior to show time until 30 minutes after the beginning of the show from Wednesday through Sunday.)
Performance schedule: Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 8pm; Thursdays through Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm; Sundays at 1pm and 5pm; and dark on Mondays. Visit the Cirque du Soleil website for the complete performance schedule.