BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT //
Musician Joshua Geisler was in India when he got the call from Cirque du Soleil.
“I fit the profile of the kind of people they were looking for, in terms of being able to play multiple instruments and different styles and adaptable,” Geisler said. “So, I just did an audition through Cirque’s website, and it worked out.”
Geisler began his studies at the Berklee College of Music before spending two years in India learning the art of bansuri (a native flute-like instrument made from hollowed bamboo) from a master in the craft.
Based upon such rich, varied musical training, Cirque went on to hire Geisler to play in their latest production, “Totem.” He flew back to the United States in 2010 to join the show, which opens with humble, amphibious beginnings and goes on to exhibit man’s journey to space, all the while drawing from traditions across the globe.
Cirque du Soleil publicist Francis Jalbert speaks further on the themes of “Totem” and describes the “Image Marsh” – a screen incorporated into the stage itself, showing scenes from various locations around the world – and goes on to say that the production, while anything but straightforward, still is fluid in its artistic presentation as well as its timeline.
“We don’t necessarily follow the chronological order of the evolution, so it’s really got the impression that you’re moving back and forth, from one part of the world to the next,” said Jalbert.
Performers from 17 different countries are showcased in the production’s 10 acrobatic acts, and the eight live musicians that perform the score are of diverse backgrounds as well. Besides Geisler, the group includes a Native American vocalist; a female vocalist from Africa; a percussionist with a background in the afro-Cuban style; a recorder player and vocalist who studied medieval-European music; a bassist from France; a jazz pianist; and Geisler on guitar and Indian bansuri flute.
“In the band, you have so many different traditions represented, and it really all comes together in a way that fits very well with the theme [of ‘Totem’],” said Geisler. “The composers wanted the score to reflect something for the whole planet, and not just coming out of one style.”
Geisler’s passion for world music, in particular the Indian tradition, resulted in the creation of his own style of bansuri. His book, “The Chromatic Bansuri,” joins his two worlds by adapting the traditional Indian bamboo flute technique to Western music.
“My work as an artist has been to find a universal element in music and find ways of bridging gaps across cultures, coming to the essence of who we are as humans,” he said.
His own cultural background includes his Jewish upbringing. One particular trip to Belarus with his uncle helped Geisler to get back in touch with his history: That uncle, a philanthropist who donates to groups throughout Eastern Europe, helped to fund the construction of Holocaust memorials.
Speaking with survivors prompted Geisler to reexamine his identity as a Jewish American.
“I think I’ve chosen music, in some ways, as a way of reconciling that identity of being a quote-unquote minority population by trying to find the universal,” he said.
It’s these varying identities of its players that bring such depth to “Totem.” As we become a truly global society, art provides a means by which to communicate.
Geisler emphasizes the fact that, in the 21st century, the world is smaller than ever. He continues to use “Totem” and his music as means to celebrate both our remarkable similarities and differences.