With large, international casts, Cirque Du Soleil productions almost always feature LGBT performers and “Totem,” now playing in Atlanta, is no exception. Under the Grand Chapiteau at Atlantic Station, “Totem” stars openly gay Joe Putagnino as the leading character, Crystal Man, who officially brings the show to life decked out in a stretch velvet leotard.
“Totem” deals with the evolution of an amphibian form to that of an adult ready to fly away, on a stage resembling a turtle. Putagnino calls Crystal Man the “spark” who literally opens the show, figuratively and literally, and creates life.
A competitive gymnast growing up, Putagnino got sidetracked.
“I wanted to go to the Olympic trials and gave my entire life to it,” he says. “I was obsessed. But it got very difficult as I got older. It was high pressure, trying to achieve perfection.”
He stopped and turned to drugs. While working as a clerk at the New York Times, he was coerced to get back into performing after reading an article about a contortionist.
“It was a long, difficult process,” he says. “I had not done a split in 10 years. I was a heroin addict.”
He decided to get help and was able to resurrect a performing career. He appeared on Broadway in Twyla Tharp’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and was later asked by Robert Lepage, the director of “Totem,” to come aboard in 2009. The actor was part of the world premiere in Montreal in 2010.
In all the cast includes more than 50 musicians and acrobats. A performer’s sexual orientation is not an issue in Cirque Du Soleil, Putagnino notes. First and foremost, they are all athletes working together to do a job, he says.
He has been with the show since its inception and Atlanta is his last city. He is excited to be able to move on to a different project, hoping to do some acting and modeling, but is melancholy about leaving his tight-knit Cirque family behind.
Top photo: Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Totem’ stars gay gymnast Joe Putagnino as the leading character, Crystal Man. After yearning for the Olympics, Putagnino overcame drug addiction to return to gymnastics on stage. (Photo by OSA Images)