When she went to Cirque du Soleil's Totem last week, artist and curator Melissa Laing was impressed by the acts' "phenomenal" technical brilliance. But that's not her overwhelming memory of the show. Instead, she says "the performers were profoundly let down by the artistic director".

Onstage, the Native American woman on roller skates appears almost naked. The Scientist and all the "normal" people in contemporary costumes are white. Laing was appalled by this "lazy" use of cultural and gender stereotypes.

Overseas reviews agree (including a couple from audience members on Cirque's official website). "The show's treatment of world cultures is alarming," says the online news site Huffington Post, noting performers are costumed "like the singing dolls at Disneyland's It's a Small World " ride. Canada's The Globe and Mail points out that Cirque has a history of such cringe, wondering if James Cameron's noble savage in Avatar was inspired by a Cirque show.

Poor Robert Lepage. Totem's director may have thought he had circumvented such criticism this time: reportedly, Cirque consulted with "numerous First Nations elders", and principal singer and Huron-Wendat lyricist Christian Laveau has said the show was careful not to include sacred elements.


Costumes aside, such measures seem to have at least helped. Although otherwise scathing, the Portland Monthly reviewer expressed surprise and delight "that the act I expected to find most offensive from the press photos turned out to feel like the most authentic part" - that is, the Native American hoop dancing by Eric Hernandez, already a 12-year veteran at age 22.

But the problem is that such enlightening moments are packaged into a broader arc that pits us vs them, white vs exotic, "spectacularising a cultural other", as Laing puts it. Sometimes "attempts to celebrate a culture can actually add to the harm done to that culture", if those attempts are unconsciously patronising or simply clueless. Non-Western cultures are often presented as historically frozen "add-ons" to the dynamic Western default setting.

Cirque is not the only organisation grappling with appropriate presentation given ongoing histories of discrimination. Trelise Cooper's Native American headdresses drew criticism this week and, disappointingly, insensitivity crops up more often than I'd like in New Zealand plays. I refused to review a solo show this year, because it was a Pakeha performer pretending to be Korean, complete with accent and slanted eyeliner - everything but literal yellow-face. The immigrant character was sympathetic, yes, but naive, and she liked New Zealand more than Korea. Because we have no racists?

So, are the people who belong to a particular culture the only ones allowed to represent it? Absolutely not; humourless monoculture is the danger one risks by raising these issues. Instead, says Laing - who has produced an illuminating Open University podcast on performance ethics and indigenous knowledges - people need to understand a culture to represent it properly. Understanding takes time and relationships, and a shift away from the mentality that "I am entitled to use whatever I want".

In the meantime, if you enjoy Totem's brilliance, also imagine it with a Native American scientist.