In November 2015, six years following the ground-breaking release of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Cirque du Soleil debuted “TORUK – The First Flight,” a stage-spectacular prequel to the film that grossed $2.78 billion worldwide. The production – which will wrap its residency at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, CA, on November 6th before heading over to Staples Center in Los Angeles from November 11th through the 13th, and then the The Forum in Inglewood during January (12-15) 2017 – is Cirque du Soleil’s 37th overall show.
Led by visionaries Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, who helm a 13-person creative team (including themselves), “Toruk – The First Flight” is a visually lavish masterpiece – a triumph of modern-day technology that transforms an NHL-rink-size stage into a resplendent organic replica of Pandora and its resident Na’vi. The spaciously splendorous set is also a testament to the ingenuity of Neilson Vignola (Director of Creation), Carl Fillion (Set and Props Designer) and Alain Lortie (Lighting Designer) – all of whom expertly incorporate the 40 video projectors to luminously brush new settings onto the 20,000-square-foot canvas and the two bluff-like pillars that swivel inward and outward, delineating tree trunks or mountain cliffs. Moreover, the makeup and costumes of the Na’vi, who speak in their indigenous tongue, are immaculate, drawing in the viewer with the suspension of disbelief – an achievement by Costume and Makeup Designer Kym Barrett.
Like its predecessors, “TORUK -The First Flight” is chock-full of the same impeccable qualities that fans of the preeminent circus company have come to expect, though this one focuses more on the holistic narrative presentation, as opposed to an anthology of performances. It is, undeniably, a masterpiece of visual decadence and a feast for the eyes in every conceivable way, featuring over 40 cast members, and wowing observers from start to finish.
From the moment the Storyteller (Raymond O’Neill of Canada) appears atop a mound on the stage, and we are told of a legend that predates “Avatar,” we follow a coming-of-age story of two adolescents belonging to the Omatikaya Clan – Ralu (Jeremiah Hughes of the United States) and the anointed-one Entu (Guillaume Paquin of Canada) – who collaborate with newfound female friend Tsyal (Giulia Piolanti of Italy). As a trio, via the assistance of other tribes, they collect five talismans to lure and harness the firmament beast Toruk for the first time in an attempt to save the sacrosanct Tree of Souls from molten lava devastation, and thus preserve their life-force or Eywa.
The Shaman (Priscillia Le Foll of France), whose operatic wails resound urgently in the interminable space, is the one whose vision of the natural lava catastrophe – sparked by a trembling earthquake — prompts the crucible of will and individual uncertainty during the journey. It a motif that particularly recurs with Entu, and is demonstrated effectively by Paquin who plays him.
Consequently, it is in this struggle to save the Na’vi species when the performers and production values form a mutual symbiosis, evoking an unmistakable appreciation. As with extravaganzas of this caliber, the fantastic visuals and sounds are a product of the athletic marvels and physical coordination of the talent, as well as Choreographers Tuan Le and Tan Loc, and Acrobatic Performance Designer Pierre Mass. Riveting examples include a percussion frenzy involving several drums in the beginning of the show; an amazing sequence when the stage becomes an accommodating river for not only a boat, but a turtle-esque sea creature; a contortion act starring Baasansuren Enkhbaatar perched on a rotating animal skeleton called the Thanator; the precise puppetry of the Viperwolves (puppeteers are clad in all black to be inconspicuous); and, the impressively quick mobilization of set pieces such as the overarching rope bridge.
The most memorable part of the show, however, occurs when the enterprising trio happens upon the Kekunan Clan, preceding a scene that pays tribute to artistic aerodynamics. Symbolizing a flock of troublesome Banshees, a series of large kites beautifully soar through the arena, twisting, and turning in mid-air, oftentimes in stereo, over the outstretched arms of the attendees. Kite professionals Sebastien Clarke, Viktor Franyo and Nick Beyeler, in addition to boomerang specialist, Danny Luftman, who juggles six boomerangs at once, deserve much credit for the breathtaking exhibition of flight and fancy. Not to mention, the Toruk predator, too, is represented via a skillfully negotiated kite, comprised of several constituent parts, which traverses the sky in grandiose fashion.
Finally, it helps that these visuals of grandeur are underscored by the narrative articulation and diction of the Storyteller – played with a dignified presence by O’Neill – who appears in different aisles throughout the arena production, ensuring that the plot is more or less understood. Nevertheless, “TORUK – The First Flight” is unquestionably an immersive wonder, an apex of the imagination, revealing a rendering of a spellbinding world that undulates, sprouts plants on its own, gleams with Woodsprites (glowing-white light fixtures signifying the Tree of Souls’ divine seeds), and appears to fill with reverberating waves of lava or water on a whim.
For more information, please visit cirquedusoleil.com/toruk