From the Archives: Behind the Scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: The First Flight

From the Archives: Behind the Scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: The First Flight

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Toruk: The First Flight is an upcoming Cirque du Soleil show based on James Cameron’s Avatar. Cinedelphia got an early look when the Prince Music Theater hosted a sneak peek behind the scenes event.

Taking place 2000 years prior to the events of the film, Toruk tells a tale of the early Na’vi. There are no humans on Pandora quite yet – no Jake Sully, no mentions of “Unobatanium” – but there are plenty of giant, blue cat people, swinging from trees, diving from waterfalls, and corralling fantastical animals with their weird organic USB plugs. It’s the first Cirque show to be plot-driven, as well as the first to feature puppetry, which, according to guest speaker and professional puppeteer, Rob Laqui, is an avenue that Cirque hopes to explore in future events.

Being a touring show as opposed to an installation, Toruk faces the challenge of making sure each venue is properly rigged to support a show that is consistent, visually accessible, and safe for its performers. This is made possible through the combination of transformable set-pieces enhanced by projections. A flat surface can be made into grass, water, gravel, lava – anything – with the flick of a switch. A wall can become a waterfall. A trampoline is instantly an alien Lilly pad.

These projections make any venue malleable, but these, too, are not without challenges. Our other guest speaker, Lydia Harper, an acrobat for Toruk, notes that the projections can be so convincing that it’s hard for performers to un-trick their brain, requiring extra focus to remove oneself from the fantasy. And while this can prove difficult for a performer who must remember her blocking, cues, and any of a litany of theatrical tasks, it’s ultimately the sign of a deeply immersive show. If the performers must put in effort not to purchase the show’s reality, the audience will surely be able to suspend their own disbelief.

Co-directors/writers Victor Pilon and Michel Lemieux see Avatar as the perfect source material from which to draw a Cirque production.  The Na’vi culture is one based in acrobatics and peak physical fitness, both staples of Cirque du Soleil. While the film had its fair share of detractors, most of whom took issue with unoriginal plotting, all audiences were in agreement about the visuals – rich with striking design, imagination, and thrilling action. Who wouldn’t want to see these stunning physical feats performed by flesh-and-blood actors?

Anyone who has seen a Cirque du Soleil show can attest to the apparent flawlessness of every performance. When the spectacle is so precisely orchestrated it seems that even the slightest error could result in a show-stopping catastrophe. Curious to know if this was indeed the case, I inquired as to whether or not a typical production has room for error, or moments when “theater magic” – the unseen force that glues together even the most haphazard productions – would be called into action.

Both Rob and Lydia assured me that yes, as with any performance art, there are plenty of mistakes, but the Cirque brand prides itself on being able to immediately pave over anything. The entire staff is so well-trained, and so familiar with all aspects of the show (even the most invisible members of production are trained in the Na’vi face makeup, for example), that most problems can be anticipated and prevented. And in the case that some misfortune does occur, the cast and crew know precisely how to create the illusion of “it’s all part of the show.”

In classic circus tradition, the show must go on.

 Toruk premiered in Montreal (as all new Cirque du Soleil shows do, I’ve learned) in 2015 and is now embarking on a tour through the US and Mexico. It runs in Philadelphia from March 8-12 at the Wells Fargo Center. Tickets start at $30.00 and, according to Rob and Lydia, there is no such thing as a bad seat. “We often recommend that fans see the show multiple times,” Rob advised. “Seeing it up close as well as far away are two very different, and very cool experiences.”


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