The first time I saw a Cirque Du Soleil production was in 2010. It was at Randall’s Island Park in New York. I saw Ovo, which was one of their touring shows, under a big circus tent in summer and I was in awe. No people flying out of cannons. No motorcycles. No lions, tigers, or elephants. Just a marvel of acrobatics and human strength, skill, grace, and flexibility. Since then I’ve been a huge fan catching most of their permanent residency shows in Las Vegas. Mystere at Treasure Island. Zarkana at the Aria. Ka at MGM Grand. O at the Bellagio. Didn’t get to see it in person but I also have La Nouba and Alegria on DVD. Alegria still gives me shivers.
I was surprised to find out that the Cirque team had paired up with the team behind James Cameron’s Avatar to create Toruk: The First Flight. But even more surprised that a) it would be touring at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ for only two days and b) that absolutely no advertising was done for it. In fact if it weren’t for my other friend who’s actually even more into Cirque than I am, I wouldn’t have caught the show with her and her family.
But I’m glad I did.
Toruk takes place before the events of the first Avatar film, and it tells the story of the very first Toruk makto, a Na’vi who is strong enough and pure enough to ride the great toruk, the largest and most powerful predator in the skies of Pandora. It is a time of great danger to the Na’vi, the Omaticaya clan’s shaman foresees a great fiery disaster falling on the sacred Tree of Souls. Their chief sends his two sons, one by birth and one adopted, on a quest to retrieve five talismans from five Na’vi clans that will aid them in their quest to find the toruk and save the Tree of Souls, their connection to Eywa. During their journey they, and we, will encounter some of the animals and landscapes that captured our imaginations in the movie and witness some incredible feats by the people of many tribes.
Toruk’s Pandora is just as awe-inspiring as Avatar‘s. Using a very minimal set design paired with some high-level CGI and camera mapping the designers of the show transport us to Pandora in a very real and immediate sense. I watched the Omaticaya dance and celebrate with drums and singing at the initiation of two young men into adulthood. On the very same stage not ten minutes later they turned the ground into a flowing roaring river with turtles and a canoe. They can make lava pour from the ground and they can create earthquakes so realistic you grip your chair. As the set pieces move the images projected onto them flow and change with it so you never lose that immersion. The set and costume design were absolutely terrific. I am impressed by how far we’ve come with mapping technology and so excited to see its future use in more productions. It is a bit bittersweet for me though as, while I do not take anything for granted in the skills of the programmers and designers, I hope I don’t lose the physical artistry and craftsmanship of the old-school sets. The costumes were bright and colorful (blue, mainly) and their tails seemed alive and springy, not just limp fabric or stiff tubing.
Even more impressive than the set and costume design, for me anyways, was the puppetry work that brought the wild animals and majestic beats of Pandora to life. The first ones we saw were the direwolves running in a pack chasing our protagonists. Each direwolf was controlled by one person. They ran together in unison like a real pack. They circled our heroes with that predatory sense of ferocity. When they ran the puppeteers were able to recreate the wave like motions of the direwolves’ bodies. You could almost see the ripple of muscle and sinew controlling their powerful legs as they raced across the stage. I also loved how adorable the turtles were in the river scene. Absolutely adorable. Flippers moving back and forth. Sliding across the stage floor with ease. But the toruk itself…the legendary ‘last shadow’…it was a behemoth of wonder that took five people to control. This is the show’s centerpiece. The journey and the reward. If the toruk didn’t invoke power, grandeur, strength, fear, and nobility then it just wouldn’t be the same. When the toruk puppet first appears it takes your breath away. Large powerful wings flapping. Fierce jaws snapping. We are witnessing the king of the sky in person. I was half-focused on the size and scale of the creature, in admiration of the design and colors, and half-focused on the team of highly skilled puppeteers orchestrating each movement and pulling the puppet along.
The music, as always, is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Powerful deep drum pieces. Lots of woodwind instruments to create the illusion of lightness, swiftness, and flight. I don’t speak Na’vi. And I don’t really plan on ever learning it. So I have zero clue what the hell anyone was saying or singing the entire time. But it was still just so good. I don’t care, I’ll hum or make guttural noises to sing along. The soundtrack is on Spotify and most probably YouTube so I highly recommend checking it out. The acts are…appropriate. This is more of a story and plot driven piece and the acrobatic acts incorporated into the story are exactly that. Just parts of the story. They could never stand alone in comparison to other productions but they add a wild Na’vi sensibility to the story. So be wary, those of you who are Cirque fans and are accustomed to a certain level of act. These are markably tamer but still fun nonetheless. But control expectations in terms of aerial acrobatics. (Take note though that Kurios, Cirque’s other touring production, promises the best acts of all, going right back to the true high-flying roots of the human acts.)
I enjoyed this production very much. I would recommend those of you who have the opportunity to definitely watch it. If it came down to this or Kurios (which I have not yet seen but plan on attending in October) I might tell you to reserve yourself for Kurios but if you want to see amazing set design, incredible puppetry, a plot-driven story, and moving musical pieces, then fly to Turok.
Side note: HOW AWESOME IS THIS. CIRQUE LIKED MY TWEET!
Man: 57 Loneliness: 18