Photo – Errisson Lawrence
Cirque du Soleil is a powerhouse, an international franchise with around twenty different touring and permanent shows around the world bringing their unique brand of elaborately costumed, incredibly precise acrobatic-centric circus showmanship to the masses. This is not the first of their productions I have seen, nor even the first that I have reviewed. However, it is distinct from those which have crossed my path before, in that this could be described as one of their “licensed” shows.
The majority of the company’s productions are based on original concepts and tend to be guided more by unifying themes and aesthetics rather than adapting external intellectual property. Yet Cirque du Soleil does have a few resident shows which are “tie-ins”, utilising the music of the Beatles and Michael Jackson respectively, or the talents of celebrity magician Criss Angel.
Toruk – The First Flight is something different yet again. Billed as being “inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar”, it is essentially an official spinoff, prequel, or (for my fellow geeks out there) an “expanded universe” story set in the same world as the 2009 epic science-fiction film. It broke new ground in photorealistic computer-generated characters, created using “motion capture” technology, and ignited the renewed prominence of 3D movies over the past decade.
Best remembered for its trippy black-light-inspired glowing alien jungles and bright blue ten-foot-tall alien protagonists, the movie is still hailed as “the highest-grossing film of all time”. Despite this, in the years since its release it has become fashionable amongst the geek cognoscenti to observe that Avatar, although hugely successful upon release, seems to have had little enduring cultural impact and is rarely referenced as having achieved any kind of iconic status within sci-fi movie fandom. To suggest that James Cameron’s blockbuster amounted to something of a flash in the pan is a contentious opinion, yet there is certainly a vocal minority in the discourse expressing a rather aggressive apathy towards Cameron’s proposed slew of sequels expected to start being released next year, almost a decade after the first film. Whatever the case, by debuting Toruk in late 2015, Cirque du Soleil is in the possibly unenviable position, much like Cameron himself, of having not exactly struck while the iron was hot in terms of Avatar’s peak cultural primacy. That said, they can hardly be doing bad business if they are still touring the show around the world to massive arena crowds almost two years later.
Having dispensed with that rather elaborate contextualising, let me say that Toruk itself is quite an astonishing show. Set on Avatar’s alien world of Pandora before contact with the human race as portrayed in the film, the whole cast of this production only ever appears in-character, as members of the blue-skinned, faintly feline race of humanoid aliens, the Na’vi. Depicted in the film as exploited natives in a metaphor for colonialism, the Na’vi’s alien cultural aesthetic there, as here, has many obvious and intentional parallels to a variety of traditional and tribal indigenous Earth cultures, with a strong environmental slant. Although the audience for this live show must suspend their disbelief that the performers are not quite the four-fingered rail-thin giants of the film, their near-human designs are very nicely approximated by surprisingly effective one-piece bodysuits. These allow complete freedom of movement and incorporate the Na’vi’s tails, catlike ears and long plaited black hair, leaving only the acrobats’ faces to require additional makeup to complete the effect.
Perhaps by the necessity of conforming to a previously established fictional universe, this production differs considerably from much of Cirque du Soleil’s typical use of familiar circus paraphernalia, such as tightropes, unicycles, clowns, seemingly everyday props used in unexpected ways or conversely large purpose-built apparatuses, like giant mechanical hamster wheels. Since this story takes place entirely on Pandora, the action has far more emphasis on pure acrobatics, and the use of stage machinery is all specially designed to be disguised as parts of the mammoth set, giving the appearance of being features of the natural environment, such as enormous trees, floating rocks and fantastical plant life.
Thanks to the arena venue, there is an even greater scope for an elaborate transforming set than in many of Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows under the big top. This included the scope to feature a significant amount of complex video projection and light shows to create striking illusions, such as roaring infernos sweeping the performance area, or the cast being washed away by an onrush of ocean tides. Perhaps most exciting of these scenic effects, especially for fans of the film, was the extensive use of life-sized puppetry to recreate many of the bizarre, ferocious and beautiful alien animals native to Pandora, such as seahorse-headed steeds, six legged canine jaguars, or frill-necked hammerhead bulls. And of course, suspended from the ceiling soars in the showstopper, the titular Toruk, an enormous fearsome flying lizard that looks like a cross between a dragon and a butterfly, awash with psychedelic colours.
One of the most subtly intriguing aspects of the show, which many would probably miss if they are not in the first dozen or so rows of the cavernous arena, is that the puppeteers, although dressed in conventional head-to-toe black for minimal visibility, are wearing black Na’vi costumes, complete with tails and cat-ears, just like everyone else in the cast. Moreover, upon removing their black masks at the curtain-call, they are revealed to even have the blue facial makeup on underneath. Not a pronounced feature of the show, admittedly, but one which opens a fascinating can of worms as to the production’s diegetic conceptualisation, almost as though to suggest a meta-fourth wall illusion for the audience that they are witnessing a circus on Pandora itself, performed by Na’vi for Na’vi spectators…?
Probably the most striking contrast to much of the company’s output is this show’s far more narrative presentation, with its various set-pieces of dance, puppetry, aerialists, boomerang juggling and myriad acrobatics linked to a clear plot progression. Structured around a familiar “scavenger hunt” format, it is not a complex story, featuring a small group of Na’vi youths who must travel from tribe to tribe seeking to collect their respective talismans in order to avert a prophesied threat to the Tree of Souls, a sacred site central to their shared culture. Primarily, the plot is a showcase for spectacle, and indeed there is little discernable dialogue, as all the words spoken by the performers are in the fictional Na’vi language, apart from occasional scene-setting exposition provided in English by a Na’vi storyteller character.
Toruk – The First Flight is a show guaranteed to thrill fans of Avatar, but it is likely to charm and delight just about any audience so long as they are open to embracing the unconventional concept of a “circus play” with this mythological alien setting. Even diehard Cirque du Soleil fans will be satisfied by the impressive feats of acrobatics and eye-poppingly rich visual design, which culminates in a beautiful tableau sure to appeal to the tree-hugger in all of us.
Cirque du Soleil presents
Toruk – The First Flight
Written and Directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon
Venue: Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney NSW
Dates: 19 – 29 October 2017