Cirque du Soleil brings its Avatar prequel arena show TORUK — The First Flight to Toronto
Do you remember Avatar? The blockbuster 2009 James Cameron movie featured Sigourney Weaver, a bunch of blue aliens (the “Na’vi”) and a beat-you-over-the-head environmental message. For its latest venture, TORUK – The First Flight, Cirque du Soleil has created a “live experience,” specifically designed for arenas, that takes place in the universe that Cameron created for the film. This is the first time the company has based a show on a pre-existing film property and the results are … interesting.
TORUK is a prequel of sorts; the action takes place on Pandora thousands of years before the events depicted in Avatar so there are no humans mining for “unobtanium,” no giant robotic combat suits, and indeed no “avatars” in this show.
Instead, we have three blue body-suited and face-painted acrobats playing Na’vi youth set on a quest to find five sacred objects that they need to tame the mythical, giant, flying Toruk in order to save the sacred Tree of Souls from some impending natural disaster.
As you may have surmised, TORUK is not a traditional Cirque show. You won’t see a collection of tightly choreographed acrobatic numbers framed by a loose creative motif. Sure, TORUK does feature physical feats and individual acrobatic stunts in addition to life-size animal puppets, giant kites, elaborate set pieces and state-of-the-art projections, but these are all supposedly used in service of a story.
But, to be blunt, Cirque has never succeeded at narrative storytelling; script-writing is just not a strength they possess, and sure enough in TORUK we get a fairly insipid, meandering quest plot devoid of any sense of drama, compelling conflict or any real character development.
I much prefer the more abstract methods of storytelling Cirque uses in its traditional shows. In TORUK, the use of a Storyteller character (Raymond O’Neill) to narrate the action and spell out the story beat-by-beat really feels like an infantile approach. The show feels like it’s aimed at kids although the ticket price would suggest otherwise.
The show’s writers, directors, and multimedia directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon are known for their inventive and envelope-pushing use of multimedia and interactive projections and sure enough the show impresses with its technology and its sheer scale.
Carl Fillion’s set covers the entire arena floor and features a gigantic, inflatable “Home Tree” set piece as a backdrop as well as acrobatic surfaces and equipment incorporated throughout the performance area. Every surface of the massive set is almost constantly animated by Pilon and Lemieux’s projections. It looks very impressive at first, although the “wow” factor does diminish over time.
In the best Cirque shows the music both underscores the acts and helps drive the narrative flow of the scenes. Unfortunately, I don’t think the score for TORUK by composers Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (aka Bob & Bill) does either well. The music (most of which isn’t even performed live) comes across as indistinct tribal rhythms and generic chanting; the score sounds invariable throughout. It’s far from “cinematic” sounding and really doesn’t heighten the drama of the scenes like it should.
I also found the over-the-top pseudo-Indigenous elements of the show troubling. While the Na’vi are ostensibly fictional, their depiction in the show is really based on a mishmash of broad Indigenous cultural stereotypes. It feels too much like thinly-veiled cultural appropriation. It’s 2016 and the use of “noble savage” characters really doesn’t sit well with me.
Frankly, I just found TORUK kind of boring and unsatisfying. I go to a Cirque du Soleil show for artfully staged theatrical circus acts. While stage technology and special effects are part of Cirque’s appeal, those things alone can’t sustain a show with no substance. And if this show is any indication, I think Cirque is far better at creating original shows than adapting other entertainment properties.
If you’re a big fan of Avatar and enjoy big, flashy spectacle you may enjoy TORUK. However, if you’re more a fan of the classic Cirque du Soleil format or prefer your theatre with more compelling narrative and character-development over empty razzle-dazzle, I’d pass on this one.
- TORUK – The First Flight by Cirque du Soleil is playing in Toronto at the The Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay Street, from January and 7 to 10, 2016
- Tickets $60 – $170
- To purchase tickets and for the full list of cities visit cirquedusoleil.com/toruk
Photo 1: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil
Photo 2: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil
Photo 3: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil