Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Toruk.’ (Photo: Errisson Lawrence)
by Lauren Emily Whalen
Cirque du Soleil does nothing halfway.
Founded by a group of Montreal street performers in 1984, the troupe has expanded from a simple traveling showcase celebrating Canada’s founding to a host of resident shows in Las Vegas and high-tech productions that tour the United States, Europe and Asia. Cirque celebrates everything that makes circus, well, circus, from fire-juggling and object manipulation to death-defying stunts on fabric, pole and specially-constructed apparati. It’s enough to make me, a slow-learning amateur aerialist who’s seen several live Cirque shows, swoon.
Naturally, Cirque isn’t touring at this time, but several recorded productions are available to stream on BroadwayHD, including 2015’s Toruk: The First Flight. The touring show, which premiered in Cirque’s home city of Montreal, is a unique exploration into the Avatar universe, originally created by filmmaker James Cameron in his award-winning 2009 film. (A sequel is projected for 2021 release.) Additionally, BroadwayHD features Toruk Takes Flight, a short but informative documentary about the making of the Cirque show, with interviews from Cirque staff, performers and Cameron.
If you’re like me and haven’t seen Avatar, take comfort: Toruk isn’t a direct adaptation of the film. Rather than try to translate Cameron’s movie to the stage – a challenge anyone who knows Broadway is familiar with – Cirque chose to run with the film’s setting, the fictional moon Pandora. Three thousand years before the events of Avatar take place, the Na’vi population is in crisis: a prophecy has foretold that a volcano will soon destroy their beloved tree of life. Best friends Ralu and Entu, young men on the verge of adulthood, embark on a journey to summon the Toruk, a beautiful but dangerous winged creature who is the Na’vi’s only hope to save the tree, and the planet.
Toruk Takes Flight offers a quick and dirty dive into the mechanics of a Cirque production: the elaborate puppetry of the Toruk and various other animals of Pandora, the artist who devises a physical language for the Na’vi and the Ph.D. who creates almost 2,000 words of Na’vi for the show’s dialogue, and even the hiccups of tech week when actor Raymond O’Neill, whose resounding timbre results in beautiful narration, frets about a potentially dangerous entrance.
The documentary provides a fun prelude to watching Toruk and leads to a deeper appreciation of the vividly hued projections and gasp-inducing special effects, as well as the feats of physical strength in tumbling, aerial straps and silks, Spanish web (a very strong type of rope) and Chinese pole. As Cameron remarks in the documentary, Cirque du Soleil’s interpretation is almost ballet-like: Toruk: The First Flight emanates pure grace from the colorful opening sequence to the final, quiet revelation.