Remember James Cameron’s 2009 movie “Avatar”? Three thousand years before humans arrived on the planet of Pandora and settled down to do the cutthroat colonialism mine-and-pillage thing, this happened.
If you know your Cirque shows, you realize what a big deal it is for the Montreal-based entertainment juggernaut to base a production on a movie. This is the first time it’s happened, and the company wanted to do something different from any Cirque experience that’s come before it.
“The idea was to create something different with its own DNA,” says Fabrice Lemire, artistic director of the “Toruk” tour.
The show’s creators, Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, came up with the show’s concept, which imagines a time in which the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall creatures in “Avatar” known for their blue skin, piercing eyes and a disturbingly low BMI, interact with a winged creature called the Toruk. This fierce predator is part of the lore and tradition of the Na’vi.
The show tells the mythical story of “The First Flight,” which involves a threat to the sacred Tree of Souls, a quest by two young boys and an effort to single out a “pure soul” who can find the “mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky,” thus saving the Na’vi from a terrible fate.
Or something like that.
Full-fledged Cirque confessional: In the productions I’ve seen that purport to have a storyline, I’ve never really understood what’s going on or have been able to find a coherent narrative. I just end up sitting back and letting the visual effects and thrilling acrobatics overwhelm me.
Still, Lemire – who as artistic director oversees the technical and artistic elements of the show while on tour – says the “Avatar” theme really does make this Cirque production stand out, and that there really is a narrative.
Part of that is because Cameron exercised firm creative control over the production.
“James and his team were very much involved to make sure the writers respected the universe of ‘Avatar,’ ” Lemire says. “They did not tell us what to do but were there to tell us when we were drifting away from what they envisioned.”
The celebrated team of Cirque designers stepped in to raise the visual stakes. The show, which premiered less than a year ago in Montreal, includes cutting-edge visuals using 40 video projectors and an extensive use of large-scale puppetry. Toruk is represented by a “reverse string puppet,” meaning it is handled by the base. Other Pandoran animals are manipulated by handlers inside.
The arena will be covered with floor panels and inflatable stage elements to create a vast setting for the show.
Another major difference between “Toruk” and other Cirque productions is that performers have to be good actors as well as consummate acrobats.
Being proficient at both tasks can take two different skill sets. For aesthetic and safety reasons, a stunt has to be done exactly the same way each time, requiring rigid precision. But when it comes to conveying a believable character, an actor has to make it fresh and new each time.
“They have to create a personality,” Lemire says.
For all its cinematic backstory, however, audience members shouldn’t go in expecting, say, to see a big blue Sigourney Weaver suddenly pop up on the Save Mart Center floor. Remember: All that happens thousands of years in the future, when the ruthless humans arrive.
For now, it’s just the Na’vi and their legends.
“We need to be clear. The full title says the show is inspired by ‘Avatar.’ But it’s not the movie,” Lemire says.
Toruk: The First Flight
- Opens Thursday, Oct. 27, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 30
- Save Mart Center