Inspired by James Cameron’s AVATAR, Cirque du Soleil is set to transport you to the world of Pandora in the visually stunning arena spectacular, TORUK – The First Flight, when it makes its Melbourne debut at Rod Laver Arena tonight, before heading to Adelaide later this month.
Through a riveting fusion of cutting-edge visuals, puppetry and stagecraft buoyed by a soaring cinematic score, Cirque du Soleil applies its unique signature style to James Cameron’s imaginary world and ‘makes the bond’ between two kindred artistic visions that capture the imagination.
“Avatar is really meant to be a celebration of human motion and human emotion and Cirque is able to capture that absolutely perfectly, because it’s all about human performance and physicality. It makes you feel alive to watch these performers,” said James Cameron.
This live immersive experience also bears the distinct signature of directors and multimedia innovators Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon. It is a living ode to the Na’vi’s symbiotic coexistence with nature and their belief in the basic interconnectedness of all living things.
Narrated by a “Na’vi Storyteller” and populated by unforgettable characters, TORUK – The First Flight is a mythical tale set thousands of years before the events depicted in the film AVATAR, and before any humans ever set foot on Pandora. When a natural catastrophe threatens to destroy the sacred Tree of Souls, Ralu and Entu – two Omaticaya boys on the brink of adulthood, fearlessly decide to take matters into their own hands.
Upon learning that Toruk can help them save the Tree of Souls, they set out, together with their new found friend Tsyal, on a quest high up in the Floating Mountains to find the mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky. Prophecy is fulfilled when a pure soul rises among the clans to ride Toruk for the first time and save the Na’vi from a terrible fate.
Ralu, Entu and Tsyal are the three main protagonists of the story. They are joined by the Shaman and the Chief of the Omatikaya clan as well as members of five Na’vi clans: Omatikaya, Tawkami, Anurai, Tipani, and Kekunan. The black-clad, shadow-like puppeteers personify the spirit of Eywa, the Na’vi’s guiding force and deity.
Lemieux and Pilon, who also wrote the show, sought to convey the awe-inspiring beauty and vital impetus of the world of Pandora – its rich textures, lush flora, and youthful buoyancy. The multimedia projections that evoke the awe-inspiring landscapes – from the Floating Mountains and the Omatikaya Hometree, to the Anurai’s animal sanctuary and the lush jungles where the Tawkami live – create a visually stunning environment for the performers.
In a projections-rich production, lighting is crucial to adding volume to the performers, set elements and props. It focuses the audience’s attention on story. A state-of-the-art tracking system is used in unprecedented ways to help with this task. Hidden in their costumes, the artists wear a tracking device linked to follow spots and video projectors that react to their movements in real time.
When she took on the challenge of interpreting for the stage the animated characters in AVATAR through costumes, Australian Costume Designer Kym Barrett set out to respect the dress codes established by James Cameron’s team without copying exactly what was done in the movie. “While we worked within the parameters of Pandora, we had room to create our own version of the mythical first flight,” says Kym.
Given the size of the performance space, great care has gone into ensuring the costumes look authentic. They are detailed and subtle enough to look handmade up close, but they look organic while remaining lustrous from afar.
The costumes had to look like they were made by Na’vi hands, hence the organic, handmade look to the wardrobe. Textures and prints were designed to overcome the fact that there are no fabrics on Pandora. The artisans in the costume department sought out materials that potentially looked like they were naturally available to the Na’vi in their environment.
When the creators of TORUK – The First Flight decided to evoke the creatures of Pandora on stage through the art of puppetry, they could easily have turned to animatronics – animal figures animated by means of electromechanical devices. Instead, they chose to create bona fide puppets where the strings, rod or controls are intentionally left visible and the puppeteers are in full view.
Regardless of the technique, the goal remains to urge the spectator to suspend disbelief for a moment – to create the illusion that these are not mere objects made of metal and cloth, but living beings from a faraway moon. Without the puppeteers, the fauna in the show would be inert and lifeless. They are the ones who breathe life into the creatures, hence the moniker ‘Spirits of Eywa.’
In the show, vigorous multicolored kites glide gracefully up above then swoop down, banking hard right and left in the blink of an eye, rising up again in power climbs before falling into spins and pulling out mere inches from the ground. On stage, these ingenious contraptions are the physical manifestations of the Banshees that roam the Pandoran sky.
In essence, the kites in the show are the avatars of these winged predators. They are not mere tethered constructions; they are creatures of Pandora involved in the story. As such, they need to connect with the audience on an emotional level, particularly during the scenes with the trio.
Composers and Musical Directors Bob & Bill had to meet the challenge of creating otherworldly music that captures the vibe of Pandora, in addition to composing cinematic-sounding transitions between scenes that blend perfectly with the “Na’vi” sound. The composers lugged their equipment out in the woods to record the beats for the show’s soundtrack in order to achieve as natural and organic a sound as possible.
Instead of using drumsticks to compose the different rhythmic patterns, the composers used objects or phenomena in nature – footsteps on dry leaves, a stick hitting the trunk of a tree, a branch slapping the ground, etc. Many of the beats recorded in the woods were used as is, and not as mere samples doctored in the studio.
In addition to coming up with an overall show sound, Bob & Bill created a specific signature for each of the five clans, each with its own theme, timbre, instruments and voices. Even the fierce predator Toruk has its own unmistakable two-note theme.
The composers turned to Paul Frommer – the linguistics expert who invented the Na’vi language for James Cameron’s AVATAR – to translate into Na’vi the lyrics to all of the songs written for the show. Bob & Bill also drew inspiration from the musical instruments and theory explained in-depth in the Pandorapedia, James Cameron’s official field guide to the world of AVATAR.
“TORUK – The First Flight is an integration of humanity and technology, a colorful spectacle for the entire family,” says director and writer Michel Lemieux. “We are delighted to see this epic journey take flight in Australia, a country so rich in culture and scenery as can be found on Pandora.”
TORUK – The First Flight
Rod Laver Arena, Olympic Boulevard, Melbourne
Season: 2 – 12 November 2017
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, 98 Port Road, Hindmarsh
Season: 16 – 19 November 2017
For more information, visit: www.cirquedusoleil.com for details.
Image: Errisson Lawrence © 2015 Cirque du Soleil / Costumes: Kym Barrett