*There are few words that feel adequate when it comes to describing a Cirque du Soleil event.
A fantastical journey that brings the idea of “circus” to an entirely different level, if you have never attended a CDS show, you’ve truly got to add it to your Bucket List.
Long times fans of the company have come to respect the performers who work so diligently to bring forth the absolute best. And now, with the company’s latest touring show: the James Cameron (Avatar) inspired ‘Toruk – The First Flight’, which this writer saw at the nearly sold-out southern California debut performance at The Staples Center in November, brings that respect to a whole new level.
‘TORUK – The First Flight’ transports you to the world of Pandora in a visually stunning live setting where you get to experience a storytelling odyssey through a new world of imagination, discovery, and possibility.
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.
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.
In an exclusive interview with EURweb Senior Editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, members of the esteemed Cirque du Soleil company speak of their experience in what can only be described as a dream come true opportunity.
But first…The Story: When a natural catastrophe threatens to destroy the sacred Tree of Souls, Ralu and Entu, two Omatikaya 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 newfound 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.
Cirque du Soleil performances involve larger than life puppets. But behind those puppets there are actual people controlling each move of the arms, legs, even eyes at times! Puppeteer Helen Day talks about the beauty of being a performer; and not knowing exactly where your career will take you.
HD: I always dreamed of being a performer, but being part of the circus was never on my radar. I thought I would be a ‘straight actress’, doing Shakespeare and Downton Abbey-type television! But the wonderful thing about a career as a performer is that you really never know where it is going to take you. One moment you can feel as if you will never work again…when the phone hasn’t rung in a while and there appears to be nothing on the horizon…and then the next minute your life can change completely. I did always hope to travel, so being part of a World Tour is a dream come true for sure.
As an actress specializing in physical performance and puppetry, Day’s puppetry credits include ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ for Stuff and Nonsense Theatre; ‘Little Edie’ for Pickled Image; ‘Hoof!’ for Niki McCretton; ‘In the Night Garden Live’ directed by Will Tuckett and Helen Eastman for Minor Entertainment / BBC Worldwide; ‘Little Red Hen’ for Stuff and Nonsense Theatre Company; ‘Fuzzbox’ for BBC3.
Wouldn’t you just love to know what goes into designing the costumes and makeup for Cirque du Soleil? Each character is so intricately designed. Laura Silverman, a spokesperson for the company, explains the vision behind ‘the look’ of characters in Toruk like this.
LS: Kym Barrett, the costume and makeup designer, had the opportunity to take influence from the already existing look of the Na’vi in Avatar, but adapt it to a live performance. Her experience working in both film and live entertainment allowed her to understand and succeed in making a well known look come across just as strongly in a live setting. Several different variations were worked through before the final makeup look was conceived.
Kym Barrett is an award-winning costume designer who grew up in a nomadic environment on Christmas Island off the coast of Australia before moving to Sydney where she would eventually study design at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Her creations on Romeo & Juliet (1996) garnered great attention.
DBP: What is the average amount of time spent making up a Toruk ‘Being’/character per performance?
LS: Each artist does their own makeup. We don’t have any makeup designers on the show. When the artists are first hired they spend several weeks in Montreal at Cirque du Soleil’s International Headquarters. Among other things, they learn how to do their makeup from the makeup team. At the beginning it was taking each artist about 2 hours, but now most of them can complete their makeup between 45 min – 1 hour.
Wow! Talk about a training session! So each performer had to become a makeup artist in their own right. Now THAT’S a skillset to be proud of. But this next question was inspired by every child that ever grew up with dreams of running away and joining the circus. Thankfully, acrobat Kleber Berto came to the rescue when asked if he actually dreamed of doing this work in his youth.
KB: I started training capoeira (Brazilian martial art) when I was 9 years old and then moved to circus training at 15 years old. Yes, I always dreamed of being on stage and working with a big company like Cirque du Soleil. It was really a dream come true for me to have my first job at Cirque du Soleil when I was 19. It was an amazing experience. And then just 5 months ago I had the amazing opportunity to join TORUK – The First Flight.
DBP: Many of us know the intricacies involved in building a character/person as an actor, but what goes into building a character/’being’ in Toruk: The First Flight?
KB: Before joining the show, we have a 2 weeks intensive training in Montreal (at the international headquarters) with the best teachers to help us build our character for the show. It is a really nice experience by the fact that we are playing a show that is based off a movie.
Berto originally hails from Belo Horizonte in Brazil and specializes in circus arts, acrobatics, capoeira, percussion, juggling, and salsa dance. In 2003, he auditioned for Cirque du Soleil in Brazil and then one year later was offered the role of the Court Jester, one of the lead characters, in Cirque du Soleil’s show KÀ. Other credits include India.Arie’s music video for “Therapy,” directed by world renowned photographer and director, Dave LaChapelle; and Franco Dragone’s House of Dancing Water.
HD: To create our characters for Toruk we had to start by going right back to looking at the Na’vi…who they are, how they move, and how they think. They have some human qualities but are much more animalistic in some ways, whilst also being much more in touch with their instincts and their sense of being connected with each other. They also move very differently to humans, and that really is where we started. In Montreal during the creation of the show we had daily Na’vi movement classes which allowed us to really immerse ourselves into the world of Pandora. The characters we developed were born from those classes, but they continue to grow and change over time. For many of us in the show, there is a freedom to play with our characters and how they move, think and feel each night, so no show is ever quite the same, and the performances are kept really fresh and alive.
Now we see all the fun involved in being on stage, in costume and makeup. But as every performer and former performer knows, a show or performance involves a “team.” And with that said, a LOT goes on behind the scenes.
Can you image Stage Managing a show of this magnitude? ‘Toruk’ General Stage Manager, John Reid, talks about the challenges involved.
JR: One of the biggest challenges we face each week is with scheduling all of our training and rehearsal needs. With such a large show we do not have much room backstage so all of our rehearsals and trainings need to happen onstage. We are quite creative with the use of the space and will often have three concurrent rehearsals on the stage.
DBP: How many stage managers are there per show, and how are responsibilities shared?
JR: We have 3 Stage Managers for each performance. One Stage Manager is out at the Front of House position and calling the show. This involves ensuring the safe running of the performance, calling all of the technical cues as the performance progresses and watching the artists for any issues. The second Stage Manager is on the floor and runs the “Deck Track.” The Deck SM will coordinate all of the entrances and exits of the artists, puppets, props and scenery as well as calling the projection curtain cues. The third Stage Manager is a “Float” meaning that they are on hand to handle any issues that may arise during the performance and coordinate any changes or adjustments that may be needed for the upcoming scenes.
My god. THREE stage managers per performance!
Watch a 2-minute clip of Toruk: The First Flight here.
TORUK – The First Flight comprises 13 creators under the artistic guidance of Guy Laliberté (Guide) and Jean-François Bouchard (Creative Guide) for Cirque du Soleil, and James Cameron, Jon Landau, Kathy Franklin and Richie Baneham for Lightstorm Entertainment.
TORUK – The First Flight is Cirque du Soleil’s 37th production since 1984. The company has brought wonder and delight to more than 155 million spectators in more than 300 cities on six continents. Cirque du Soleil has close to 4,000 employees, including 1,300 performing artists from close to 50 different countries.
Purchase tickets to ‘TORUK – The First Flight‘ at The Forum in Los Angeles, January 12-15, 2017 here: https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/toruk.
DeBorah B. Pryor is a veteran journalist with more than 400 published features that includes entertainment reviews and interviews with some of the industry’s most illustrious entertainers and executives. She is a former professional actress and holds a BA degree in theatre. Contact her via [email protected] and follow her at [email protected]