Let’s start with a couple disclaimers.
#1: I wasn’t a fan of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I’m not particularly interested in the three sequels he’s currently working on. (I have to admit, though, that Pandora: The World of Avatar–the incredibly immersive land coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2017–looks astounding.)
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the brand new mash-up of those two worlds: Cirque du Soleil’s 37th production since 1984: Toruk – The First Flight. As I said, I’ve seen 13 different Cirque du Soleil shows, and Toruk is completely unlike any of them. It is utterly unique for the company in many ways.
Toruk is a multimedia spectacle that takes place thousands of years before the events of Avatar and before any humans visited Pandora. Led by a storyteller character, the show follows three young adults–Ralu, Entu, and Tsyal–and tells the story of the first flight of the Toruk (the dragons they rode in the movie).
Immediately, this shines a light on two of the biggest differences Toruk boasts: it is based entirely on a single movie (that hasn’t officially yet become a franchise), and it is a cohesive story told to the audience by a narrator. To the first point, yes, there have been shows with a narrow focus–notably those based on the music of Michael Jackson and The Beatles–but this is the first time a show has been built around one movie.
To the second point, although all Cirque du Soleil shows have a unifying theme, most do not have a single narrative. The resident Las Vegas show Kà, which premiered in 2004, was the first to truly tell a story. And I can’t think of any show that utilizes a narrator who talks directly to the audience. Even Kà, which tells a compelling story without the use of a single word, doesn’t rely on this crutch.
However, what distinguishes Toruk from all other Cirque du Soleil shows is that it doesn’t rely on acrobatic performances or acts. In fact, there are so few moments during the show that surprise you with impressive acrobatic ability that it’s easy to forget you’re actually watching Cirque du Soleil. More than anything else, Toruk is a theatrical performance. It’s all story.
My complaints about the movie aside, I can’t deny that it was a visually stunning film with a fully realized alien planet and creatures that lend themselves to the Cirque du Soleil stage quite nicely.
And it’s clear that they’ve put a lot of money into Toruk. A remarkable amount of money. The sets, costumes, scenery, and special effects are beyond incredible. Even though the show sacrifices nearly all of the “oohs and aahs” that come with the gymnastic and acrobatic routines, it definitely succeeds in upping the wow factor in other respects.
In short, it is the most beautiful Cirque du Soleil (or staged production of any kind) I’ve ever seen.
This is an arena show (i.e., it’s performed in arenas rather than under a traveling big top), and the set is jaw-dropping on first sight. However, Toruk makes extensive use of projection technology to transform the set many times during the show. As the main characters travel around Pandora, the set magically becomes a mountainous landscape, a rushing river, flower-filled plains, and a lava flow.
The effect is so convincing that, during intermission, I overheard dumbstruck audience members who thought they really flooded the arena floor with water.
In addition to the sets, the costumes, make-up, and puppetry are all phenomenal. Seriously, every moment of the show is pure eye candy.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the story, which fell completely flat for me. This may have to do with the fact that I’m not a fan of Avatar, but I imagine the same will be true for others. By staging an entire show around one movie, they’ve unfortunately limited the potential audience from the very beginning. Nevertheless, if you like the movie, there’s a lot to love here. You’ll really feel as if you are transported to Pandora and among the Na’vi.
The official story synopsis is as follows: “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 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.”
Sadly, the central conceit of Toruk falls prey to the same failings as Avatar. It’s self-indulgent navel gazing on a multimillion-dollar scale. Despite the prevalence of the narrator (who speaks English in a slow, reverent monotone), the main characters all speak the made-up Na’vi language. And since the main story centers on a quest to gather various ceremonial objects, the story adopts a “ceremonial” pace. It isn’t in much of a hurry to get where it’s going, and most characters move slowly and deliberately–not at all what you might expect from Cirque du Soleil, which is typically fast and frenetic.
Toruk is clearly in love with its own world, and it desperately wants you to be too.
But whether you love the world it creates or not, it’s hard to deny the beauty that Toruk presents. Like candy, Toruk looks, smells, and tastes fantastic, and your senses will be incredibly satiated. But it’s full of empty calories.
Toruk – The First Flight began previews on November 12 and will perform in Allentown, PA, and Worcester, MA, before making its world premiere in Montreal on December 21. Following that, it will launch a North American tour that will last throughout 2016 at least. Check the full schedule here to see if it’s coming near you.