Cirque Du Soleil visits Perth for the second time in a year on November 24 to bring us the wonder of James Cameron’s Avatar live to the stage with TORUK – The First Flight. Ahead of the 10 day limited showing, NATALIE GILES had a chat with Lisanna Vazquez, acrobat for Toruk, and their spokesperson, Janie Mallet.
This is the first time Cirque has used a film as inspiration for a show. How does TORUK translate a cinematic experience for the stage?
JANIE: TORUK – The First Flight was created in collaboration with James Cameron, so everything that you will see on stage is an expansion of the AVATAR universe. The creators at Cirque du Soleil wanted to capture the magnificent scenery that we see in the movie. We use 40 powerful projectors to recreate Pandora in front of your eyes, with a total projection space bigger than 5 IMAX screens. When you add the theatrical and musical components, along with circus acrobatics and talented performers, blended together with the creativity and innovation of Cirque du Soleil, the result is a show like no other!
LISANNA: As artists, our purpose is to bring you along on our journey throughout the show — in the land of Pandora — with the added flavor of Cirque du Soleil. Having done extensive research on Na’vi movement, culture, and philosophy, we’ve become keenly aware of how important it is to continue the thematic significance of Cameron’s AVATAR, in our physicality as well as our state of mind when we enter the stage.
What else differentiates TORUK from other Cirque shows?
LISANNA: TORUK is special because it brings theatrical emotion to our fascinating world of Pandora. The artists and audience take their journey together; the characters, colors, the stunning visuals elicit a response from all of us in a personal manner, and bring a sense of wonder and amazement on all levels.
JANIE: For the first time, we have an English speaking narrator and a strong storyline, compared to other Cirque du Soleil shows where the story is left to personal interpretation. We also have a full team of puppeteers that bring the creatures of Pandora to life. These are large scale puppets; our biggest one – the Toruk – is 12 meters wide and weighs 115kg! I think that many Australians may be more accustomed to our shows under a Big Top tent, while TORUK – The First Flight is presented in an arena. We take up the whole arena floor, so it’s a massive production!
LISANNA: There is a lot to feast your eyes on!
How much involvement did James Cameron have in the production? How much did he influence the development?
JANIE: It’s been a true collaboration from the beginning. James Cameron and his team were partners with Cirque du Soleil throughout the whole creation. While they allowed us room for creative freedom, everything we brought on stage had to make sense in the Pandoran world. They gave the directors books and notes that they had taken while making AVATAR, and Cirque du Soleil was able to create new clans and creatures not seen in the movie.
This is the first time that Cirque du Soleil has used an English speaking storyteller. Can you tell us why this decision was made and how much the show relies on the storyteller to drive the narrative?
JANIE: When directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon met with James Cameron, they came up with this idea of setting the show 3000 years before the movie AVATAR. They decided on a tale involving the Toruk, the most feared predator on Pandora! Since the show is inspired by a movie, having a storyteller was a natural step. However, the story has many layers, which makes it accessible for the whole family.
LISANNA: The narrative is complemented by many factors within the show, from our storyteller, to the projections, lighting, acrobatic movement, character dialogue — entirely in Na’vi language—and the interactions of the artists in their roles as Na’vi.
Could you tell us about some of the standout moments in the show that audiences can look forward to witnessing?
JANIE: Everybody has a different favorite moment. Many props and apparatus were created specifically for our show. For example, there is an act where the artists wear huge pink flowers that take up the whole set for a choreographed act. That’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The same goes with the Bone Structure, a skeleton see-saw on top of which acrobats do contortion and hand balancing. It’s a stunning piece, and they make it look so easy! Another highlight is the Tipani Clan, which Lisanna knows well…
LISANNA: Yes! I am delighted to play the Chief of the Tipani Clan, a fierce tribe of warriors who intimidate the three main characters after an incident with the Viperwolves — I’ll say no more, come see the show! Of course, what would the show be without the Toruk and it’s talented puppeteers. It’s a highlight enjoyed by all, and quite magnificent.
It must be challenging for makeup artists to recreate such an iconic look for the stage. How much work goes into character creation each day before a show?
LISANNA: During the creation of TORUK, the makeup artists of Cirque du Soleil prepped us on our makeup routine. We had step-by-step makeup training sessions, in which we were taught proper blending, contouring, and how to perfect the unique details that go into transforming one’s face into a Na’vi. At first, it was a good 2 hours’ process to complete the makeup; by now most artists have it down to 45 minutes. Then we wear a full-body unitard—custom made for each individual artist—accessories, headpiece, shoes, and gloves. Not to be forgotten, our warm-up regimen, any necessary training/rehearsals, and personal physical discipline are all crucial elements of our everyday life.
How does TORUK bring to life the bioluminescent elements of AVATAR‘s design?
JANIE: I think the bioluminescence is a beautiful aspect of the movie that translates beautifully to the stage. For example, in one act, as the acrobats run through the set, the floor lights up in shades of purple, pink and turquoise. This is created with a combination of projectors and an automated tracking system. Our costume designer – Australian Kym Barrett – and her team also spent a lot of time creating the costumes. They eventually found a way to recreate bioluminescence with dots that glow in the dark and are found on the artists’ bodysuits as well as in their makeup.
How do the set designers create the intricate backdrop of Pandora on stage?
JANIE: As in all big productions, there was a lot of work put into it! Set and props designer Carl Filion wanted to stay true to the Na’vi culture. As there is no construction on Pandora at this time, he made a point to not use any straight lines, and to keep a natural feel to the entire set. He created two giant revolving structures which became the famous Hometree, as well as other pieces that could be transformed during our characters’ quest. We have 97 pneumatic traps that open to unveil different plants and flowers of Pandora. Everything is covered in colourful projections, which allows us to change scene, colors and tones at the click of a button.
TORUK utilises a state of the art tracking system in its lighting. Can you explain what is involved and how this works?
JANIE: On TORUK – The First Flight, we don’t utilize follow spots. This means that our lighting team is on the ground; nobody follows our artists while manipulating a light fixture. Instead, we use a tracking system called BlackTrax. Artists have LED lights integrated in their costumes, and through multiple cameras installed above the stage, our computers know exactly where they are on the set and can track them in real time. This system is used for both the lighting and video projection and helps to bring the entire production to life.