Expectations can sometimes produce limitations. For those who have enjoyed visiting Cirque du Soleil’s numerous flights of fancy, the Montreal organization has built its audiences through an emphasis on “cirque” or circus acts. However, they have increasingly improved those acts to harbor a real artistic flair in the choreography and obviously wanted to keep growing physically and aesthetically.
The group’s latest production that flew into Pittsburgh, an arena show called TORUK — The First Flight, indicated a new path. Yes, there were spectacular aerial and acrobatic performances, but it was easy to see that TORUK was another breed of performance animal.
Unlike previous arena shows such as the mega-rock Delirium (2006), the “joy”-ful Alegria (2009) and Fellini-esque Quidam (2011), all in the traditional mold, this show emphasized a new direction, a stretching, if you will, of Cirque’s fertile imagination. It was no longer a show loosely built around a series of standalone acts. There was an obvious emphasis on a cohesive concept show that integrated acrobatics in a far more sophisticated way.
Yes, folks, the acts were still there. A giant webbed loom was crawling with performers and served to “catch” aerial jumpers. The huge skeleton of a reptilian Thanator was the basis for a brilliant group balancing act. A warrior dance used large poles that not only hinged in two but lifted some of the performers high into the air. Yes, it often wasn’t business at usual. And TORUK demanded more of the audience because it didn’t always indicate noticeable endings to draw applause. In some instances, the audience might not be sure if something was finished. (Don’t worry — just settle back and allow yourself the luxury of multiple choices because there is never a single focal point. There is always something else to catch the eye.)
Although the Na’vi Storyteller could not always be understood, the story itself was simple enough, a tale of life-long friends, Ralu and Entu, who, just on the brink of manhood, join forces with a new friend, Tsyal, to save the sacred Tree of Souls and thus the Na’vis themselves. It supposedly took place 3,000 years before the film. One note: audiences must get past the fact that these Na’vis aren’t the tall, lithe characters found in James Cameron’s award-winning movie, AVATAR. They are shorter, more muscular characters, but with a lightness and elegant physicality of their own as they prowl and play on a versatile set by Carl Fillion.
Unlike the afore-mentioned arena shows, this wasn’t a set that seemed separated from the audience. Those productions would use oh-so-clever clowns to lure audience members into the fabric of the show through skits. TORUK did it in a different way. Expert, multi-focal direction from Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon made great use of a three-dimensional landscape that had an island at the center and was ringed with rocks and soft tumbling platforms. It brought the action even closer and better yet, sent cast members scampering up and down the steps radiating into the nearly 20,000 seat arena’s rafters.The technology, however, was not as simple as the story. It was, if anything the star of the show — cutting-edge and verging on the spectacle of the opening ceremonies in an Olympic event. This was epic movie-making in the flesh — a true 3-D rendering of its own, inspired by Cameron’s film. It bathed the seats in shades of blue, almost transforming the audience into Na’vis and the special effects included a flood, an earthquake, a volcano and so much more.
Some of it may have seemed vaguely familiar, like the play on Lion King puppetry, so artistic and with AVATAR-like Viperwolves and Direhorses (six legs!), and newly formed Austrapedes (ostrich/pink flamingo/dinosaur) and a Turapede (turtle/shark) added to the mix. There was also a projection at the back that might have been gigantic Na’vi eyes from the movie and the whole story once again circled around a fantastical tree and its environment.
Not only did the familiarity draw people in, but audience members could be part of the production in a new way, by downloading an app onto their iPhones. So when a starlit night appeared, it was enhanced by dozens of tiny screens that twinkled on their own.
This is a production that filled the vast Consol Energy Center, scene of exciting hockey contests (including this year’s Stanley Cup series and ultimate win), driving rock ‘n roll shows and Monster Jams, none of which can match Cirque du Soleil. TORUK brought something new — a welcome sense of wonder, which is no easy feat.
The city of Pittsburgh even took its cue from TORUK. When the audience left , they were greeted by buildings set against the onset of a night sky, yes, in shades of blue, yet another award, this time from nature itself.