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.
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.
Ralu, Entu and Tsyal are the three main protagonists of TORUK – The First Flight, which is narrated by a “Na’vi Storyteller.” They are joined by the Shaman and the Chief of the Omaticaya clan as well as members of five Na’vi clans: Omaticaya, Tawkami, Anurai, Tipani, and Kekunan. The black-clad, shadow-like puppeteers personify the spirit of Eywa, the Na’vi’s guiding force and deity.
RALU, member of the Omaticaya Clan, is the son of a formidable hunter who taught him exceptional focus and discipline. Ralu is a sensitive and compassionate boy on the brink of adulthood. Although he is only 14 years old (in Earth years), there is a calm and quiet force about him that underscores his carefree attitude. Always on the lookout for his childhood friend and protégé Entu, Ralu is a natural born leader. Whenever the going gets tough, he channels all his energy and skills into the challenge at hand and invariably gets the job done. Just ask Entu, whom Ralu once saved from certain death by luring away a Thanator during archery practice deep in the rainforest. No wonder everybody rallies behind Ralu – his is a doer and a thinker with a heart of gold!
ENTU, member of the Omaticaya Clan, lost both of his parents early in life in a freak attack by a Thanator. He is the same age (14 years old in Earth years) as his lifelong friend Ralu – his mentor – with whom he has always engaged in a healthy competition that has definitely kept him on his toes. Spunky and intense, Entu is fully in touch with his emotions and knows to follow and trust his instincts. One day, when a member of his clan ventured too far out on a cliff edge and was left dangling on a limb, Entu instantly concocted an ingenious counterweight device using his pack, a sturdy branch and some vines to lower himself down the mountain face and save the boy, showing total disregard for his own safety. With his quick wit and dauntless spirit, Entu is eager – and ready – to dive headlong into the adventures that lie ahead.
TSYAL, member of the Tawkami Clan, is the only child of a village chief who lost her mother at a tender age. She was raised by her grandmother with the help of other members of her clan, as is the custom among the Na’vi. Highly proficient in herbal lore, her grandmother was a chemist widely revered among the Tawkami for her unique remedies and concoctions. Tsyal’s clan is renowned throughout the land for their knowledge of chemistry and alchemy, and the abilities she inherited from her grandmother are transmitted every two generations through a special bond among clan members. Spurred by her grandmother’s legacy and wanting to live up to the expectations bestowed upon her, Tsyal has taken great pride in creating innovative mixtures and recipes of her own. True to her clan nestled deep inside the primeval forests of Pandora, this easygoing, sprightly girl with an indomitable spirit has a cheerful nature and loves to play tricks. With a mere seed, she can put the fiercest beast to sleep; with the frailest-looking flower, she can induce the most beautiful dreams or provoke the most terrifying nightmares. Such is the tremendous power of the natural elements that Tsyal and her clan have learned to understand and harness.
There is an aura of mystery about the Storyteller – a wanderer who roams the land, going from village to village and from clan to clan, in constant touch with his people. Wrapped in his beautiful, weathered mantle, the wise yet unassuming Storyteller exudes wisdom and compassion. As for his age, nobody knows for sure. Time seems to stand still for those who experience life- changing events of the highest magnitude. Regardless of the clan he was born into, the Storyteller’s soul contains the joys and sorrows of all his Na’vi brothers and sisters. He is a guide and a connector – a messenger of peace and unity. Long ago, the Storyteller earned a special place in the hearts of his people, and that is where his true home is.
PROJECTIONS, MULTIMEDIA CONTENT
TORUK – The First Flight blends the world of AVATAR and the signature style of Cirque du Soleil with the pioneering artistic vision of multimedia stage directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon.
Pandora in All Its Splendor – 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 Omaticaya Hometree, to the Anurai’s animal sanctuary and the lush jungles where the Tawkami live – create a visually stunning environment for the performers. So do the large-scale effects that come from the storyline, such as the earthquake and volcano eruption, the rivers of lava rising from within, and the Shaman’s visions projected on a huge floating, ethereal veil.
Some video effects are synched with the performers’ movements, such as the bioluminescent trails they leave in their wake as they meander through the forest. Some effects are mere evocations meant to create mood, like the creatures circling the sky appearing only in shadow form on the ground.
Video projections sometimes overflow beyond the set and right into the audience, giving spectators the feeling they’re not merely gazing at Pandora, but they’re actually ON Pandora. At one point, waves start in the audience before washing up on shore on stage; in another scene, a starry sky is projected all over the arena, virtually turning it into an upside-down planetarium.
Lemieux and Pilon are masters at creating virtual spaces on stage. In TORUK – 4
The First Flight, they transform the set into a giant screen where Pandoran landscapes materialize. “Set changes, which sometimes occur in the wink of an eye, are not mechanical, but optical,” says Michel. “It’s the language of film applied to the performing arts,” adds Victor. “And we alternate between large- scale, spectacular effects and more intimate moments that evoke emotion.”
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. In TORUK – The First Flight, 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.
Total projection surface, excluding projections that reach out into the audience, is approximately 20,000 square feet, more than five times the size of a standard IMAX screen: 12,750 for the stage, 3,600 for the two lateral screens, and another 3,600 for the two columns of Hometree. There are 40 video projectors in all: half are 30,000-lumen each, the other half, 20,000-lumen.
22 video projectors are used for projections on the ground; 6 projectors send video images on Hometree; 2 projectors are dedicated to the two lateral screens; and 8 projectors are used for immersive projections into the audience.
SET DESIGN AND PROPS
Pandora is a fictional moon orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri system, the closest star system to our sun. It is home to the Na’vi, a highly spiritual people with a deep connection to nature. The moon’s environments range from tropical rainforest and equatorial desert to boreal forest, mountains, ocean shorelines, wetlands, and archipelago. Nature galore! As there are no constructions on Pandora, Set Designer Carl Fillion made it a point to avoid straight lines and to use only curvy, organic lines in his designs.
Five main elements make up the set – Hometree, the Island, the Green Belt, the Dream Catcher, and the two Lateral Screens.
The Omaticaya Hometree – On Pandora, Hometrees are two to three times the height of the redwoods that once covered the Pacific Northwest on Earth. The bottom part of the columns of the Omaticaya Hometree loom 25 feet above the stage floor. Amid the bustle of daily life inside Hometree, one can see a Giant Loom – a kind of weaving machine that plays an important role in the daily lives of the Omaticaya.
The Island – There is an “island” at the center of the stage on which performers move about. The Island also houses a Fire Pit, a Circular Drum as well as the Tree of Souls, an inflatable structure stashed in a tiny trench under the stage floor. The tree structure is inflated as it is hoisted from the trench using cables attached to the structure above the stage. The branches of the tree are covered in thousands of LED lights.
The Green Belt – The terrain on Pandora is neither smooth nor flat. To create a fragmented topography that evokes the uneven landforms on Pandora, the Set Designer created an elevated, padded bank – or Green Belt – all around the stage on which performers can climb and move around. The Green Belt ensures that images projected on the ground look more three-dimensional. It also doubles as a cover for the rink board. As Pandora is a world lush with vegetation, three-dimensional retractable plants pop out of the Green Belt during scenes to evoke the forest environment.
The Dream Catcher – The Dream Catcher is a structure suspended 45 feet above the Island. It houses several props and set elements, including a huge plant 35 feet in diameter that serves as an acrobatic device. The structure recalls the Aboriginal dream catcher.
The Lateral Screens – The two large projection screens flanking the Omaticaya Hometree on each side extend the projection surface further out into the audience.
The stage is 85 by 162 feet.
The show’s performance area is based on the Fibonacci spiral. This shape is determined by the ancient number sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. It is said that botanists on Pandora have recognized this mathematical pattern in many botanical specimens with a fiddlehead shape. If one were to place the design of the Fibonacci spiral on the stage, the Tree of Souls would be in the exact spot at the heart of the spiral.
Hometree is 80 feet wide by 40 feet high. The structure is equipped with wheels and stands on nine pivots. It can be moved by hand.
The fabric that covers the entire performance area used as a projection surface during the Prologue comes in two parts, each measuring 200 by 90 feet wide.
COSTUMES AND MAKEUP
When she took on the challenge of interpreting for the stage the animated characters in AVATAR through costumes, 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.
Since the movie is set 3,000 years in the future in relation to TORUK – The First Flight, the Costumer Designer needed to determine how the Na’vi’s clothing culture had changed over that period of time and, working backwards, create her designs accordingly. The Omaticaya’s domestic culture revolved around weaving and bead-making and using the things they found in their natural surroundings – from seeds and vines and leaves, to bones and precious stones.
One look at the Storyteller’s mantle is enough to know that he is well traveled and has received various tokens from other clans over time. Likewise, the Shaman’s costume suggests that travelers to and from the Omaticaya’s home have brought her ornaments and treasures that she has incorporated into her ceremonial robe.
The “Fabric” of Pandora – The costumes should 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.
They “invented” Pandoran fibers that do not exist on Earth. Some varieties of “extraterrestrial flora” used in the costumes are in reality cut-outs of loofah sponge or molds from cabbage leaves. A loincloth that looks like it was made from leaves is in fact made of crinoline, an open-weave horsehair and linen fabric usually stiffened and used for interlinings, skirts or underskirts.
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.
Creating the Na’vi Skin – Before designing the first elements of the clan couture however, the team needed to address the epic challenge of reproducing the look of the Na’vi’s skin convincingly in terms of color and skin tone.
With its long, prehensile lemur-like tail, the body of the Na’vi is leaner and taller than a human’s. Acrobats do not generally fit this mold. By and large, performers in the circus arts world are more of a medium stature and more muscular than thin. The team had to start by establishing the muscle structure and the base print colors then create the Na’vi body stripes. They elongated the thorax as much as possible in order to replicate the Na’vi’s body form by raising the chest design a few inches on the costume in relation to the artist’s own chest.
Kym chose four different blue base skin tones to account for natural DNA variations among the Na’vi people. These skin colors had to work on all performers, regardless of their complexion.
Twenty-five different variations were created for the Na’vi base. The base skin fabric, an optical white synthetic fiber, was silkscreened to create the muscle and distinctive stripes. The bioluminescent effect is created using a product that reacts to the light filters used in the show.
The Costume of the Puppeteers, the “Spirits of Eywa” – The exotic fauna of Pandora is personified on stage through state-of-the-art puppetry. The challenge for the costume team was to determine how the puppeteers would manipulate the puppets without being identified as Na’vi, while remaining connected to the world of Pandora. To address this challenge, an all-black Na’vi costume was created.
Make-up and morphology – Although they are morphologically similar to humans, the Na’vi have a wider nose and larger eyes. To suspend the audience’s disbelief and create the illusion that the 35 performers on stage are in fact Na’vi, the make-up artists in the costume department needed to “remodel” the artists’ faces. In addition, countless hours were spent finding and creating unifying bioluminescent patterns that pass seamlessly between the printed fabric of the costume and the make-up, which is a unique foundation color that was created specifically for the show.
As the base costume represents the bare skin of the Na’vi, the footwear has to imitate bare feet. The artists wear shoes contoured to the shape of the human foot, including visible individual sections for the toes.
The flowers of the Tawkami costumes require 437 yards of fabric and 120 fishing rods.
Some costumes are made with parts of hammocks.
Bones were used as an inspiration to sculpt the Anurai decorations and to adorn the corset of the Storyteller.
A drill or a hand mixer is used to prepare the wool materials that make up the braids in the hair of the Omaticaya characters.
As turquoise silkscreen inks are extremely sensitive to sunlight, all costumes with this feature need to be covered with a black garment bag during storage.
The black-clad, shadow-like puppeteers who personify the spirit of Eywa are a direct reference to the shadows in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Shadow play is a precursor of cinema.
There are 115 costumes in the show, an average of 3.3 costumes per artist.
The costume department produced more than 1,000 items in all, including shoes, headpieces and necklaces.
When he dreamed up AVATAR, James Cameron created a coherent, highly structured world with its own set of codes and natural laws, including a living, breathing ecosystem with an exotic fauna. 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.
“On Pandora, the animals are strange, menacing and beautiful all at once. These six-legged muscular creatures exude a sense of grace and nobleness, which I wanted to convey. I wanted my designs to be a tribute to nature, as is the show,” says Puppet Designer Patrick Martel.
In TORUK – The First Flight, 16 puppets represent the creatures of Pandora: six Viperwolves, three Direhorses, three Austrapedes, one Turtapede, two swarms of Woodsprites, and one Toruk. The two swarms of Woodsprites are actually mobiles manipulated by puppeteers.
While the Viperwolves and Direhorses are directly inspired by the movie AVATAR, the Austrapedes and the Turtapede were created from scratch. When the creative team took on the challenge of imagining a show based on a pre- existing world – Pandora –, they dove head first into James Cameron’s world and used it as a springboard to explore uncharted territory. This meant creating new creatures as well. “Not only did we want to please AVATAR fans, we wanted to surprise them too,” says Patrick.
But the responsibility of adding new species to Pandora’s fauna was not taken lightly. The features of these new six-limbed creatures had to be consistent with the morphological standards of Pandora. And they are. It was a matter of respecting James Cameron’s work.
Puppet “Biology” – Since weight is an important factor when building large- scale puppets, most structures are made of aluminum or, whenever possible, carbon fiber, a material as flexible as it is lightweight. The inside of the puppets is Plastazote, which is ultra-light polyethylene foam. Stretch fabrics such as Lycra are used for the creatures’ skin, while the wings of Toruk are cut from polyester silk. The textures and patterns on the outside were printed using a technique called sublimation, which fixes the images in the fibers of the material.
Beware the Viperwolf! – With its low-slung head and snakelike jaw, the Viperwolf is a swift, fiercely intelligent animal that hunts in packs. The puppeteer uses his hands to control the upper body and articulated head of the Viperwolf, working each of the four front legs with his hand. The puppeteer moves the animal’s hind legs by giving the puppet a specific swinging motion. The Viperwolf puppet has green luminous eyes, is illuminated from the inside, and glows red and blue.
The swift and nimble Direhorse – The Direhorse is a wild, frisky animal. Two puppeteers work in unison inside the structure. The first controls the front part, including neck and head; his legs become the creature’s two front legs. The second puppeteer controls the middle legs with his hands; his legs become the animal’s hind legs. The puppeteers stand on platform shoes to better convey the creature’s impressive size.
The Austrapede, a cross between an ostrich, a pink flamingo and a dinosaur
– With its long, thin neck and tail and its long, narrow bill, the Austrapede is a relatively small creature by Pandoran standards. The Austrapedes are impulsive, fidgety creatures whose emotions spread quickly from one individual to the other by a form of mimicry. A single puppeteer housed inside controls the neck and head with one hand, using his other hand to work the wings, which start flapping whenever the Austrapede is frightened. Perched on 7-inch- high platform shoes that give the animal its distinct hop, the puppeteer can see through the animal’s gills, which are a common feature of Pandoran fauna.
The Turtapede, a turtle and a shark folded into one – With its large dorsal fin and tail, the Turtapede is agile in shallow water. The puppeteer moves the sea- dwelling creature by pushing on the structure. He uses his arms to move the creature’s legs. The shell of the Turtapede has iridescent patterns that shimmer.
The Woodsprites, sacred seeds of the Tree of Souls – Two mobiles inspired by the work of sculptor Alexander Calder evoke the Woodsprites in all their aerial lightness and elegance. To reproduce their bioluminescent glow, each of the 20 seeds is equipped with a DEL light.
The Toruk, or Great Leonopteryx – The fierce and noble Toruk is an oversized marionette with a 40-foot wingspan. This type of traditional string puppet is usually much smaller and works upside down: the strings are normally manipulated from above instead of from below. The show’s Toruk works by reverse gravity and is suspended from a cable attached to an automation system that controls the creature’s movements in space. Six puppeteers on the ground control the other movements of the creature. It takes one puppeteer to control the head, two to direct the shoulders, two to work the wings, and one to control the tail – all in a synchronized aerial choreography.
Fourteen additional puppets appear in TORUK – The First Flight to evoke various animals on Pandora. These more rudimentary and impressionistic puppets, handcrafted by the Na’vi, are used in various rituals and ceremonies.
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.”
The two Woodsprite mobiles deployed at the end of 19-foot poles each contain 20 illuminated “seeds.”
The puppeteers are equipped with microphones and make their own animal sounds for perfect synchronization with their movements.
NA’VI SPOKEN BY THE PERFORMERS DURING THE SHOW
Oel ngati kameie. | I see you.
Stä’nì oet, txo tsun! | Catch me if you can!
Mawey, ma prrnen, mawey. | Calm down, my child, calm down.
Uvan si mì sengo alahe, ma eveng. | Go play somewhere else, children.
Pxoeng tìkangkem si ko! | Let us work!
Tìng tsat oer! | Give it to me!
Ngaru fì’ut! | Here it is.
Vitrautral! Vitrautral! | The Tree of Souls! The Tree of Souls!
Ngari frawzo srak? | Are you all right?
Oe ngar srung sivi ko. | Let me help you.
Lu hasey. | It is finished.
Ma Tsahik! Ma Tsahik! | The Shaman! The Shaman!
Fko kxap si Vitrautralur! | The Tree of Souls is in danger!
Zene pivllhrr ayolo’ur alahe! | We must warn the other clans!
Kä tsatseng… nga ne tsatseng… Kivä! | Go there! You, over there! And there! Go!
Ma Entu! Kempe si nga fìtseng? | Entu! What are you doing here? Tätxaw ne kelku! | Come back home!
Fwa fìtsengmì ’ì’awn lu lehrrap! | It is dangerous to stay here! Kawkrr! Oe kawkrr ke tätxaw! | Never! I will never go back!
Toruk nì’aw tsun srung sivi fte Vitrautralit zivong. | Only Toruk can help to save the Tree of Souls.
Oel ngati kameie. Oeru syaw Ralu. | I see you. My name is Ralu.
Oeru syaw Entu. | My name is Entu.
Fyape fko syaw ngar? | What is your name?
Oeru syaw… Tsyal. Lu oe hapxìtu Tawkamiyä! | My name is… Tsyal! I am a Tawkami!
Lolu moeyä Tsahìkur äie. | Our Shaman had a vision. Fwew moel Torukit. | We are looking for Toruk. Fäza’u! | Come aboard!
Irayo! | Thank you !
Irayo, ma Tsyal! Oel ngati tse’eia nìmun. | Thank you, Tsyal! I am happy to see you again.
Sran! Tse’a nìprrte’ nìtxan. | Yes! Very happy!
Tìng nari, tanhì a tswayon. | Look, a shooting star.
Lu lor. | It is beautiful.
Lu lor poe. | She is beautiful.
Ma Palukan! | Thanator!
Kä neto, ma Palukan! | Go away, Thanator!
Aynantang! | Viperwolves!
Tul! | Run!
Tul fte rivey! | Run for your life!
Pxenga! | You!
Pxengal tok kllpxìltut ayoeyä! | You are in our territory!
Kä mefo pxengahu ne sray pxengeyä. | We will escort you to your villages. Za’u! | Come!
Za’u, ma pa’li! | Come, direhorse.
Fìtxan yaymak menga lu. | You are so foolish.
Tsurokx awnga fìtseng fìtxono. ! | We stop here for the night.
Tsun oeng fäkivä sìn tskxe. | We can climb on the rock.
Kin awngal Torukit! | We need Toruk!
Mefo lu ftxawneytu. | They are the chosen ones.
Srung si pxoer(u)! | Help us!
Tìsrese’a! | The prophecy!
Awnga zene kivä peseng? | Where do we go?
Ne taronngip Torukä. | To Toruk’s feeding ground.
Tsyivìl ko! | Let’s climb!
Toruk Makto! | Rider of the Last Shadow!
Disclaimer: In exchange for these blog posts, we were given 2 tickets to see the show on opening night, December 4, 2015.