Cirque du Soleil stages a prequel to James Cameron’s blockbuster

By Christina Campodonico

In the mega blockbuster “Avatar,” James Cameron created an epic world on the faraway moon of Pandora through cutting edge motion capture animation technology. Blue-skinned natives known as the Na’vi roamed lush computer-generated forests and soared through the boulder-filled skies on pterodactyl-like creatures called Toruk.

But for Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk – The First Flight,” now playing at The Forum in Inglewood, the real challenge of adapting the celestial world of “Avatar” for the stage was not so much technical, but physical.

“The Na’vi are nine feet tall,” says co-writer and co-director Michel Lemieux. They also have tails, and the average Cirque du Soleil acrobat is around 5’6’’ or 5’7’’, he adds. “So it would be really difficult to find really tiny people to do the humans.”

So “Toruk’s” costume and makeup teams transformed the cast into Na’vi, while Lemieux and collaborator Victor Pilon decided to set “Toruk” 3,000 years before humans ever set foot on the alien moon — making the Cirque du Soleil show a prequel to the 2009 film, which showed humans attempting to decimate Pandora’s indigenous people and harvest its abundant natural resources.

But the show isn’t simply a set up for what’s to come in the Avatar universe (film sequels “Avatar 2,” 3, 4 and 5 are currently in development), but rather a nod to Pandora’s wildlife, Na’vi folklore and the movie that spawned it all.

‘Dramatic Intentions’

In the film, paralyzed former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) inhabits a Na’vi avatar and joins the elite ranks of Na’vi who are able to pilot the Toruk. But Lemieux and Pilon wondered who was the first Na’vi to tame and ride the winged and dragon-like creature that’s operated by puppeteers in the show.

“We said, ‘OK, if we go in the past, we want to tell the story of the first one,” says Lemieux, who along with Pilon crafted a coming-of-age tale about three teenagers from two different Na’vi tribes who harness the power of the Toruk to save the sacred source of life on Pandora — The Tree of Souls.

“We started with dramatic intentions,” says Pilon.

“… Which is different because Cirque du Soleil, usually they have incredible, high-performance acrobatic numbers,” adds Lemieux. “Then they modify it. They change the costumes. They change the choreography, the music, and they make the show around what they call an ‘acrobatic skeleton.’ In this show, Cirque du Soleil told us they want to try something else — not an acrobatic skeleton, but story-driven.”

And so a new legend was born into the Avatar universe with special guidance from James Cameron himself.

“James Cameron told us ‘invent’ — invent new tribes, new cultures,” says Lemieux, who told The Argonaut that Cameron served as an advisor and script doctor on the show. “He said to us, ‘I’m going to open up all my files, the deleted scenes, the scenes people didn’t see. I’m going to open that to you. The only thing I ask you is invent a few things and be sure that you have a reason for everything. It’s not just pure fantasy.’ … So he just let us go in our imagination. And we created these different tribes, different cultures, different ways of living. And some [tribes] are more into fighting battles. Other ones are more into culture. So by the end of this story, they have to get together despite their cultural differences to save the day.”

But even with the keys to Cameron’s “Avatar” kingdom at hand, living up to the filmmaker’s expectations was still a daunting task, says Pilon.

“At the beginning we were quite scared,” he says. “And we were quite intimidated when we presented our story to James Cameron, but while we were presenting to him, we just saw this huge grin on his face, just smiling. … So from then on, when we saw that he knew that we were respecting his world, his values, from there it became easy.”

The Human Element

Even with Cameron’s blessing, however, Lemieux and Pilon still felt the pressure to make a show that would please the film’s countless fans.

“There’s a million people that saw that movie, you know. And a lot of those million people liked it very much, so how can we come back to reality? Because our artists are flesh and blood, they cannot jump 50 feet high” like a computer-generated character in a virtual world, says Lemieux.

But Cirque du Soleil performers can do some pretty amazing things in real time and in front of a live audience. An aerial ballerina can dangle from a silk sash hanging high above. A contortionist can balance with her legs over her head on a seesawing set piece. A bedazzled singer can belt primal vocalizations into a microphone, and an actor can look you straight in the eye while delivering lines.

In fact, aside from narrations by the show’s Storyteller, all the dialogue in “Toruk” is spoken in Na’vi, the eponymously-named tongue of the Pandoran people that USC linguistics professor Paul Frommer originally developed for the “Avatar” movie.

For Lemieux and Pilon, having “Toruk’s” actors speak in Na’vi not only added “Avatar” authenticity to the show, but also created an atmosphere of intimacy, even within the grand arenas that “Toruk” has toured through over the past year.

“I think it helped them, the fact they’re speaking Na’vi, to fall into their characters and be their characters and to embed and create their character,” says Pilon. “Usually the acrobats in a Cirque du Soleil show have no voice. We don’t hear them. We see them perform. But for us it was important to add that level of experience — of having them talking Na’vi, having them breathe, hearing them move, having microphones.”

“It’s really not often that you put microphones on acrobats,” adds Lemieux. “But [in ‘Toruk’] you hear them. They jump everywhere. They run everywhere. And it’s touching to see that. Because when the show is really perfect and you don’t hear [breath], your subconscious thinks these are machines. And so you forget about the risk they take to perform and to do all those acrobatics. So adding microphones and hearing them breathing and being out of breath sometimes brings back the human nature.”

Innovation & Improvisation

Even though “Toruk” has its share of state-of-the-art multimedia features, from arena-size video projections to a mobile app that interacts with the show, the show’s live elements — its actors and acrobats, performers and puppeteers — make “Toruk” new every time it is performed, says Lemieux.

“The show is alive. It’s not fixed,” says Lemieux, citing how the stagecraft of “Toruk” responds to the performers in real time. The lighting system tracks the artists’ movements through sensors embedded in their costumes and, even though the show’s soundtrack is pre-recorded, a deejay plays the music, allowing the performers space and time to execute their moves precisely.

“So if the acrobat is doing something and taking a little more time, the music adapts,” says Lemieux.

“It’s like if Na’vi came on the planet Earth and gave us a show with our technology, with our tools,” adds Pilon about the production side of the show.

For both directors, this marriage of high-tech stagecraft with the performers’ live, heart-pounding performances is the ultimate homage to the technological innovations and human themes of James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

“Technology and all these tools that we use in our shows are there to hopefully make us better human beings,” says Pilon.

Or as Lemieux sums it up: “This is not a computer-generated show. It’s a human show.”

“Toruk – The First Flight” plays Jan. 12 through Jan. 15 at The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. Tickets start at $39. Visit for tickets and showtimes.