Tour Review: TORUK – THE FIRST FLIGHT (Cirque du Soleil, North American Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 6, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Cirque du Soleil writes a new chapter in make-believe with Toruk – The First Flight, a not so typical two-hour fantasy inspired (but not based on) James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar. For one thing, there are no clowns (a happy relief for those who found them irritating and obnoxious); and unlike previous productions which had themes and storylines interrupted by sometimes conventional circus “acts,” here the plot becomes the pageant and vice versa.

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Any twirling and soaring from swinging sashes, balancing and trapeze feats, and similar stunts are subsumed by a mythic odyssey of sacrifice and exploration: Two young members of the blue-hued Na’vi tribe on the planet Pandora—Ralu and Entu–embark on a quest for sacred objects that will save their realm from a killer volcano. These pubescent Omaticaya lads join forces with Tysal, a girl in touch with the ancestors. Her powers as a seer will guide them through their perilous journey.

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To succeed, a pure soul must tame and ride the huge flying Toruk, an orange and red proto-pterodactyl that sweeps through the Pandoran skies. Its death in battle will save their beloved Tree of Souls. (Note: The earthling miners who destroy the tree in the film are happily left out because this legendary “origins tale” take place thousands of years before the attack on their world. The entire saga is restricted to Pandorans only, not for one moment to be confused with Blue Men.)

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In myriad ways this 37th production is the most consistently beautiful Cirque show yet. Everything on the sprawling United Center stage (its Chicago run of the national tour ending August 7) is devoted to the single vision of directors and multimedia mavens Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon as well as 13 “state of the art” creators in choreography (Tuan Le and Tan Loc), set and props (Carl Fillion), makeup and costumes (Kym Barrett), pyrotechnics, and other wizardry. Alain Lortie’s undulating lighting effects, awesomely convincing projections of floods, floating rocks and looming mountains, a pulsating center opening from which anything can emerge, Julie Taymor-like rod puppets of animals and the gorgeous Toruk bird (designed by Patrick Martel), Na’vi outfits complete with talismans and tattoos—it’s all artistically connected into one grand design under Director of Creation Neilson Vignola.

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Interestingly, the audience can become part of the show by downloading, in advance or before each performance, a mobile app that can “unlock cool effects” before, during and after the live performance as prompted by notifications. Watching these handheld devices reflect the onstage action doubles the immersive Cirque sensations, individually and collectively.

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As always (but less so here than in past extravaganzas), the cinematic story, narrated by the “Storyteller,” is just an excuse for the spectacle—and much of the dialogue is in impenetrable Na’vi tongue, as comprehensible and urgent as speech in a silent film. The tale’s thrust is pantheistic: The young initiate hunters discover their connection to all living—and inanimate—presences on their planet.

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The audience is enthralled with eye-popping visuals and heart-stopping contortions, all rigged in the best sense. These include giant multi-colored fans emanating from the tails of indigenous creatures, torch fights, acrobatic and athletic contests with poles as weapons, birds flown as kites over the audience, diaphanous, jelly fish-like light trees, and a huge skeletal beast upon which the Na’vi precariously balance. In a thrilling scene the Na’vi warriors clamber up one side of the towering volcano as the projections crumble the rocks beneath them.

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Toruk delivers gorgeous vistas of Pandoran plains and mountains, capped by the final light-bedecked Tree of Souls, as satisfying an apotheosis of son et lumiere as any arena tried to contain. Easily the most theatrical Cirque presentation ever, with all artistry subordinated to a central look and feel, its energy is symbolized by the spry and gymnastic cast, effortlessly rushing about the constantly changing Pandoran landscapes. You might just feel yourself a second kid again.

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photos by Errisson Lawrence

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Toruk – The First in Flight
Cirque du Soleil
reviewed at the United Center in Chicago
tour continues through March, 2017
for dates, cities and tickets, visit Cirque

{ 1 comment }

Stella Rafiei February 16, 2017 at 10:29 pm

Toruk is the worst Cirque du Soleil show I have ever seen. A major disappointment for me and my family. It is very boring and a complete waste of money. I was also so annoyed and frustrated by people walking in and out of the theater throughout the show — never saw it happen with the other Cirque du Soleil shows. They were seating late arrivals more than 50 minutes after the show had started. Last 30 minutes was the best part but the people in front of us nonetheless went out to get popcorn. Will not recommend the show to anyone.

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