Arts & Theater

Cirque du Soleil changes formula with ‘Toruk: The First Flight’

It takes 27 semi-truck trailers to move all the equipment used in Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight.”
It takes 27 semi-truck trailers to move all the equipment used in Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight.” Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil has to be one of the most successful marriages of alternative art and commerce ever.

Formed in 1984, the group of Canadian street artists deconstructed the traditional idea of a circus. They rebuilt it as a “contemporary circus,” emphasizing human performance and classical clowning without performing animals, and became the largest theatrical producer in the world.

The company’s 37th production, “Toruk: The First Flight,” comes to Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center on Nov. 30-Dec. 4.

Toruk inhabits the world suggested by James Cameron’s 2009 fantasy film “Avatar,” but the show is not at all “Avatar on stage.”

Cameron’s record-breaking science fiction fantasy film is set in the mid-22nd century, when humans are colonizing a moon called Pandora in order to obtain minerals there. The mining activity threatens a tribe of indigenous humanoid species called Na’vi.

“Toruk” takes place thousands of years before the events of the film, before humans ever come to Pandora.

Cirque du Soleil (in French it means Circus of the Sun) has been integrating narrative storytelling into its acrobatic spectacles for several years, but for “Toruk” it has partnered for the first time with an outside creative organization to produce a show.

The show came together under the artistic guidance of Cirque co-founder Guy Laliberté and chief creative guide Jean-François Bouchard, who along with James Cameron and his Lightstorm Entertainment creative team led 13 creative designers on the project.

“You have a marriage of two big fish,” French-born traveling artistic director Fabrice Lemire said of the Cirque-Cameron collaboration.

The show was written and directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, who are also the multimedia directors and, according to Lemire, the heart and soul of “Toruk.”

“The audience will be led by a narrator who is going to speak our language, and he is going to be a bridge for us to make us better understand as we go along,” Lemire said.

The technical visuals by Lemieux and Pilon go hand in hand with the narration.

“Michel and Victor are the genius of visuals,” said Lemire. “This is their forte. The narration was the driving force, but we also have the visual impact.”

Lemire first came onto the project as assistant director during its formative stages and wondered how the theatrical production could do justice to the lush, intricate jungle landscape of the film, which was hailed at the time for its technological innovations.

“What Michel and Victor delivered its exactly in line with what the movie created. The universe James Cameron created is completely on stage,” Lemire said.

“The arena floor is a beautiful landscape, which will continue to evolve as you go along from one scene to the next.”

“Here we have very much a driven storytelling narrative and even though we have done a little of this before, it’s the first time where we have a thread which takes you through the journey,” Lemire said. “We are not just relying on acrobatics and stunts to entertain our audience. We are going to look outside the box and see what else is available here which fits the universe of James Cameron.”

The technical requirements needed to create the world of “Toruk” are overwhelming. There are 41 artists and more than 40 technicians traveling with the show full time. The tour uses 27 semi-truck trailers to haul its equipment around the world. Lemire, who joined Cirque du Soleil in 2008, always travels with the company, as his responsibilities are maintaining the artistic integrity of the concept and content of the show as well as overseeing the performers and artistic team.

Lemire has to make sure all the elements are intact from city to city. Most Cirque du Soleil shows consist of a series of acts, any one of which can replaced or eliminated for either technical or personnel reasons. But because “Toruk” has an interlocking story, it’s a much more difficult proposition to substitute elements.

“I don’t have that much flexibility because every single part in the show has a single purpose in the narrative and the flow and the pacing of the show,” Lemire said.

He believes the collaboration with Cameron and the embrace of technology to create new shows are symbolic of Cirque du Soleil staying innovative after 30 years.

“We will always be alert to what’s available and test it and try it,” Lemire said. “It’s the way performing arts stay alive.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Toruk: The First Flight

What: A new touring production by Cirque du Soleil inspired by the James Cameron film “Avatar.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Nov. 30-Dec. 1; 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2; 4 and 8 p.m Saturday, Dec. 3; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4.

Where: Golden 1 Center, 500 David J Stern Walk, Sacramento

Cost: $25-$215