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Cirque du Soleil's 'Toruk' adds storytelling to dazzling visuals

| Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Photo Credit:  Jesse Faatz
Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz
Photo Credit:  Jesse Faatz
Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz
Photo Credit:  Jesse Faatz
Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz

After 36 shows packed with colorful costumes, dazzling designs and astounding acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil is curving in a new direction.

“Toruk,” the company's latest touring show, has added a plot to the company's distinctive brand of entertainment.

Previous Cirque shows relied on a setting or concept as a backdrop or organizing principle for its lavish visual and aural effects and jaw-dropping feats of balance, timing and daring.

But for “Toruk,” Cirque's creative team has added traditional elements of storyline, characters, drama and dialogue while retaining the splashy array of scenery, lighting and gymnastics that its audiences expect.

“We could rely on what we know best,” says Fabrice Lemire, the artistic director who is responsible for maintaining the show's artistic integrity, concept and content as well as overseeing the performers and the artistic team. “But we have to reinvent ourselves. It's important to reach out to a new demographic of audiences.”

That demographic clearly includes fans of “Avatar.”

Inspired by James Cameron's 2009 movie that introduced audiences to the world of Pandora and its blue-skinned inhabitants, the Na'vi, the show's writers, directors and multimedia directors, Michael Lemieux and Victor Pilon, created “Toruk” as a prequel to “Avatar.” The live journey transports the audience to Pandora 3,000 years before the arrival of humans and the events depicted in “Avatar.”

The story Lemieux and Pilon created focuses on Ralu and Entu, two Omaticaya boys nearing adulthood who set out to prevent a natural catastrophe that will destroy the Tree of Souls.

The boys know the legend indicates that the coming destruction can be prevented if a pure soul succeeds in riding Toruk, the large red and orange predator who rules the sky above Pandora.

After enlisting their friend, Tsyal, they travel through the Floating Mountains to find Toruk and save the Na'vi.

“It's a simple story, easy to follow,” Lemire says.

The Na'vi speak dialogue in their own language, “There is text and there are words (accompanied by) physical action so you don't need to understand the language,” Lemire says.

There's also a character who serves as an English-speaking narrator to update and guide the audience. “He's like a storyteller,” Lemire explains.

What makes “Toruk” revolutionary for Cirque is that the performers now use their skills of balance, strength, gymnastics and tumbling as characters to support and advance the storyline.

“This is the first show where acrobats are asked to play not only the physical performance but speak a language completely invented for this and driven by emotion,” Lemire says. “We had to find more generalist performers who were not only acrobats but were open to do anything you want and react more as part of the ensemble of the show.”

The changes also required the show's creators to devise ways to integrate elements such as putting a trapeze act into the storyline. Those elements continue to evolve, Lemire says.

“We like to create, then go out and evaluate the effect on audiences,” he says. “We continue to add on acrobatic elements. The show (coming to) Pittsburgh is already different from the one that opened in Montreal in late December.”

While Lemire is excited about the additions of plot, dialogue and characters, he emphasizes that the creators of “Toruk” also are pushing the boundaries on the effects and elements that Cirque fans already know and love.

“The audience wants to see the wow factor of the show,” he says.

Projections on the floor and a massive back wall crate lava flows and waterfalls. Canoes drift along misty streams. The story's young adventurers travel across craggy landscapes. A kite soars in a windless arena. Fearsome and exotic beasts pose challenges.

“It's all put into place to create a unique show,” Lemire says. “Now it's time for the audience to come in with an open mind and to look with a different eye and to escape into an adventure without any idea of what to expect.”

Alice Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Toruk app

Cirque du Soleil's “Toruk — The First Flight” may be the one show that does not remind its audience to turn off their cell phones.

In fact, those attending are encouraged to enhance their experience by keeping them on.

Using technology created by SAP, Cirque's official global business management software supplier, the two companies have created an app that offers enhanced engagement before, during and after the show.

Throughout the performance, spectators with the app will receive a personalized experience delivered directly to their mobile device.

Examples include: “Toruk”-inspired special effects such as fireflies on spectator's mobile screens that are stimulated by touch, viperwolf eyes illuminated on screen, thunder and lightning effects that push vibrations to the phones and interactive woodsprites that users can take home with them after the show.

Before spectators even arrive at the arena, they can use the mobile app to receive ticket and show information and immerse themselves into the world of Pandora to learn more about the characters and mythical storyline inspired by James Cameron's movie “Avatar.”

After the show, spectators can continue to engage with “Toruk” through interactive images, videos and content that extends their experience.

The recently updated app is available at no cost, through the Apple Store and Google Play.

— Alice T. Carter

Science center show

Performers from Cirque du Soleil's “Toruk” will be at the Carnegie Science Center on June 21.

From 11 a.m. to noon, visitors can watch performers in full costume in the center's Rangos Omnimax Theater lobby interact with and build structures out of blocks from the “Blue!” exhibit. Guests also can participate in special themed activities from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The “Toruk” event is included with general admission of $19.95, $11.95 for ages 3 to 12.

Details: 412-237-3400 or carnegiesciencecenter.org

Na'vi for Beginners

All the characters in “Toruk — The First Flight” speak in Na'vi, the language of their civilization.

It's not necessary to know the language to know what's happening. The actors who play the characters let the audience know what's being said and the emotions they are experiencing through their gestures, body movements and the tones and pitch of their words.

There's also a narrator who speaks English and helps guide the audience through the show's story.

But if you'd like to learn some Na'vi before going to see the show, here's some easy sentences to get you started:

My name is ...: Oeru syaw...

What is your name?: Fyape fko syaw ngar?

I am happy to see you again: Oel ngati tse'eia nìmun.

Thank you: Irayo

Catch me if you can: Stä'nì oet, txo tsun

Give it to me: Ting tsat oer

Here it is: Ngaru fì'ut

Are you all right?: Ngari frawzo srak?

Let me help you: Oe ngar srung sivi ko.

Run for your life: Tul fte rivey

Where do we go?: Awnga zene kivä peseng?

The Tree of Souls is in danger: Fko kxap si Vitrautralur

Source: Cirque du Soleil

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