The Tipani tribe surround Ralu, Entu and Tsyal. (photo: Errisson Lawrence, costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil)
At first, the marriage of Cirque du Soleil and James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar might not sound like the most obvious match. Being immersed in Cirque du Soleil’s rendition of the Na’vi village of the Omaticaya in their new multimedia spectacle, Toruk: The First Flight (at the Forum through Jan. 15), for just a few moments, however, erases any doubts one may have had.
Fans of the film can instantly recognize the mannerisms and language of the Na’vi, as well as the colorful flora and fauna of the universe Cameron created on the imaginary planet of Pandora. You don’t need to have seen Avatar to enjoy Toruk: The First Flight, though. Since it takes place many years before the occurrences that take place in the movie, it firmly stands on its in own. What is common to both is the vibrant spirit of creativity that flows from beginning to end.
If you are an Avatar newbie, Toruk will most likely make you want to see the film. The couple behind me were so engrossed in Cirque du Soleil’s production that the woman spent the entire intermission excitedly telling her boyfriend, who had never seen Cameron’s movie in 2009, its major plot points.
Toruk really does grab your attention from the get-go, from high-flying acrobats and captivating puppetry to elaborate, glow-in-the-dark costume pieces and innovative lighting and projection techniques. The scene that introduces Pandora is full of high-energy drums and acrobats contorting their bodies as they hang from aerial silks all taking place on the central Island set piece of the show. Since the Na’vi have their own language, the audience isn’t able to understand what they’re saying to one another through their words. The actors must communicate through their body language, which they effectively do.
As the Omaticaya’s giant loom comes into view, the audience meets a pair of Na’vi teens, the brave and passionate Ralu and his best friend, Entu, a spunky orphan. The two have just begun the ritual to become adult hunters in the tribe when an earthquake shakes Pandora, enciting the Omaticaya shaman to have a vision. She sees a sea of flames engulfing the sacred Tree of Souls, the lifeline of all the Na’vi people, unless they can find a way to list the help of the giant flying predator that rules Pandora’s sky, Toruk. Ralu and Entu decide to take matters into their own hands to visit the other four Na’vi tribes to collect a sacred talisman from each that will aid them in their quest of finding and convincing Toruk to help them save the tree and their civilization.
As they venture into other areas of the planet, we see exactly how innovative Cirque du Soleil’s creative team is in utilizing each and every surface of the set in the show. Plants magically appear from the floor, the teens leave a colorful trail behind them with each footstep through the jungle, and we’re transported to the colorful village of the Tawkami. Here, the boys befriend Tsyal, who helps them obtain a seed from her tribe’s sacred flower that they can use to appease Toruk and decides to run off with them to join the adventure.
As the trio of young Na’vi rest after traveling, the audience watches the Anurai tribe’s thrilling dance upon a huge Thanator sculpture as they navigate the stars. Once the ceremony is over, Ralu, Entu and Tsyal grab the Anurai’s horn, which they’ll use to call Toruk.
Next they encounter a pack of vicious Viperwolves (depicted through the use of big yet intricate puppets) and are saved by the valiant Tipani tribe. These warriors are menacing as the leap from tall poles with their hunting spears and staffs, and their chief is reluctant to just hand over their totem, a shield constructed from a sacred shell. So he assigns two of his men to accompany the three youths home. Instead of returning to their villages, they meet up with the final Na’vi tribe, the Kekunan, who maneuver high-flying kites on their cliffs above the ocean. The Kekunan are eager to help, offering their talisman and guide the friends up into the mountains so they can call Toruk.
I won’t give away the ending, except to say that Cirque du Soleil did an exceptional job of bringing the Tree of Souls to life. Its branches are covered in thousands of LED lights, and as its seeds float in the air, the entire image – just like the entire show – is simply magical.
Toruk: The First Flight is at the Forum in Inglewood Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 14 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., Jan. 15 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit cirquedusoleil.com/TORUK.