Show inspired by 'Avatar' lands in Portland

COURTESY: JESSE FAATZ - Cirque du Soleil's 'Toruk, The First Flight,' set to stage at Moda Center Dec. 7-11, tells the story of the legend of the Toruk, and serves as a prequel to the movie 'Avatar.'Cirque du Soleil’s newest show coming to Portland takes you way back on Pandora, 3,000 years, when the Na’vi first tried to ride the wild animal Toruk, a volcanic eruption endangered the inhabitants and the sacred Tree of Souls, and before humans landed on the moon and Jake Sully’s awakening helped save everything.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” made $2.7 billion at the box office worldwide, still the most ever among blockbusters, and now we get the prequel courtesy of Cirque du Soleil, Dec. 7-11 at Moda Center. The arena spectacular known as “Toruk — The First Flight,” with filmmaker James Cameron serving in an advisory and blessing role, tells the story of the blue-race Na’vi people and their symbiotic relationship with nature generations before Sully fell in love with Neytiri (aka Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in the movie).

It debuted in Montreal, Quebec, home of Cirque du Soleil, in December 2015 and comes here one year later. It’s Cirque du Soleil’s 37th production since 1984.

Michel Lemieux, who along with Victor Pilon created the show, says the premise for “Toruk” was pretty simple: Tell the story of the beginning, the legend of the Toruk, mostly because it would’ve been difficult to simulate space ships in an arena, such as with “Avatar.”

“(Cameron) gave us freedom to invent the story,” Lemieux says. “He let us do what we had in our mind; he didn’t try to direct the show ... But we had to promise him everything in the show had to be ‘real,’ not just a fantasy decoration or having fun with it. And, of course, it needed a narrative.

“James Cameron says that he inspired himself in making the Na’vi and Pandora from the characters of Cirque du Soleil. So it was quite natural for Cirque du Soleil to do a story about the movie. He said to us, ‘This is perfect’ ... At one point he said, ‘I’m jealous that you get to work with this beautiful moon and people.’ He tried to put the most beautiful human characteristics in those blue characters; they’re alien but the best of us.”

COURTESY: JESSE FAATZ - There are 41 acrobats in 'Toruk, The First Flight,' and many animals figures, many of them puppets.There are 41 acrobats in the show, representing five Na’vi clans. It’s a story with circus acts, not just a series of circus acts. It’s about the Na’vi and their animals on Pandora, and the first rider of the large bird-like Toruk — Sully was the sixth rider in “Avatar.”

Projections from about 40 projectors create landscape scenery around the arena — including mimicking waves in the audience. Rather than humans and their dastardly progress, a volcanic eruption creates the drama, which Lemieux points out can be viewed as symbolic given our own planet’s global warming.

Animals are run by puppeteers, who are dressed in black as shadows of the Na’vi on stage. “The biggest puppet is Toruk himself,” Lemieux says. “We said to ourselves, ‘The audience will accept that; it’s more than just computer graphics in a movie.’ ... It’s a mix between multimedia and circus.”

There are also two huge kites. There is the Tree of Souls and other trees, as well as Hallelujah Mountains.

Projections and a downloadable app from audience members’ phones add high-tech appeal to the show.

It’s narrated by a Na’vi storyteller, and fit with cinematic score. The story involves two boys from the Na’vi Omaticaya tribe, Ralu and Entu, joining newfound friend Tsyal to track down the elusive, red-and-orange Toruk, which rules the Pandora sky, in the Floating Mountains. A pure soul rises among the clans to ride Toruk and save the Na’vi from the volcano’s wrath.

Whereas “Avatar” only offered a glimpse of Pandora’s clans, “Toruk” examines the five clans.

“That’s the coolest thing with the artists — an artist will do about two or three clans, they’re changing their apparel and keep their Na’vi costumes and just change headdresses,” says Michael Veilleux, company manager.

Veilleux says that “Toruk” has appealed to fans of Cameron, “Avatar” and Cirque du Soleil.

“Everybody asks him when’s the next movie,” Veilleux says. “I’m glad we’re able to offer this.”

Cameron and Jon Landau have avoided answering questions about the next “Avatar” movie, and whether “Toruk” would be part of the plot development, Veilleux adds.

Cameron visited during the show’s rehearsal and production in Bossier City, La. Stars of the movie, including Portland native Joel David Moore and Sigourney Weaver, have seen the show in Brooklyn, and Saldana and others saw it in Los Angeles.

And Worthington? “We’ll be in Australia next year, and we expect to have a visit from Sam in Australia,” Veilleux says.

For tickets for the Portland shows, Dec. 7-11, go to www.cirquedusoleil/toruk. An app has also been created for the show that allows attendees to take part in the action before, during and after the performance; the app can be downloaded from iTunes.

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