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Chicago gymnast’s dream comes true in ‘Avatar’-inspired Cirque

Chicago gymnast Stacey Magiera, 34, is currently touring with Cirque du Soleil's "TORUK: The First Flight" — her third outing with the performing troupe. | Talia Beechick/Sun-Times

Cirque du Soleil’s “Avatar”-inspired show “TORUK: The First Flight” features Chicago star gymnast Stacey Magiera fighting off viper wolves on Chinese poles, balancing on a spinning skeleton and performing an aerial rope act. And that’s just a sampling of what you’ll encounter in the latest production from the Montreal-based company when it arrives here next week.

“It’s so cool,” Magiera said, with a huge smile, during a recent Chicago visit. “I have always wanted to go on a touring show. This show is in North America this year, but it’s going to go international starting next year. It is so much fun seeing all different cities I’ve never seen before.”

Cirque du Soleil — ‘TORUK: The First Flight’

When: Aug. 3-7

Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison

Tickets: $45-$115


Magiera, 34, grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago and began training at the American Academy of Gymnastics in Wheeling when she was seven. She attended Barrington High School, where she served as the gymnastic team’s captain her junior and senior years. Magiera then went on to compete in Division I gymnastics at University of Illinois at Chicago before performing in Cirque de la Mer in San Diego, where she expanded her repertoire of stunts and tricks.

“At that point I only had a gymnastics background, so at Cirque de la Mer they taught me Chinese poles, flying trapeze into the water, high dives and tumbling,” Magiera said.

Pairing the video footage from that show and her previous gymnastics competitions, Magiera made an audition tape and sent it to Cirque du Soleil.

She didn’t hear back for more than a year.

Stacey Magiera in Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK — The First Flight.” | PHOTO BY THIERRY BALLANGE
Stacey Magiera in Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK — The First Flight.” | PHOTO BY THIERRY BALLANGE

“I was living in Alaska, and I was ice-fishing when I got the call,” Magiera said, laughing. “I had moved there for about a year to hang out with [my sister]. I was coaching gymnastics and training every day in the hopes to get a call from Cirque.”

The troupe asked if Magiera could be at their training headquarters in Montreal the following week, and she enthusiastically said yes. But she had to face one more obstacle before her dream became a reality.

“The day before my plane left, a volcano erupted in Alaska and it grounded all of the planes,” she explained. “It was my dream to be in Cirque du Soleil, and I was stuck because of a volcano!”

“TORUK” is Magiera’s third show with Cirque du Soleil, after performing in the troupe’s “Viva Elvis” and “KA” shows in Las Vegas. “TORUK” features 41 performers and is a prequel that occurs thousands of years before “Avatar.” The show premiered in December in Montreal, with the film’s director, James Cameron, in attendance.

“He said it was really cool for him to see his creation of the movie come to real life,” Magiera said of Cameron. “It’s a story told through acrobatics, projections, life-size puppets and kites. The projections bring the world to life, it takes you through different environments— through the forest, then you’re in the mountains, then you’re in the desert, then there’s a waterfall… it really feels like you are part of that world.”

For Fabrice Lemire, the production’s artistic director, this is also one of his favorite elements of the show — how it submerges the audience in the fantasy world.

“You get transported from the start to the end,” Lemire said in a separate phone interview. “Today, in 2016, what is happening in the world, what we see in the news… when you go to the production, you can escape.”

Lemire emphasized the show is more than spectacular stunts — it has a larger message for viewers to take away.

“The message is if we get together and we accept our differences, we can move mountains, we can change the world,” Lemire explained. “Let’s accept differences, let’s not hate each other… I hope people take this home with them and perhaps look at life differently.”

Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight” uses projections, kites, puppets and acrobatics to recreate the magical world of “Avatar.” | Errisson Lawrence photo
Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight” uses projections, kites, puppets and acrobatics to recreate the magical world of “Avatar.” | Errisson Lawrence photo

Lemire is a professional dancer from Paris, who began working as a dance master and artistic director with Cirque du Soleil in 2008. “TORUK” is the fourth production he has worked on with the troupe.

“This time we look outside the box at what we call the ‘wow factor,'” Lemire said, citing their use of technology as one change from previous shows. “Also, for the first time, we have a narration. The leads are miked and are speaking a language that is not their language. I am asking a physical artist — an acrobat — to be a verbal performer.”

Despite their grueling schedule of visiting one city per week, the performers have two or three days to enjoy each location. This involved a cast trip to Disney World before their Tampa, Fla., performance, and a camping trip in the Smoky Mountains before their show in Duluth, Ga.

“I am so excited to perform in Chicago and have all my family and friends come, and all my old coaches and gymnastics friends come,” Magiera said. “I’ve never performed a circus-type show in Chicago.”

While on the road, Magiera warms up with some cardio, does body weight conditioning on a rope and stretches.

“I love working with Cirque du Soleil,” Magiera said. “I’ve been making sure to keep my body healthy so I can do this as long as I can.”