Cirque’s ‘TORUK,’ an ‘Avatar’ prequel fit for a stadium

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A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK - The First Flight.” (Photo: Errisson Lawrence)

As I write this, the opening spectacle for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is still a day away from being revealed. But on Wednesday night at the United Center, as I watched “TORUK — The First Flight” — Cirque du Soleil’s multimedia extravaganza inspired by director/writer James Cameron’s blockbuster 2009 film, “Avatar,” – I couldn’t help thinking that the economically challenged Brazilian city could have saved itself a whole lot of money by simply booking this show into its Maracana Stadium.

Be advised: If it is subtle, emotionally moving storytelling you are in search of “TORUK” is not the show for you. This Cirque production shifts dramatically from the exquisite intimacy achieved in “Kurios — A Cabinet of Curiosities,” performed in the company’s trademark tent when it visited Chicago last summer. Instead, this time around, it’s all about stadium-style theatrics, with a good deal of borrowing from Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King,” Handspring Puppet’s “War Horse,” and even that old chestnut, “Stomp.”

And, as devised by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, the show’s writers, directors and multimedia directors, the large cast of nearly three dozen performers (drawn from about 15 different countries) is more focused on suggesting an ancient-meets-high-tech “movie-for-the-live stage” than a series of individual circus acts that thrive on very particularized skills and personalities.

‘TORUK – The First Flight’


When: Through Aug. 7

Where: United Center,

1901W. Madison

Tickets: $42 – $140

Info: (800) 745-3000;

Run time: 2 hours and

5 minutes with one intermission

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight.” (Photo: Jesse Faatz)

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight.” (Photo: Jesse Faatz)

The pseudo-mythic storytelling (with Raymond O’Neill as narrator) can grow more than a little ponderous and repetitive. Set thousands of years before the events depicted in “Avatar,” “TORUK” is populated by half-human/half-beast characters covered in chalky white body paint. These creatures are notable for their tails — all part of costume and makeup designer Kym Barrett’s marvelous work. But their village, an ancient civilization mash-up of pre-Columbian, African and East Asian, by way of set designer Carl Fillion, is actually quite sophisticated in its way.

It is in that village that two friends in the Omatikaya clan – tireless acrobats Ralu (Jeremiah Hughes) and Entu (Guillaume Paquin) – undergo initiation rites that end in the humiliation and self-exile of one. Nevertheless, when it appears that all might be lost as a massive volcanic lava flow threatens their homeland, the two young men are reunited and are befriended by Tsyal (sensational acrobat/aerialist Zoe Sabattie) and are advised by a Shaman (singer Priscillia Le Foll).

The trio learns that only Toruk can save the sacred Tree of Souls that is a cornerstone of their society. But before anything else they must gather five sacred objects. So they embark on a perilous adventure that involves all sorts of beasts, and an escape from the fearsome, acrobatic, spear-carrying Viperwolves, and an encounter with a flock of Banshees. They must cross a perilous mesh-and-rope bridge. And they must balance on the skeletal back of a dragon-like figure (the puppetry work is by Patrick Martel).

And there is more, yet it hardly really matters. It is just fun to watch. And while I’d happily rest among the bio-luminescent jungle of giant, brilliantly-hued flowering plants (one of the show’s most beautiful sequences), who can resist the derring-do of determined climbers rappelling up the face of a steep stone cliff while battling a waterfall and an avalanche? And there is something deeply stirring about the great shifts of terrain – among the many neat optical illusions finessed by the show’s creators, including Neilson Vignola and lighting designer Alain Lortie.

The performers, who probably clock a marathon’s worth of running during the course of each show, form a tight ensemble, with fluid movement (by choreographers Tuan Le and Tan Loc) often replacing the usual sequence of specific “circus acts” that are a part of Cirque shows. Germain Guillemot’s acrobatic performance design and Pierre Masse’s rigging and acrobatic equipment are notably ingenious throughout.

Is there a moral to the story? There are several. Preserve the traditions of your society. Be brave. Forge friendships. And above all, respect nature, for “Toruk” is, in the final analysis, a cautionary tale about what happens if you lose sight of “the interconnectedness of all living things.”

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight.” (Photo: Youssef Shoufan)

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight.” (Photo: Youssef Shoufan)

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