Thousands of years before the events of James Cameron’s Avatar, the Tree of Souls is in danger. Two Na’vi boys from the Omatikaya clan (ancestors of the clan we met in the film) set out on a fantastical journey to find the majestic bird Toruk, believing the creature is the secret to their tree’s salvation.
According to their legend, a worthy Na’vi will fly the Toruk and will save the Tree of Souls from the natural disaster heading it’s way. The show is an origin story of sorts for the film, though both can easily exist independently. This Cirque Du Soleil creation has enough elements that ties it into Avatar, without alienating first-time audiences.
The plot is really more of a thread for the audience to follow, or an outline that sets up one stunt after another. Characters only speak in Na’vi sentences, with only the narrator speaking in English. There are no supertitles around for us to know what they’re saying to each other; we don’t have to understand, we only have to watch.
The true language spoken, is movement. This is where the performers excel. Their physicality—aided by costumes and make-up—transform them unmistakably into Na’vis.
The show was able to relay storytelling and even emotion through acrobatic movement and choreography. In one early scene, one of the Na’vi boys approach the Tree of Voices, asking for guidance before his big quest. On a rope meant to be a link connecting him with the tree, he performs acrobatic stunts in a solo number that was nearly emotional.
Surprisingly, the lack of substantive plot does not work against the show at all. In fact, its slowest moments are when the Na’vi performers had to act. It’s challenging to connect with any of the characters emotionally anyway, as an arena is hardly the place for any intimate storytelling.
While it was nearly impossible to tell which Na’vi is which from most seats, the five different clans depicted are distinct from each other through costumes. One clan wore flowing colorful capes that make them look like dragonflies, while another clan wore green and yellow shields on their backs that made them look like colorful beetles. Each clan’s look is inspired by nature, as is their way. As the Na’vi boys meet these 5 clans, their time with each is marked by distinct choreographed numbers and acrobatic feats.
MOA’s arena floor is transformed into the base of what would later on come to life. Under stark house lights, it is all gray, with a flat center stage piece and two moving pieces upstage that look like an unfinished sculpture of a tree stump. It is bare on first sight, which makes its transformations all the more impressive once the show begins.
Pandora itself is a character in “Toruk: The First Flight”, and perhaps it is the most radiant one. It comes alive mostly through floor projections, and such is Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s creation that the whole thing almost feels like post-augmented reality. Creatures move in a real, physical—yet otherworldly—space created through technology.
The Pandora you witness is science, technology, nature, and art, in utter harmony. The multimedia element of the show is so well-crafted, that it almost doesn’t betray that its projections aren’t real at all. The performers, along with large scale puppets and kites depicting Pandora’s alien creatures, deftly move within this environment. They are so well-blocked and well-choreographed, the world feels big and alive.
The projections particularly excelled at water. A stream trickles through the stage in a scene and a canoe enters, barely betraying the fact that there’s no water in the show at all. Waves start from the audience, crashing against cliffs and performers on stage act as though washed against them. The Na’vi climb up a projected mountain and mime breaking it open and the water comes in well-timed bursts.
As audience, it feels as though you are a visitor safely ensconced in your spaceship, observing the Na’vi in their natural habitat. Cirque Du Soleil’s “Toruk” feels like the future of live entertainment, and it’s a total spectacle.