Long before his box office-busting, third dimension-defining film Avatar was released in 2009, James Cameron invited a select group of Cirque du Soleil artists into his Los Angeles studio for a candid chat — primarily, to discuss how the movie he was about to release may suggest how past Cirque shows served as inspiration.
“He said to them, ‘Don’t be surprised, but can we think about a future collaboration on this?’” says director Michel Lemieux, one of the two co-directors of Cirque du Soleil’s ambitious new project based on the world of Cameron’s Avatar films. Almost a decade later, the immersive arena tour TORUK — The First Flight will soft-open on Nov. 12 in Bossier City, Louisiana, prior to its world premiere in Montreal on Dec. 21. Following the debut, it’ll launch a national tour and beyond in 2016.
Toruk formed its first real shape four years ago when Cameron met with Lemieux and co-director Victor Pilon, both of whom have specialized in projection-heavy multimedia storytelling for the past three decades. “He knew our work and gave us a kind of freedom and said, ‘Inspire yourself,” recalls Lemieux, who was attracted to the project’s themes of cultural and natural preservation. “We really concluded at our first meeting that we didn’t want to do a re-enactment of the movie.”
In fact, the storyline of Toruk takes place 3,000 years before the events of Avatar, which followed a group of humans colonizing a lush, dense planet called Pandora — and bringing their cadre of eco-disruptive technology with them. “There’s no humans, there’s no spaceships, no battles,” says Lemieux. Instead, Toruk’s story introduces a Pandora moon under a threat of volcanic eruption, and the ocean-to-mountain travels are entirely, well, organic. “It’s more poetic, less science-fiction,” he promises. “We inspired ourselves on the freedom that Julie Taymor took to adapt — or, really, recreate — The Lion King.”
Animatronics and robots be damned; Toruk will instead utilize puppetry for the natural beasts of Pandora’s ecosystem (detailed in a phonebook-thick encyclopedia which Cameron’s team provided Lemieux and Pilon). Actors and puppeteers — of regular height, not 9-foot stature — play the Na’vi and their black-clad shadows, marking what Lemieux calls a decided change for Cirque du Soleil productions: “It’s new to have an actor onstage talking, to have a show based on story instead of acrobatic acts. There’s a lot of acrobatic in the show, but it’s like narrative acrobatic. Everything has to contribute to the story.”
The story of Avatar continues to expand, as it so happens. In addition to the Cirque prequel, there’s a line of comic books, a theme park based on Pandora, and of course, three ever-looming movie sequels which could happen as soon as 2017, if everything goes to plan.
Until then, Toruk will offer the most immediate delight for Avatar fans — and for Cameron, too, who even stopped by for dress rehearsal in Louisiana just two days ago. “When we presented our story idea to James, he was really happy,” Lemieux recalls. “One of his assistants told us, I haven’t seen Jim smile like that in a long time.’”