June 16

Toruk — The First Flight worth seeing at Infinite Energy Arena


By: Jon Gallo

Published: Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Infinite Energy Arena will be transformed this week into a moon named Pandora that’s home to blue-skinned creatures who will be fighting for their existence against a monster out for blood.

The transformation will be impressive for a venue that’s normally home to the Atlanta Gladiators, concerts and musicals. One minute, the arena’s floor will look like a river before it switches to a lava field while the Na’vi scurry up a massive tree and flip across rocks to escape danger.

Welcome to “Toruk — The First Flight” — Cirque du Soleil’s show inspired by director James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster movie “Avatar,”which generated more than $2.78 billion at the worldwide box office to make it the highest-grossing film of all time.

But “Toruk — The First Flight” isn’t “Avatar II.” This version takes place 5,000 years before the movie, as two young warriors — Ralu and Entu — try to save their people after a natural disaster threatens to kill the planet’s lifeline, the sacred Tree of Souls.

Replicating a major motion picture with a live-action show is difficult. But the technology used in “Toruk — The First Flight” makes the show visually spectacular, perhaps unlike anything the Duluth venue has ever hosted.

The Tree of Souls is 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall, and the total projection surface, which includes the stage floor, two lateral screens and the Tree of Souls, is about 20,000 square feet, which is more than five times the size of a standard IMAX screen. The show uses 38 video projectors — 22 for the stage floor, eight to send projections into the audience, six for the Tree of Souls and two for the lateral screens.

“The projectors are amazing because we can change the environment so quickly. We can go from a lava field to a rainforest in a matter of seconds,” said Gabriel Christo, who plays Ralu. “It creates a very immersive show for the audience.”

The 35-member cast, which is small for one of the company’s shows, is in constant motion throughout the two-act show that takes place 5,000 years before the movie.

But “Toruk — The First Flight” uses more than technology to set it apart from the rest of Cirque du Soleil’s shows. It focuses on telling a story instead of using words to bridge amazing circus acts that highlight shows such as “Ovo,” “Amaluna,” “Joy” and “Varekai,” which played at the arena last summer. “Toruk — The First Flight” also evolves Cirque du Soleil into another genre, one vastly different than basing shows on Michael Jackson and The Beatles.

The Storyteller, voiced by Raymond O’Neill, narrates in English how Ralu and Entu try to save their civilization. However, the Na’vi speak their fictional dialect.

“It’s a lot more acting for me, which is challenging because I want the audience to believe I’m Ralu,” said Christo, who held mainly acrobatic roles since joining Cirque du Soleil more than seven years ago.

The characters’ costumes, which include the Na’vis’ flowing dreadlocks, are so detailed Cameron could begin shooting Avatar II on the spot. The acrobatics, which are fluid and choreographed, are as good as in any Cirque du Soleil show.

One-hundred fifteen costumes are used in the show, an average of 3.3 per performer. The costume department, which needed 437 yards of fabric and 120 fishing rods just to create the flowers, created more than 1,000 pieces, including shoes and jewelry.

And then there are the puppets, a collection of animals and birds that bound across the landscape or soar above the audience. And none are bigger than the humongous Toruk, the dragon-like flying monster that requires six cast members so it can fly across the set.

“There are no hand puppets or finger puppets here,” puppeteer Nick Barlow said. “The puppets we use are massive.”