Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Toruk landed in Chicago this week and will be here until this Sunday, August 7, running two shows daily at United Center. Toruk is a giant show with a cast of 41 people. The Na’vi, the humanoid creatures we first met in the Avatar movie are also giant, more than 6 feet tall, which is why so many of the cast members themselves are tall, and even their costumes have been designed to enhance the illusion of length, down to the blue nipples on the body suits being positioned a good deal higher than average. This was explained to me by Lisa as she held up a costume and pointed at the various features during a behind-the-scenes tour the media was invited to on opening day. Besides the lofty nipples, we also got to see the Toruk himself in action, that is the large red dragon you may recall from the movie. Toruk and his six handlers/puppeteers also have to rehearse, especially because there will be a human riding him at one point in the show. The skillful puppeteers were able to make Toruk fly with the grace and power of a predatory bird. And seeing a human ride a dragon is something everyone will want to see at least once with their own eyes.
The backstage peek was colorful, full of fanciful kites, elaborate wigs and bright costumes as well as perplexing props like the Loom- a device that appears in the show as a primitive trampoline wall—but without some of the bounce capacity. While milling around, we had the chance to speak with cast members. Christian Sanchez, who plays the Omatikaya clan chief, gave me some insight about what to expect at the show. “It’s a story that takes place 3000 years before the setting in the Avatar movie, so it’s not a typical Cirque du Soleil show. I think having an open mind when coming to the show will help you enjoy it. It’s exciting because it’s taking a different direction with theater/circus.”
On to the show I went, keeping an open mind and making sure to download the app that Lisa assured me would prompt us during the performance to interact with the show in various ways. It did that very well, enhancing the show by transforming the audience at various times in to a starlit backdrop or a field of menacing viper wolf eyes.
The setting and production values were impeccable and stunning, the combined effect (props and projections) of which transports the audience to Pandora, a lush place full of exotic creatures. The sound and music, and most importantly the words, something rarely experienced at a Cirque du Soleil show, were crystal clear. Fortunately, the narrator speaks in English, because the rest of the performers speak in Na’vi, the authentic constructed language of the Na’vi people.
The story begins with the storyteller, the last member of the Anurai clan, telling us humans a sort of cautionary tale about how the the Na’vi had been careless with their environment and lived to regret it, and perhaps we could gain some insight in to the need for interworld and interspecies connectedness.
Although the message is a bit heavy handed, it is the gateway to the plot, which is thankfully full of action and exuberant circus. Two friends Ralu and Entu are coming of age and must prove their skills as men in order to be welcome among the hunters of the tribe. There is joyous drumming and fun challenges—a sort of hoop diving ball game, as well as Tarzan-like vine swinging and stunts. There is dancing and a big show of the tribal community. The Na’vi walk on two legs and talk and love just like we do. Yet they are also romanticized as nature worshipping creatures—and they have tails and swing from trees. This makes them both human and animal, a premise that could be simply seen as a means to point out the obvious, that even humans are animals and perhaps we have strayed too far from our natures, unlike the Na’vi. But they are also portrayed as both indigenous and primitive while being likened to animals. This emerges looking like a cultural remnant of colonial racism, especially when certain emblems of human culture show up in the Na’vi culture, such as dreadlocks.
Projecting culturally appropriated practices and accoutrements (nature worship, drumming, Mohican headdresses, dreadlocks) on to a fictional culture such as the Na’vi is problematic at times. One could argue that fiction has to do this, borrowing information from real life and adapting it to the story. But fiction does not also have to reinforce stereotypes we collectively hold about indigenous people and project them on to fictitious people, then compare them to animals as if to imply that they were not as evolved as us, and yet admire them as somehow wiser for their willingness to be closer to nature. Of course, Cirque du Soleil did not invent this fictional world, James Cameron did, and he has been criticized for it in the past.
Nonetheless, the main theme behind the original plot of Avatar, as well as behind Toruk, seems to be resilience in the face of danger, stewardship for the environment and a sense of virtue imbued by spirituality. The sense of belonging and connection the Na’vi feel with their world is one that many humans may have forgotten exists between them and earth. So how can we blame the Na’vi for having that and how can we regain it while retaining our humanity? And above all, how can all of that be accomplished with circus?
It turns out it can be done quite effectively, because circus is at its heart an adventure just like a good quest. As Ralu and Entu are sent on the quest to save their world, they come across many other tribes and creatures, all of whom challenge them in unique ways. They search for five sacred items to save their home tree from an earthquake as the Shaman lady instructed them to. They climb poles to avoid a hostile tribe and execute a fluid Chinese pole act. They fly through the air on ropes to avoid carnivorous creatures, and their friend from the Tawkami tribe named Tsyal helps them narrowly avoid disaster by performing gracefully on silks while fetching one of the items required, a flower head. She also fights off the ravenous viperwolves with some impressive stage combat skills. Ralau and Entu run and flip acrobatically throughout the many landscapes, which are enhanced by projections on the floor, walls and sometimes even the audience. At times they ford rivers, cross deserts and face flooding waves from the ocean. Once or twice the show slows down enough for them and us to observe the beauty of their world in quiet awe, but soon they are back one their quest before the earthquake destroys what they care most about.
When the Toruk appears at last, he represents so much to the people that harnessing his power (as when Entu jumps on his back and flies him to the dying tree) is the ultimate sign of sovereignty over nature-the first step in developing control over one’s environment. In many ways, Toruk is a symbolic fantasy, a parable about the strength that will be required of us to succeed in belonging to our world without destroying it due to our environmental greed. This is a big message for a circus company to convey to us, and they conveyed it well by melding a fairy tale story with physical feats that included silks, ropes, trampoline, vertical dance, hand balancing, contortion on a giant skeleton, Chinese pole, kite flying, acrobatics, puppetry and even a two high just so the characters could pet a giant horse like creature. In spite of its issues with cultural appropriation and reverse anthropomorphism, Toruk’s strength lies in the beauty of the world Pandora and the almost dayglow palette of its color scheme as well as the seamless blending of theater with physicality all in the service of a story that aspires to remind humans to cherish their own world more and act before it vanishes.
Tickets start at $45 and Toruk flies away on August 7.