Cirque du Soleil’s TORUK – The First Flight

Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show, TORUK – The First Flight, comes to Indianapolis August 10-14 and will be presented at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Inspired by the immensely popular movie AVATAR, the Cirque du Soleil team worked closely with Director James Cameron to develop a narrative story that takes place 3,000 years earlier on the planet Pandora. The audience is introduced to the Na’vi culture through a storyteller and three main characters, who are on a quest to find TORUK, a predator ruler of the Pandoran sky.

Contrary to traditional stage performances where the audience watches in front of the production, TORUK aims to immerse patrons into the show. This is accomplished through pioneering technology and a downloadable app that allows viewers to interact with the scenery. For the duration of the performance, the audience is transported away from their seats and into the magical TORUK world.

Making TORUK possible are Cirque du Soleil’s production team and wardrobe department. Production Manager Thomas Duchaine and Wardrobe Assistant Ali Schwalbe recently spoke with Pattern about their backgrounds and involvement in TORUK.

Please describe your background and how you started working for Cirque du Soleil.

Thomas Duchaine: I’ve been with Cirque du Soleil for the past 18 years. I’ve done other Cirque shows, including big tops and arenas. I’m a sound engineer, which involves being active in the creative process. My role eventually evolved into a production manager position, where I manage the tech team. This includes equipment travel and all things needed to achieve the show.

Ali Schwalbe: I started thinking about a career in fashion, so I attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College where I learned technical sewing. In 2009, KOOZA, a Cirque du Soleil Big Top show, set up in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was hired as local help for that show and another one a year later. I then received a temporary contract and eventually got picked up full time.

What is the creative process when working with this type of stage production?

TD: It’s a big process. We always start with a basic concept and explore the idea. We have some guidelines to begin with, and then explore it in regards to sets and movement. It kind of forms into itself, sometimes taking up to four years. If you have many ideas to explore, why not explore them all? When you choose one, make sure it’s the right one. For TORUK, we started with a storyline and worked with James Cameron and the film AVATAR. This one was the shortest timeframe, taking 16 weeks to develop.

TORUK is different from other Cirque du Soleil shows in regards to it having a narrative storyline. Was the development different from other shows or more challenging?

TD: It was different, but not necessarily more challenging. Sometimes it was easier because you knew where you were going in the creative process. You have to modify the storyline if you find it’s not working. You’re free, but at the same time you have to respect where you’re going. For other Cirque du Soleil shows, it’s a longer process. There’s still a storyline, but they leave more to the audience’s imagination. In TORUK, there are three characters, five clans, and a lot of history in the background. It’s more than the story. All the artists learned the Na’vi language and are speaking it. It’s a world in itself – the Na’vi world and Pandora. We pushed it to the limit.

What was it like working with the performers and the costumes?

AS: It was really fun and the artists are really nice. The performers have to do acrobatics and we have to work with them and try to make it easy for them. We had to create tails and they had to learn how to use them. We tried magnets inside the tails, but they ended up not working well. It’s all trial and error. We had to create costumes in a no fabric world and needed to have costumes that looked like bodies. This even included having to make the torsos higher, which gave the characters an elongated look.

What is the process of merging technology with the costumes and the performers?

TD: We use a technology called Black Trax that is placed inside the costumes, which are little hidden beacons. In the past, you had to have an operator that would follow the performers on stage. For TORUK, it would have required many operators because there’s so much to follow. Black Trax maps their position with spotlights and movie lights. It will follow the artists without operators having to track them. It’s very stabilized and accurate. The audience doesn’t see the technology, they just follow the performer. For scenery changes, video transforms the set from a desert to a field of yellow and red flowers to sandy beaches. It’s very realistic. The show’s quality and the costumes pop out with the lights.

AS: It was a lot of teamwork and we worked really closely with lighting. We had to hide the wires, which was tricky considering the performers are wearing body suits. We also had to devise a system so we don’t wash the wires. That was difficult at first, but now we have a good system.

Can you describe your emotions when you first saw TORUK come together?

TD: When we first rehearsed it, the video wasn’t ready and it was all in grey. We worried how it would look later. Once we had the video, I was amazed how it looked as the lighting and sound morphed everything together.

AS: When the video and projections came on and everyone came out, it was incredible. The water came out and it looked like actual water. Without projection, everything is just grey, but when it’s lit up, it looks incredible.

In other shows, the first thing you hear is ‘please turn off your cell phone.’ TORUK is breaking the rules and encourages the audience to download an app and become interactive with the show. Why did the show decide to create an app and do you see this as a trend in live stage performances?

TD: We want to incorporate the audience into the actual show. If they show the app to others, then even more people can be involved. There’s a storm in the beginning of Act 2 where the audience can interact with the lighting and sound. It’s pretty cool when people download the app and get involved. Yes, it’s a trend and we’re seeing this more and more in entertainment. I believe U2 did it and more people are going towards it. Why not let the audience play and enjoy it?

What do you hope the TORUK audience takes away from the show?

TD: That it’s big and very interesting and something worth seeing in a lifetime. Go online and watch the videos to see if it perks up your interest. TORUK is something that no one else has done before.

AS: I hope they are taken away to the world of Pandora and swept away in the magic.

What advice do you have for those who want to pursue a career in stage production or theatrical costumes?

TD: Everything is possible. You can’t go into it thinking there are limitations. If there is an idea or if it’s your idea, you have to try it. You have to find a solution and there are always solutions. It’s not easy, but it’s fascinating and you have to tell yourself it’s possible.

AS: It’s really important to learn the basics. Learn sewing and how things are constructed. Even if you don’t wind up doing sewing or construction, you will work with those who do. People who know these skills will go a lot further.

Photo courtesy of ERRISSON LAWRENCE PHOTOGRAPHY.

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