The Passing Spectacle Vol. V – No. 7

The Circus Skills Seen In Toruk Seem Perfectly “Natural”

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In the previous issue, Spectacle’s Chicago correspondent Kim Campbell provided readers with her impressions of Cirque du Soleil’s newest and most successful arena production, a “live immersive experience” called Toruk, which was “inspired” by  James Cameron’s 3D film extravaganza Avatar. Thompson gave us a thorough description and good understanding of everything that transpires on stage as well as backstage (and there’s a lot going on in both departments) in this vast and sumptuous production that combines live action with extensive use of multimedia, puppets of all sizes, extravagant story telling and  circus skills.

Last month Toruk played two engagements in the New York metropolitan area, so I got to see it for myself at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center.  While there is no need to provide an alternate view of the show ( I concur entirely with Thompson’s evaluation) I did want to add my thoughts on the impressively innovative and imaginative way the show’s creators have made use of  one aspect of its many faceted ingredients—circus skills.

In order to achieve the immersion the show’s press release touts, the show’s creators needed to combine all that spectacle and story telling with various circus arts in a way that was totally unified and of a single piece.  And what most impressed me about this production was the subtle ways in which the creative people, Michael Lemieux and Victor Pilon who are credited as show writers, directors and multimedia directors, made circus skills look as if they were native to this strange world of Pandora in which the action takes place instead of seeming to be some alien imposition from another world.

Among the circus skills exhibited either in brief flashes or in extended form there is hoop diving, trampoline and trapeze, Chinese poles, silks, teeterboard, hand balancing, contortion, and straps.  The latter two skill sets are presented rather traditionally, making them in some ways the least interesting of the circus skills, especially in this highly novel context.  In the case of the hand balancing/contortion, for instance, interest lay mainly in the phantasmagorical rigging on which the act is performed.  A structure made out of the skeletal remains of a pre-historic creature looks at first as if it were going to be used as a teeterboard.  Instead it became the platform for a featured hand balancing/contortion act.  Here it’s not what you do or even how you do it, it’s the context of what you do that matters.

For the other circus skills the rigging on which they are performed gives the acts an entirely new look and feeling. The hoop diving is accomplished through larger than normal-sized hoops fastened onto the shoulders of one of the acrobats who ran in circles in opposition to the diver who approached him at full speed.  This movement is what accounts for the out-sized hoops.  Stationary hoops allow little room for error.  Here, since both the diver and the hoop are in full motion at the same time there is greater possibility of error, and a need for large size hoops.  Despite that alteration the diving was thrilling to watch because of the speed involved.

A trampoline act combines a series of trapezes all of which are designed to look as if they were primitive improvisations the Pandora inhabitants had concocted to amuse themselves. It had the same amusing effect on us in the audience.

The act that made me sit up and pay it extra attention was the work on the Chinese poles. Instead of being anchored at both the floor and its top, these poles utilize a ball and socket pivoting connection to the floor that worked as if it were a knee.  The cable at its top allowed  the poles the freedom to swing in a 360 degree arc.  There is also a joint in the middle that allows the poles to bend at a 60 degree angle All this extra movement combined with the work of the acrobats as the poles swung around added a great detail of visual excitement to a display that is ordinarily rather static.

The exotic environment also invited the use of other specialties that seem entirely at home here.  In addition to the numerous acrobatic fight sequences there is an overly long segment of drum beating and an endlessly fascinating collection of puppets of all sizes and shapes, many of which assume animal form.  Obviously to be truly believable a world needs to have animals. There were also some spectacular kites and an impressive display of controlling boomerangs.

So while the visual elements of the production often threaten to overwhelm the production and our senses, all these various elements involving human ingenuity served to keep us emotionally involved and excited.22875_toruk-img_7790_original

Judging from the various expressions of creativity on display in this remarkable production, Cirque du Soleil’s 37th, the creative staff is perforce quite extensive.  In addition to the already noted Michael Lemieux and Victor Pilon, others who made significant contributions were director of creation Nelison Vignola; sets and props designer Carl Fillion; costume and makeup designer Kym Barrett;  choreographers Tuan Le and Tan Loc; composers and musical directors Bill and Bob; sound designer Jacques Boucher; lighting designer Alain Lortie;  puppet designer Patrick Martel; acrobatic performance designer Germain Guillemot; rigging and acrobatic equipment designer Pierre Masse.

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Photos by Errisson Lawrence