'Avatar' movie gets Cirque du Soleil treatment

Posted at 12:32 PM, Apr 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-30 12:32:24-04

Lots of kids threaten to run away to join the circus.

Caitlin Madden actually did it.

Cincinnati native and Ursuline Academy graduate Caitlin Madden is a carpenter on the new Cirque du Soleil production, “Toruk – The First Flight.”

The Ursuline Academy graduate wasn’t looking for just any circus, though. After all, she had earned a degree in theater technology from the University of Notre Dame and gone on to tour with “Blue Man Group,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Shrek The Musical.”

So last year, when the opportunity arose to join Cirque du Soleil’s newest and most technologically advanced production – “Toruk – The First Flight” – she jumped at the chance.

“It’s a fabulous show,” said Madden, who is officially a carpenter with the show. “And it’s massive.”

And, best of all, the show is coming to U.S. Bank Arena, performing seven shows from May 4 to May 8.

When Madden said “massive,” she was not exaggerating.

“I was accustomed to working on shows that toured with four to six semis filled with equipment,” she said. “This show has 27 semis. I’ve never worked on anything like it.”

Small Cast, Detailed Plot

But then, what would you expect from a show that is a prequel to James Cameron’s Oscar-winning film “Avatar”? Like the film, “Toruk” is set on the moon Pandora. But since this story takes place thousands of years before the arrival of humans, it is populated solely by the Na’vi people. You remember them – the blue, human-like characters who gave “Avatar” so much of its distinctive look.

Interestingly, this show features one of Cirque’s smaller casts, with just 39 performing artists involved. But because of the technological demands of the show, which demands a hockey-rink-sized space, more than 60 technicians and stage personnel are involved.

“It was a different type of creation process for us,” said the show’s spokeswoman, Lauren Silverman. “For one thing, it is a theatrical show instead of an acrobatic show.”

Typically, Cirque shows have only the sketchiest of plots that serve as an umbrella for a series of remarkable acrobatic acts. But “Toruk” has a highly developed plot -- so much so, in fact, that the show has a narrator, the only character who speaks in English. (The rest speak Na’vi.)

Another factor was the addition of moviemaker Cameron to the creative team. He wasn’t so much involved in the day-to-day development of the production as he was in setting in place the highly codified social and natural structure of life and society on Pandora.

“Everything in ‘Toruk’ was approved by James Cameron and by Jon Landau, who produced the film with him,” said Silverman. “I believe there is another film that is planned and there are definitely new elements in this show that could end up in future movies.”

Lighting Moves to Next Level

Lighting has always played a big part in Cirque productions. But with “Toruk,” Cirque has entered a new era of design. Because it employs projection mapping – the same technology used in the Cincinnati Symphony’s “Lumenocity” presentations on the face of Music Hall – every surface of the stage and set pieces is turned into a projector screen.

Where “Lumenocity” used a dozen projectors in past shows, though, “Toruk” employs 40 of them. The visual impact is overwhelming. Set pieces appear to change shape as colors and patterns undulate across and around the stage. Massive “trees” anchor the space as creatures of every size and description fill the space.

“It’s an amazing spectacle,” said Madden. “Everything is illuminated and appears to move. The floor has 630 separate panels. And everything is being projected onto. I don’t think audiences have ever seen anything like it.”

And don’t fret if you didn’t see the movie, said Silverman.

“They were very careful when they put the show together that the story be clear to anyone in the audience. Anyone,” she said.

“Toruk – The First Flight”
Shows run May 4-8
U.S. Bank Arena, 100 Broadway St.
Tickets: $35-$130

The Na-vi Language

Here are a few of the phrases spoken in the Na-vi language that you will hear during “Toruk – The First Flight”:

  • Oel ngati kameie.  I see you.
  • Stä’nì oet, txo tsun! Catch me if you can!
  • Vitrautral! Vitrautral!  The Tree of Souls! The Tree of Souls!
  • Fko kxap si Vitrautralur! The Tree of Souls is in danger!
  • Ma Entu! Kempe si nga fìtseng? Entu! What are you doing here?
  • Kawkrr! Oe kawkrr ke tätxaw! Never! I will never go back!
  • Toruk nì’aw tsun srung sivi fte Vitrautralit zivong. Only Toruk can help to save the Tree of Souls.
  • Fwew moel Torukit. We are looking for Toruk.
  • Lu lor. It is beautiful.
  • Tìng nari, tanhì a tswayon. Look, a shooting star.
  • Tul fte rivey! Run for your life!
  • Mefo lu ftxawneytu. They are the chosen ones.
  • Toruk Makto! Rider of the Last Shadow!