I’d only ever seen Cirque du Soleil through video clips, featuring breathtaking acrobatic feats, hanging from ropes and bending in impossible directions. Lithe, muscular performers in fantastical costumes, performing to New Age-inflected music; that was the Cirque du Soleil I was expecting. Then I learned that this show was inspired by the film Avatar by James Cameron. I shifted my expectations.
It’s a prequel of sorts to the movie, but with no Earth invaders, just various blue-skinned natives, parading around in their clan’s unique paraphernalia. The story itself is silly: three young people in search of five sacred objects to save the Life Tree (or whatever) that a shaman had a vision would be destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Only those objects can save the tree. As it was foretold. So mote it be.
So, as they gather these objects, there are lots of props and puppets and opportunities to hang from ropes and bend in impossible directions. Except they barely did that last part, preferring to prance around with giant butterfly wings and blow-up wolves (or whatever). The rest of the play was the “story,” a lot of strong emotions, but no real connection, because what was going on? It was hard to follow.
The transcendent part of the evening was the integration of projections with sound design. At one point, a rising wave traverses the audience, becoming visible as it washes across the stage. The sound of the waves travels with it, tugging at you. As the wave hits the performers, they tumble precisely as they would, extending the illusion. And that’s when I understood, for a moment, what they were trying to do. They were recreating the elaborate stunts of the film on stage, using not just their projections but the mastery of their bodies. This makes sense; they’ve been doing the same thing for years. Of course they want to make something more subtle and complex.
But why Avatar? As a slick, corporate move, it makes sense: align your brand with this colossal property, and Cirque gets the caché while Avatar remains relevant, similar to what they did with the Beatles and Michael Jackson, but this time with a story.
Yet from the perspective of creative evolution, it feels like a tough haul for their first foray into narrative. Why not Greek mythology or maybe something vaguely Medieval, well-trodden territory that they could riff off of until they get the hang of it? Having to start from scratch using only the hodgepodge of appropriated cultures present in the film takes a nuanced approach that just didn’t happen here.
In Robert Everett-Green’s review in the Toronto Globe and Mail, he says, “As a fantasy about indigenous people…Toruk is obnoxious to a degree that Avatar wasn’t. The Na’vi in the film were facing naked colonial violence, and an explicit threat of cultural genocide,” but in this production that context is absent. We are left with just a mish-mash of cultures that don’t feel like the same world, or in any way connected. Just empty caricatures of the “noble savage,” with puppets. In 2016, this unwillingness to represent native cultures on their own terms feels intentional.
The show runs 2 hours with an intermission at The United Center located at 1901 West Madison Street. In The Tent
Toruk will play at the United Center through August 7 with performances as follows:
August 6 at 4:00pm and 8:00pm
August 7 at 1:30pm and 5:30pm
Tickets range from $66-$212 and are available at www.Ticketmaster.com
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Toruk: First Flight”