My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Cirque du Soeil's Toruk -
The First Flight is spectacle on a grand scale but emotionally inert

by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Errisson Lawrence, costumes by Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

I love circuses and I love Cirque du Soleil. I have had the great fortune to see every show presented in Toronto under the grand chapiteau since the very first: Nouvelle Exp√©rience. I was lucky enough to review, be moved by, and rave about the most recent quartet of TotemAmalunaKurios and Quidam. I had the honour of interviewing Michelle Nicole Matlock (Ovo), Rafael Munhoz aka Boum BoumJoe PutignanoMark PawseyMichel Laprise and Thomas Evans. I travelled to see Orlando's La Nouba and three (so far) of the Vegas resident shows. All incredible experiences.

Less incredible was the theatrical venture Banana Shpeel, and the arena productions Delirium and Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Not that I would ever suggest that Cirque should stay in its comfort zone, artistic stretching is crucial and to be lauded, the grand chapiteau will always be a place of wonder and magic but there are other worlds to attempt to conquer. Or, in the case of Toruk - The First Flight, other galaxies.

On the night of the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens unseated Avatar from its height as the biggest grossing movie of all time, I headed to the ACC to see Cirque's latest production: Toruk - The First FlightToruk is advertised as "Inspired by James Cameron's Avatar." Considering the day's box office results, Cirque may have climbed into bed with the wrong space opera.

Not that astromech drones or Wookies would be any help, Toruk is spectacular and vivid, it just suffers from a split personality that renders it neutered. The Avatar-inspired personality is a heavily (but incomprehensibly) plotted adventure action saga. Our hero, an orphan naturally, must find five sacred objects in order to summon the Turok (a giant pterodactyl-like creature) to save the planet of Pandora. Even with the narrator struggling to explain what was going on or irritatingly recapping, I still don't understand how pulling LED intestines out of a trees root system can be a triumph (and I had a press kit cheat sheet that I had studied thoroughly).

The stage is incredible, a technological wonder. It turns from ocean to lava to desert to lush neon flowering fields convincingly. It is just that the action taking place within has no consequences. The characters do a lot of running, jumping, somersaulting and fighting, but there is never any suggestion as to why. Nor does any of the combat convince it is other than choreography designed to show off tumbling and gymnastic skills.

The Turok makes an awe-inspiring entrance, there were gasps beyond the level of Walking with Dinosaurs, and then for some reason wilts and is discarded in a tattered heap stage left. The truly magnificent puppet creatures, Julie Traymor must be gnashing her teeth in envy (or planning to sue), wander on and off stage but don't really interact or contribute to the plot. The ostriches are delightful comic characters, the horses stunning, a turtle hilarious, but they are a circus parade, not an act. There is one exception, the death of a wolf-creature is traumatizing, but then it is carried off stage never to be seen again. And without offering any inkling of what the death means. Though it is important to note that watching the black-veiled puppeteer walk proudly erect before the litter carrying the now lifeless puppet, was heartrendingly powerful beyond endurance: one of those powerfully metaphoric moments only a circus seems capable of creating.

The other personality is the circus acts. Unfortunately, they too go nowhere and are mainly lost within the opulence and continual chaos of the setting. An exception is a giant teeterboard made of dinosaur bones that is inventive and, if the routine had been allowed to build to where it seemed to be going, could have been mind-boggling. An attack of kites is inexplicable, a gymnastic routine makes no impression, and a sea of Chinese poles are put to little use.

There are two powerful exceptions, both of  which make one marvel at what Toruk could have been. Giant flowers march on stage while a veritable Eden springs up around them. The flowers blossom into butterflies and become aerialists who fill the sky. Centerstage is a silk act that actually fuses with the plot, as the artist plucks magical fruits from the heights. Towards the end of the show, a troupe of acrobats scale a wall of projections to tumble across the rock face of a dam. They unleash a flood to combat the lava heating up the stage and burning the intestine-laden roots of the tree. It is breathtaking as they fly across the wall and are washed away in the torrents of water that actually appear to be cascading on to the stage.

As the tour continues and more tweaking is done, Toruk may become what it was, I am assuming, intended to be. The spectacle is so lavish that the heart, and the characters and acts, are lost. but the plot doesn't compensate or pay off. I would be hard-pressed to explicate the plot of O or Corteo but both moved me to tears. The mood and the emotional connections created a magic that drew the audience in to be dazzled and seduced. With Toruk we are presented with a magical and extraordinary world, but instead of being invited in, we watch and marvel at the magnificent presentation, but it never touches our souls. 

Perhaps that is expecting too much of Cirque, too much of any entertainment. Pop stars have been replacing vocal prowess and charisma with spectacle for decades now, CGI has replaced the emotional core of many films. But I still expect more from a circus, more from Cirque. I'm not sure what the Avatar-inspired portion of the evening was supposed to be about - it had the uncomfortable feel of an ethnological study (like the "savages" who were put on display in sideshows and theme parks for educational purposes) or a vaguely ecological warning - but the circus portion, that should have been about the limits of the human body, of the human heart and experience. After all, Cirque has done that before.

Toruk continues until Sun, Jan 10 at the Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay St.