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Cirque du Soleil transforms Perth into Pandora

Glowing orbs float through the sky, crashing waves lap at undulous rock formations and exotic flora unfurl like giant fans.

A central Tree of Souls stands omnipresent and luminous, strings of twinkling life threads dripping from its branches and snaking from its trunk.

This is the Pandora of James Cameron’s imagination, a lush alien ecosystem alive with colour, vibrancy and spirit.

First introduced in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar, the sci-fi fantasy wonderland has been translated from screen to stage for Cirque du Soleil’s latest piece de resistance, Toruk — The First Flight.

Here, viperwolves and direhorses traverse the terrain, woodsprites dance through the air and the legendary dragon-like creature that gives the show its name rules the heavens.

The production has a cast of 41 including six puppeteers.
The production has a cast of 41 including six puppeteers.Picture: Jesse Faatz

The blue-skinned humanoid race, the Na’vi, climb, tumble and leap from woven tapestries and monster bones as they speak their native language.

It is clear this show is not what we have come to expect from the Montreal-based circus troupe’s usual acrobatics-heavy, tent-based works.

“Inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar, Toruk — The First Flight is a story that takes place 3000 years before the events of the film, before any human set foot on the moon Pandora,” artistic director Hugo Martins explains.

“We have many new elements with this show. It’s the first time we have puppeteers in a Cirque du Soleil show and they manipulate large-scale puppets that represent the creatures of Pandora, like the great Toruk.

“It will be very different to what the audience is used to from Cirque du Soleil. This is a story-driven show and we have a storyteller who is the main character.

Toruk’s visuals borrow heavily from the film, replicating the look and feel of the lush alien ecosystem of Pandora.
Toruk’s visuals borrow heavily from the film, replicating the look and feel of the lush alien ecosystem of Pandora.Picture: Thierry Ballange

“The acrobatic part always associated with Cirque shows is blended with a strong acting component, and that’s what makes this so unique.”

Developed in conjunction with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, the quest narrative follows three young Na’vi on an odyssey to uncover five ancient talismans in order to fulfil a shaman’s prophecy.

The ultimate goal is to become the first to ride the fire-coloured Toruk but before that they must navigate through faraway lands and engage with foreign tribes.

The visuals borrow heavily from the film, replicating the look and feel of Pandora as Cameron intended.

The set has been designed for arena venues, rather than the traditional circus tents associated with the company, creating a seamless optical illusion that envelops the audience.

“It’s the first time we have used the whole area of the arena as our stage, with the help of 40 video projectors,” Martins says. “We have a constantly changing visual that helps us tell the story. In terms of an experience, it’s a wonderful adventure for the audience.”

A scene from the film Avatar, which inspired Toruk.
A scene from the film Avatar, which inspired Toruk.Picture: 20th Century Fox/AP

The puppets, too, make the world come alive. There are viperwolves, austrapedes, turtapedes, direhorses, woodsprites, kites, fans, shadow puppets and the great toruk, which has a wingspan of more than 12m.

Australian actor Kailah Cabanas is one of six puppeteers included in the 41-strong cast and has been with the show since its development in 2015.

She has subsequently toured throughout North America, Mexico, the Philippines, Taipei and New Zealand, and is finally home for a leg Down Under.

Cabanas heard about the job through Facebook, with the advertisement seeking puppeteers with a specific skill set and experience manipulating large creations as part of a team. Fresh from working on the Australian production of War Horse, she applied and was picked from an international pool of performers.

“It’s very bizarre because I never thought I would work for Cirque du Soleil, coming from an acting and puppetry background,” Cabanas says.

Australian puppeteer Kailah Cabanas.
Australian puppeteer Kailah Cabanas.

“The fact that this opportunity came about and they are opening up new avenues for people with different skill sets is great.”

At the start of the show, Cabanas plays a Na’vi (“I actually got to learn a bit of aerial work, which was very new for me,” she says) before literally stepping into the bodies of the animals.

“All the creatures you see in the show people will recognise from the movie and then we have some new ones, too,” she says.

“I operate all the creatures and I also play the shaman back-up, which is the character role. It definitely keeps me busy.”

The puppeteers watched Avatar on repeat to memorise how the animals moved, studying any otherworldly characteristics and channelling them into the stage versions.

“Within the show we have to make the sounds for the creatures too,” Cabanas adds. “For example the viperwolf makes this hyena/dog-like sound and we tried to replicate this.”

The puppeteers watched Avatar on repeat to memorise how the animals moved.
The puppeteers watched Avatar on repeat to memorise how the animals moved.Picture: Matt Beard

Cabanas believes the mark of a good puppeteer is someone who can fully embody whatever it is they are manipulating.

“Puppets want to live, so you have to give them life,” she explains.

“The difference between acting and puppeteering is that the focus is on you with acting; you want the audience to be drawn into your character and what you’re saying.

“With puppetry it’s about the object you’re manipulating, you’re the vessel and your power and energy goes into the object.

“When you have the connection between you and the puppet, that’s when it becomes believable.”

In addition to learning their respective roles, all 41 artists in the cast, from actors to puppeteers and acrobats, were also required to take Na’vi movement and language classes so they could convincingly portray the alien people.

They still train daily to keep their bodies in top performance mode but the sense of camaraderie among the troupe makes up for any gruelling aspects of the job.

“It’s been quite interesting, touring with Cirque,” Cabanas says. “There are about 40 performers but it’s more than 100 with all the crew, too. Because we are away from our families we have become this little circus family and in the 21/2 years I have been with this show it’s been such a great experience.

The production was developed in conjunction with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment.
The production was developed in conjunction with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment.Picture: Thierry Ballange

“I am constantly inspired by these people because they are very genuine and you can’t help but grow when you are surrounded by people from different nationalities.”

Not only does Martins have to maintain the artistic integrity of the show but it’s also his task to manage the cast, which he says is both the best and hardest part of his gig.

“It’s a multicultural team on tour who are living away from home and that’s a great challenge for them,” he says.

“But I often say that the more I do it, the more I love it because it gives so much back. It teaches you so many things about yourself and I consider it a real privilege to be involved with the team.”

Toruk — The First Flight is on at Perth Arena from Friday-next Sunday, November 29-30, and December 1-3. Visit ticketek.com.au.

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