Cirque du Soleil is less a traditional “circus” and more high-level performance art. There are wonders and tricks to amaze you, sure—but they are elegant instead of gaudy, graceful instead of brash. A festival of imagination and physical feats. And if the traditional circus is thought of as “kid stuff,” Cirque du Soleil is aimed squarely at adults. Aerial silks, contortionists, fire jugglers.
That is precisely why initially, the theme for Toruk: The First Flight, based on James Cameron’s Avatar, was puzzling to me. Avatar came out in 2009, and while it was a box-office success—it is, not adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film of all time—it wasn’t so much a cultural one. People saw it in droves, but it didn’t seem to leave a lasting impression beyond an overabundance of packaged Na’vi Halloween costumes. At the time, the CGI was cutting edge; audiences were wowed by the visual presentation (and maybe caught up in gimmicky resurgence of 3D), but technology moves so fast that within a few years what was accomplished with the film became standard. Amazing CGI isn’t something to ooh and ahh at these days. It’s expected.
Sure, the world and creatures of Avatar are rich and vibrant, but so are endless other things. Why this brand? Why this theme? Does anyone care, even with a planned series of sequels, about Avatar anymore? Or does it feel like an old hat, just like the technology it showcased?
The irony of Avatar was obvious—it told a very human story, a story about life, about the fragility of nature, all buried behind the glitz of computer animation. With that in mind, I realized that perhaps Cirque du Soleil was, after all, the perfect way to explore the world of Pandora. A story about people, told through the incredible talent of actual people doing amazing real things with their bodies in real time. If there was any place for Avatar to be explored further, I decided, Cirque du Soleil was it.
Movie theaters and other venues are having increasing difficulty competing with what is available cheaply and conveniently to former attendees. Why pay to go to a movie theater when home-theater rigs grow ever cheaper, with an array of streaming services, when powerhouse televisions and respectable sound systems are now standard?
The only thing that these venues have left is the experience. The connective membrane to some human element, some feeling of presence, of connection. And more than film, more than music, more than stage plays, Cirque du Soleil is something that demonstrates this experience so eloquently. We are inundated with CGI, with special effects, with Photoshop in everything we see every day. The magic of this technology is no longer magical—instead, it’s boring and expected and, when it’s noticeable, heavily criticized.
Cirque du Soleil is, at its heart of hearts, magical. These are human bodies, people, who have devoted their lives to performing physiological feats. Forget Hogwarts, or Gandolf, or Ouija—what these performers do is mesmerize, dazzle, amaze, with something more astounding and incredible than any fantasy magic. Because it’s real. Watching a Cirque du Soleil performance on a screen will never, ever compare to seeing these performances live. Feeling the music in your chest, feeling the energy and awe of the breathless audience, and the experience of knowing that what these people are doing is really being done.
Having said that, Toruk attempts to augment the experience with an app that “is an interactive spectator experience that brings audience members’ involvement to a whole new level. The first-of-its-kind app enhances the overall show experience and enables audience members to be a part of the action before, during and after the performance. Full of surprises, the application allows you to immerse yourself deeper into the world of Pandora, throughout the show and beyond.” This feels inherently perverse, an intrusion and interruption into this sacred space of experience.
I am firmly in the camp that believe while mobile technology is awe inspiring and an incredible asset, there is a time and a place to whip out your phone. Call me a curmudgeon, but there are certain experiences I want to be organic, tangible. I want to feel the rhythm of drums in my bones at a concert. I want the walls and seats to mentally melt away when I’m watching live theater, to feel the warmth of the stage lights, the crackle of energy from the audience and cast alike. Those things are important, and in an ever-changing world where everything from our phones to our toasters is “connected,” this is one of the only things live performances have left to offer.
The set was a thing of wonder: brilliant in a complexity that looked so simple, sometimes lavishly bustling and sometimes empty and still. The gray of the Target Center arena was transformed into the rich and lush world of Pandora by lights and image projectors. No doubt it was breathtaking—waves crashed, flames consumed, and exotic flora blossomed. The roots of a massive tree became a waterfall as digital animations shot against the surfaces of the stage. Indeed, the tricks of picture and light were the main thing on display at Toruk.
Focusing on a narrative that had nothing to do with the film—a wise choice, although the story was the weakest element, predictable and simple—the show follows two young Na’vi protagonists’ quest to gather items and prevent catastrophe. Their mission to obtain sacred objects from different clans of Na’vi is the movement mechanism of Toruk; each interaction with a different clan makes up the bulk of the scenes. While there were some truly amazing parts in these scenes, the clans felt very similar. My companion and I kept waiting for something else to happen, and it never did.
Toruk did many things well—the flora and fauna were astounding, plants that unfurled onto the stage, fluid and beautiful puppetry—but the performers seemed secondary, like they were just a vehicle to tell the story and an excuse to show off the powerhouse of lights and tech. The performers did not do much compared to other Cirque shows. Let me pause here a minute and be absolutely clear: what they do is amazing in the purest form of that word, and as someone who can barely even walk a straight line, I mean that with every element of my being. But what the performers were capable of was not on display here. The performers, the human element, the people doing the real things in real time, making a real connection, seemed a mere accessory to the show. And what they did do felt compromised. A scene involving flaming poi sticks felt cheaper at the realization, for example, that the fire was digital.
The app ended up offering some things that were good ideas, interesting concepts that never delivered. The app would buzz or ring your phone with a message such as “Get your phone ready!” when an interactive effect was near. As an example, the protagonists found themselves in an area where wolf like creatures lurk; our phones buzzed with a notification, and we were to hold our screens up face out. A set of eyes was then supposed to appear on the screen, so that an audience member looking around the arena would see hundreds of pairs of eyes surrounding the stage. A neat effect—if it had worked. It did not. My app crashed completely. My companion’s didn’t, but the eyes didn’t show up on her screen until minutes after the effect was supposed to end. We never experienced anything that worked the way it was supposed to, and between crashes, connectivity issues, and delayed effects the audience spent more time messing with their phones than watching the show. We received alerts several minutes before we were supposed to participate through the app, which the audience responded by taking out their phones, unlocking them, blinding the people next to them, and then wondering what was happening instead of watching the stage.
The innovation and attempt to creatively involve audiences was admirable, but was ultimately an immersion-breaking distraction. And perhaps, this was appropriate. The run time of the show was brief (two hours with one 20-minute intermission), but it still felt a bit repetitive. The Target Center had many, many empty seats among a group of attendees made up mostly of middle-aged and older people, which raised the question: who was Toruk for? The app appeals to a younger ilk, but not many teens or college-age kids can afford the steep price of Cirque tickets. The audience was quiet as they left, filing out without excited chatter or verbal replays.
I think we all felt it. We came to see the magic of people, to hear the untold story within a story. The story of something irreplaceable, beyond the computer sheen, something real behind the Katamari of tech, of our digital world. Something like the threatened and endangered Na’vis’ tree, sacred. Toruk told two stories: the one on the surface, in which an underdog saves the day, and the one between the lines, in the human hands groping through the dark for their phones, a confusing and disjointed attempt to not be left behind.
Toruk: The Last Flight is playing through Sunday, October 2, at the Target Center in Minneapolis