BWW Interview: Laura Silverman on Cirque du Soleil TORUK

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BroadwayWorld Sacramento spoke with Cirque du Soleil spokesperson Laura Silverman about the innovative technology and puppetry of Cirque's latest arena show, TORUK - The First Flight, a story-driven prequel to James Cameron's Avatar. Read the full interview below. Then check out TORUK when the Na'vi people visit Sacramento's Golden 1 Center, November 30 - December 4.

How did Toruk come about?

Cirque du Soleil and James Cameron worked together before in 2012 on the film Worlds Away. It was around this time that Cirque approached James Cameron with the idea to create a live production inspired by his movie. And James Cameron has been quoted as saying how some of the movements of the Na'vi in the film were inspired by Cirque du Soleil artists. So, right from there, it seemed like a really great collaboration. From there, they spent a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly the show would look like, if it would take place after Avatar, if it would be a recreation of the film, and ultimately they decided to go with a prequel. The story takes place 3,000 years before the events happened in Avatar. They decided to go that way for a couple of reasons, one being from an actual production standpoint, we only have Na'vi in our show. There's no actual avatars. There's no humans. The Na'vi are 10 feet tall, and if we were having both, we would need to be able to show the difference in size. But also, they were really excited to be able to go back and elaborate on a mythical tale that's slightly mentioned in the film. At the end of the film, Jake Sully's character rides the Toruk, the giant flying creature, and our story follows a journey of three Na'vi teenagers and culminates with the very first Na'vi to ride the Toruk.

Were there other people from the film involved in the creative process?

James Cameron and John Landau, who was a producer for the film, were creative guides. There was a woman named Julene Renee who was the motion capturer for most of the actors in the film, and she worked with all of the artists in our show during the creation, teaching them the Na'vi movements. They had classes almost every day for about a month or so. They also worked with Paul Frommer, who is the linguist that created the Na'vi language, to have lessons from him on the language. Everything that was created for the show - James Cameron and John Landau weren't necessarily involved with the day to day of the creation process, but everything that you'll see in the show was approved by them.

There must have been several details to fill in for the history and background of this world.

Hey first got together to bring this idea about in March 2011. From then until July 2015, so about four years is when they narrowed down what the show would look like, whether it would be in an arena, a residential, a touring show under the big top. The creators, Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, they were really at the helm of it. And their background, as well, was in multimedia production. So, one of the big highlights of our show is the projection use and the stage setup, and how we're able to use projections to bring to life Pandora. So, a lot of that inspiration came from them, as well. Like any Cirque show, it's a long process to get it to where it is before the first performance. And once the artists arrived in July of last year, they started having the classes.

Cirque has always been creative in the technology it uses.

They're very innovative, always trying to push the boundaries. One of the things that really sets Toruk apart is that we're doing that really with the technology being used. We're using the entire arena floor, about 50,000 square feet. When you see it during the day, all of the set is this gray color, but when the audience is at the show, it all comes to life with the use of projections. We have 40 projectors that hang in the grid. Three projectors overlap the same image to create a clear, crisp image. With that, we're using another technology called Black Track, and that technology basically uses sensors that are put on the main characters' costumes, as well as some of the puppets used in the show, and it creates a pre-programmed spotlight. We have no live spot operators. It allows us to follow their movements more swiftly and also spot more artists at one time. But they're using that technology on some of the set pieces. At the very back of the set, we have two large inflatable tree-like structures, and on those trees are also those black track sensors, and that allows the video projection to move with the trees. It creates this really immersive experience, especially in an arena setting. We're recreating all of these different landscapes across Pandora, so it's also helping to tell the story. You'll see a rainforest landscape, and then a desert, and then a river, and waterfall. At different moments we've had people question how we were getting the water in and out so fast because it's so lifelike.

How does the puppetry work?

We've had large puppets in other shows, but this is the first time that we hired puppeteers. That's because they are such an integral part of the show. We have six puppeteers, and they bring out all of the creatures that live on Pandora. The Toruk actually requires all six puppeteers working together. That puppet is probably the most unique because it's operated like a reverse marionette. The puppeteers are below bringing life to it, and then the puppet is hooked in by an automation team and a 3D flight system, it's able to fly through the arena.

How long does it take to load all these piece into each city?

Our load in is about 12 hours, and that's just to build everything. On top of that, our video team will come in and focus all of the video, which takes about three hours, and then our lighting team will come in and focus all of the lights as the day goes on.

What can audiences expect from the production in how it tells the story?

With our other shows, the language is usually a gibberish language. In this one, the artists are speaking Na'vi, but then we also have an English speaking storyteller, which is another first for this show. And because this show is so story driven, that was really important for us to be able to bridge the gap with the audience and have the storyteller bring the audience into the action and help translate the Na'vi language. The show really stands out from other Cirque shows because of the very specific story we are telling. In other shows, the acrobatic acts are the focus and the story is usually there to support the acrobatics, but here's it's kind of the opposite.

What are some of the acts that are specific to this production?

This show is very theatrical. It's the journey of these three Na'vi teenagers. They learn that Pandora is in danger and they go on this quest to prevent that from happening. On the way they meet all these different clans. We created several different acrobatic apparatuses specifically for this show, because they had to be integrated into the story. In the first act you'll see an apparatus similar to a high bar, and you'll see several different artists swinging and jumping off of it. We also have quite a bit of aerial in this show. We have aerial ropes, which we call vines, that represent the Na'vi swinging and hanging from the tree vines. We have a really beautiful number called the bone structure, which was a balancing act. It also features a contortionist. Other artists are doing acrobatics on the structures. And we have another apparatus called motorized poles. They bend and they swing and they twist. We also feature a boomerang artist and indoor kites, which is quite unique. The show is really family friendly. The colors really keep young children engaged, and the story is simple enough that they can follow along.

TORUK - The First Flight performs at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, November 30 - December 4. Tickets are available at

Photo: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler