BWW Review: Cirque du Soleil Visits the World of Avatar in TORUK
In its 32 year history, Cirque du Soleil never needed a defined story. The human body and artistry spoke for itself. But the company's latest production shifts gears, partnering with James Cameron to provide a sort of prequel to the 2009 film "Avatar." For its first attempt at creating a plot-driven Cirque, Soleil mostly succeeds. But believe the promoters when they tell you the acrobatics support the story, rather than vice versa. It's true.
At times "Toruk" feels like a historical documentary. A narrator with a soothing voice keeps the audience on track while the Na'vi of Pandora speak an unknown language. Three young teenagers - the male leader, the smart female, and the fearful underdog - visit various Na'vi clans to collect five talismans. These tokens will allow them to tame a dangerous Toruk and save their people from natural disaster.
Cirque's creative team gives each clan amazingly detailed looks and histories. The episodic nature of their scenes should have been the perfect occasion to include some truly outstanding acrobatic acts. After all, that is what Cirque audiences have come to expect. However, jumping through hoops and flying kites does not quite have the same "did they really just do that?" effect. The characters, too - who begin as engaging - are underdeveloped.
A first act aerial straps routine establishes a deep connection with Entu, the youngest of the teens. He has failed his test of adulthood and seeks solace from Eywa, the Tree of Souls. It is he who ultimately rides Toruk, but his moment of triumph is short lived (spoiler alert - the bird dies), and the actual taming of the Toruk is left unseen. The visually stunning, but anticlimactic finale begs the question - why did these brave youths have to set out on this quest? Couldn't the Na'vi have done that without the Toruk's help? With just a bit of tweaking, "Toruk" could have stayed on par with that first, emotionally moving aerial straps number.
Still, with around 30 players, there is a lot worth seeing here. Around 40 projectors, a few puppeteers, and even the audience (once they get the hang of Cirque's downloadable app) contribute to the captivating environment of Pandora. Fans of the original "Avatar" can expect the same neon colors and ethereal plants found in the movie. The music, too, surprises at every turn, reflecting the native world, but also using occasional symphonic sounds. And then there are those exciting players who "fly" up in the air to pound on those drums.
"Toruk" has all the creativity of other Cirque du Soleil shows, but as a whole it comes across as something closer to the typical arena performance - "Batman Live" and "How to Train Your Dragon" to name a few - only it's far more spectacular.
*A note on the new Golden 1 Arena: Be sure to arrive early and know where you are going. The entrance nearest my parking garage in Old Sacramento was closed before the performance, forcing me to walk around the entire arena, where I promptly missed the small box office (I needed the exercise anyway). Naturally, security had no problem opening said entrance for those leaving the arena after the show. As far as the design of the arena goes, it is much smaller than the Sleep Train / ARCO arena. The hallways, leg space and bathrooms are tight, but the seats are soft and very comfortable. The higher sections are closed off for "Toruk," so any seat offered in the arena has a great view of the stage, which uses the entire arena floor.
Photo: Jesse Faatz Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil