Cirque du Soleil's TORUK: The First Flight generates a digital world that's video-game immersive

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      Written and directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon. Creative direction by Neilson Vignola. Inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar. A Cirque du Soleil production. At the Pacific Coliseum on Wednesday, December 14. Continues until December 18

      The technology is the star. TORUK: The First Flight has all the visceral thrills that audiences have come to expect from Cirque du Soleil, but its simulated environment dwarfs the physical virtuosity of its performers.

      Inspired by James Cameron’s film Avatar, TORUK is set on that film’s moon, Pandora, populated by humanoid creatures with blue skin and tails. The world of Pandora is video-game immersive, as directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon use sophisticated mechanics coupled with multimedia projections to seamlessly transform the landscape of the massive set, creating forests, waterfalls, or caverns, depending on the scene.

      And unlike many of Cirque’s previous shows, where story is often secondary to spectacle, TORUK puts narrative front and centre. At the top of the show, a Storyteller (Raymond O’Neill) introduces Ralu and Entu, adoptive brothers on the cusp of manhood, who must enlist the help of the deadly Toruk (a massive flying creature) to save their clan’s Tree of Souls.

      Their quest requires them to collect talismans from four neighbouring clans, not all of whom are sympathetic to their mission.

      Errisson Lawrence

      This framework offers opportunities for some brilliant acrobatics, but the emphasis is on the characters’ otherworldly surroundings, including Patrick Martel’s huge puppets of Pandora’s various fauna. Drummers levitate in a ring; warriors writhe and dangle from motorized poles or dance and contort on a skeleton that moves like an enormous seesaw. In one of the evening’s most visually sumptuous scenes, performers do a sort of grand-scale fan dance that fills the space with enormous, luminous flower petals.

      Alain Lortie’s lighting enhances the magic of Lemieux and Pilon’s projections. The floating seeds of the Tree of Souls and the starry night sky offer simple delights in a show that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the senses. And it’s hard to overlook the show’s queasiness-inducing saturation with globe-trotting indigenous stereotypes, most noticeable in Kym Barrett’s costumes and makeup and Bob and Bill’s generically “tribal” music.

      The show’s privileging of technology extends to the audience: there’s a TORUK app that you can download on your smartphone, allowing you to contribute to visual effects at certain points in the show. We’re not in the big top anymore—but it’s still pretty mind-blowing.