The Na’vi are coming
It’s impossible to completely erase the Na’vi from memory. The blue-skinned, slender-bodied inhabitants of Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 science-fantasy blockbuster film “Avatar” were a sight to behold but a minority we never expected to see again until the film’s sequel, much less in the flesh. The big surprise is, five clans of Na’vi are visiting Manila for a show.
Cirque du Soleil returns to Manila with “Toruk—The First Flight.” It draws inspiration from Cameron’s film, yet stands on its own with a different set of characters and its own story to tell.
One major difference of “Toruk” from “Avatar” is that while it will have 41 performers all in all as part of the cast, not one of them will portray a human character. Everyone on stage will be Na’vi; speaking in Na’vi, moving and acting as if they were all born and raised in Pandora, except for a storyteller who speaks in English. And as opposed to having only a single Na’vi clan introduced in “Avatar,” “Toruk” will have five clans.
In an interview with Inquirer Super, Daniel Crispin, who plays a major role as Entu the Na’vi, talked about his experience of becoming a Na’vi.
“I play one of the principal characters. We have live microphones taped on our foreheads. We communicate, speak in Na’vi dialogue, which is a really good way to keep the show alive and it very interesting but also very challenging because you can’t communicate in English if something goes wrong on stage. And you can’t swear or just grunt on or go onto the side of the show secretly.”
“You have to be committed to the role, verbally, physically, mentally, spiritually; the whole way through it.”
Of course, these changes could not have been applied if not approved by Cameron himself, whose involvement in the project has been significant all throughout.
“He’s basically approved everything in the show,” Janie Mallet, the show’s publicist, shared.
“He has been with the show, from the beginning, throughout the actual creation process with all the artists, and even after. So during the creation process he’s been there with the artists. And he’s come back for the shows, too.
“We’ve gone back and seen him in his studio in California. So yes, he is a huge part of that. If we were to make any serious changes, it would have to go through James Cameron,” head coach Michael Ocampo explained.
Mallet then gives an overview of how Cirque du Soleil and Cameron’s partnership began.
“James Cameron has said that he’s admired Cirque du Soleil for a long time. Actually, while he was doing ‘Avatar’ he was inspired by Cirque du Soleil’s shows in the way that he portrayed the Na’vi; that was the start. When he was doing the movie, he invited some Cirque du Soleil people to look at the new technology —the CGI and everything. And from then, he mentioned that he wanted to shoot the shows of Cirque du Soleil. They did one movie, which is called ‘Worlds Away.’”
“So that happened. And from there was another discussion where Cirque du Soleil people said, ‘hey, this world of Pandora, this world of Na’vi, we’d like to do a show a bit.’ There was around five years of back-and-forth. From the first discussion to the first show, there was probably a five-year period of working with directors, writers, with James Cameron, with Cirque du Soleil to see what the show would look like and to come up with the show ‘Toruk—The First Flight.’”
“He still comes for the premieres and is very available for that,” Mallet added.
As opposed to Cirque du Soleil’s other shows wherein the acrobatics is the centerpiece of the entire production, “Toruk” on the other hand revolves around the theme and the story. The acrobats, although still very much a very important aspect of the show, are in place in support of the plot.
After years of brainstorming, meetings and numerous consultations to finalize the concept, characters, the plot, setting and other elements of the story, it took several months for the project to actually take shape; several months of rehearsals, training and working with the directors, art directors, lighting designers and costume designers.
Ocampo admitted it was time consuming, and altogether challenging. He also spoke on preparations they went through to make the show possible, and the level of difficulty involved.
Crispin, who is also one of the acrobats, shared his own preparations and challenges as well.
“We had to learn how to move and speak and do everything like the Na’vi. So through the creation period, all of the ensemble, the characters, the puppeteers did a Na’vi movement class every morning. And that involved meditation, movement, how the hunters are packed, communicate, just to be part of that world. And basically it was repetition, repetition, repetition. And it was morning and night we did that. ”
“Keeping a show fresh and alive when it’s structured to be the same story every night is definitely always a challenge. So it’s great to work with artists with whom you can bounce ideas so it keeps changing every night. Not to mention we have a great group of artists that are multifaceted and in different fields.”
“We have puppeteers, and tumblers, hand-standers, and contortionists, balancers. All of those together, mixing, keeps things really fresh,” Crispin said.
“We have 41 performers, including acrobats, puppeteers. We have a singer, a percussionist, who were in good hands with Michael, our head coach. And they definitely were involved in this creation process as well. It is one of the things that they had to do,” Mallet added. “Maybe specific to this cast is that they had to be generalists and be able to do many, many things. And there’s a lot of ensemble acts in the show. Very often there are 20 to 25 people on the stage at one time.”
Prequel to ‘Avatar’
“We’re a prequel to ‘Avatar.’ I think another challenge that’s interesting is that there are no human beings on the show; they’re all Na’vi, all these blue-skinned creatures. That was definitely a challenge for all the acrobats in the show. They all had to learn how to move like Na’vi, do their acts, flips and everything else with a tail. And they also had to learn how to speak Na’vi. So in this show, we have a storyteller that speaks English, but we have the inventive Na’vi language in the movie Avatar, that was created by Paul Frommer.”
Cameron himself is impressed by “Toruk—The First Flight.”
Mallet said that the critically acclaimed filmmaker has admitted having cried during one of the shows not because he was sad, but because it touched him to see this universe, this world he spent many years creating— the “Avatar,” the Pandora universe—on stage and in a different light.
“Toruk—The First Flight” has 41 performers, and yet 100 people will be part of the touring production. Aside from the theatrical storytelling and death-defying acrobatics, the show is also meant to be a highly immersive visual feast for its audience.
It will make use of 40 projectors for cinematic projections. The whole floor of the venue will be used as a stage and the projection space is bigger than five iMax screens. The audience can download the “Toruk—The First Flight” mobile app that will let them receive special lighting effects on their phones so they can participate during the show.
“It really is a show for everyone in the family. We’ve had young 2-year-olds, 4-year-olds. And it’s so colorful. There’s the cinema projections which is almost like the movies. Then there’s the storyteller which is so theatrical, and there’s the puppets, there’s the music and the singing, there’s really something for everyone. We’ve had young people and not so young people come in to really enjoy the show,” Mallet said.
“Toruk—The First Flight” will be presented at the Mall of Asia Arena starting June 23. Visit www.smtickets.com, www.cirquedusoleil.com/toruk
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