By Mike Hingston
TORUK – The First Flight is a show inspired by James Cameron’s AVATAR, and created by Cirque du Soleil. The world premiere was held in Montreal in December 2015 and the show has been touring the world ever since. Following our preview earlier this month, aAh! were given the opportunity to speak to acrobat Lydia Harper and puppeteer Anthony Antunes.
Interview with Lydia Harper
What was it like training to portray a Na’vi in the production?
We were incredibly lucky to have Julène Renée work with us during the creation of the show. She did the motion capture for AVATAR and is a Na’vi movement specialist, so she taught us how to move, eat, breathe, speak and think like the Na’vi. The next step was re-learning acrobatics with a tail… this is about as hard as it sounds! During rehearsals, I must admit we broke a lot of tails! Now we have got to grips with it, but there are still challenges from time to time. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being halfway through an acrobatic tumble and standing on your own tail and falling flat on your back (I speak from experience!). Usually, as an acrobat, I am in total control of my body – but the tails have a mind of their own!
Did you find it difficult at all, despite your eclectic range of character work, to portray the Na’vi in their quite animalistic movements and actions?
Luckily for me, my background is in physical theatre. I trained with Playbox Theatre Company in the Midlands, so that prepared me very well to work with such a physically demanding character. The hardest part is making it authentic to the movie AVATAR – we need to be accurate to such an impressive and loved legacy. The Na’vi have a very feline movement quality and are incredibly athletic. The challenge is making our very human bodies look 10 feet tall, have the impressive agility and power you see in the movie, all whilst not looking human at all. Even standing and running are completely different! And our rest position is a deep squat… Never before has my butt been so strong!
Have you found TORUK – The First Flight to be quite demanding of your acrobatic skills given your adept abilities shown in the Silver lining premier, with your double cloud abilities and your brilliant skill with Chinese pole?
I have learnt so many new skills here! In TORUK, I not only perform cloud, but a motorized pole hybrid that spins and pivots, an acrobatic wall running act, Aerial Harness, Cordelisse and a balancing act on top of a skeleton! On Silver Lining, my acts were about my story and my skill set. However, on TORUK, we all work together and utilise all of our skills to bring Pandora to life for the audience. We do loads of skill sharing sessions and everyone is incredibly helpful and willing to teach others and embrace new skills. TORUK – The First Flight is unlike any other Cirque du Soleil show. We use the acrobatics to tell the story rather than to showcase the skills: it’s very challenging but has a really beautiful result!
How long has it taken you to acquire these skills at various acrobatic abilities?
I started training circus skills at 14 years old as a hobby. When I was 18, I joined the degree programme at the National Centre for Circus Arts. For TORUK – The First Flight, we had a six-week intensive training course in Montreal at Cirque du Soleil IHQ, followed by three months of creation for the show. TORUK has such a unique collection of acrobatic equipment – because the show is set on the moon Pandora, none of the equipment can be recognisable as traditional circus apparatus – so it takes a long time to learn all the intricacies involved. For example, there is one part of the show that only me and one other artist can perform. It is part of a balancing act on top of a revolving giant skeleton. We have an incredible contortionist who is performing a routine in the centre of the balancing skeleton structure. It is our job to help balance the structure with her. There is a lot of pressure as one toe out of place can bring the entire structure off balance, but it is an incredibly beautiful sequence, and the teamwork involved is such a privilege to be a part of!
Do you find TORUK – The First Flight to be quite complex in its movements that it asks you to give?
For me it is important to break down choreography or character traits into a toolkit of movements. When you train your body enough, character work becomes like an acrobatic trick: you understand the fundamental movements that make you perform it. However, TORUK is different to that – there is a life and a breath that is needed. I have to be fully invested in the moment and really embrace everything about the show, the character, the movements and the acrobatics in order to bring the Na’vi of Pandora to life. TORUK is very ensemble-based – a lot of the artists are onstage most of the show, and are playing different Na’vi characters, all of which have different movement qualities, personalities, vocalisations and nuances. It is a huge challenge to find the subtleties that distinguish the different types of Na’vi.
Also, I am the Artist Coach of Na’vi movement, so I am responsible for training new artists, maintaining the movement quality in the show and generally keeping tabs on all things Na’vi. No corners are cut, even if we perform in a massive arena stage!
What brought you to work on TORUK? Did you enjoy the film along with the opportunity to work with Cirque du Soleil, or was it something different?
I think it was a combination of being offered a chance to work for Cirque du Soleil (which obviously was a dream come true!), the challenge of bringing to life a movie that creates such a beautiful world, lending itself perfectly to circus, and the opportunity to combine my love of acting and physical theatre with all my circus training. This production was literally perfect for me in every way!
Interview with Antony Antunes
What was it like adapting a film like AVATAR into a performance?
The creative directors worked for five years with James Cameron and his team before we even started the casting and creation, so it was a long and detailed process! It was a true collaboration, a joint venture between the creative forces of AVATAR and Cirque du Soleil, and the result is a very unique and visually stunning show. Our story takes place on the same moon, Pandora, as in the film, but is set 3000 years prior. We present a prequel, with acrobatic Na’vi characters that evolve in a stage covered in projections bigger than five IMAX screens. It’s the best of both worlds!
What was the most difficult part for your role in the performance in terms of mixing the acrobatics with the puppetry?
When we aren’t puppeteering a character, we are often on stage as the Spirits of Eywa [the force that connects all living things on Pandora], manipulating props or helping to transition from one scene to the next. We also had to learn how to move like the Na’vi for these moments, but with a more ethereal quality, so keep an eye out for us slinking, sliding and swinging about the stage.
I would assume that with written works and pieces like War Horse and The Magic Flute, you can take artistic and dramatic liberties with designs, but film adaptations would be more or less set in stone with how different characters and designs are supposed to look. What was it like working on this kind of adaptive piece?
Having worked on many productions that exist in musical, literary or cinematic worlds, you always have to be respectful to the source material. This is true of the choices we make on stage, with character choices and movements for example, but also off the stage with design and costumes. With TORUK – The First Flight, it was a real collaboration: James Cameron and his team gave us access to many tools, drawings and sketches that they used in their research for the film, but they also allowed us to add our creative touch, so we were able – with their approval – to add new creatures to the Pandora fauna, and to develop Na’vi clans that weren’t seen in the movie. Similarly, we’re always striving to stay true to this universe, but of course, with our own personal touch!
Was working on TORUK more demanding than previous work of yours at all? You’ve worked on the stage performance of War Horse, but I can imagine that working on TORUK, which includes a giant leonoperyx. would be very different.
In War Horse, we studied horse anatomy and behaviour, which gave us a real insight into how to move and behave like a horse. The creatures on Pandora − from the world of AVATAR − are hexapods, meaning they have six limbs, which really affects the otherworldly way in which we manipulate the creatures’ movements and behaviours. It was a completely new challenge! We also create all the sounds of the creatures live on stage using microphones. The sound department sometimes alters the pitch and tone slightly to give that otherworldly quality the audience hears, but it all starts with us. The Toruk, the giant Leonoperyx that you’re referring to, is the most feared creature on Pandora. We create its screams, breaths and calls by combining the voices of all puppeteers at once, live every night. This particular puppet is twelve meters wide, so you can just imagine how powerful of a creature it is!
What was it like being able to work on a piece based on such an aesthetically pleasing film as AVATAR? Was it difficult to keep up with its feeling and imagery, or was it more interesting to dive into it and take some artistic liberties?
AVATAR presents such a rich and diverse universe, it was a real treat to dive into it! For the show, we really strive to bring the audience with us on a two hour journey, and to bring Pandora to life before your eyes. To do this, we have a massive stage (just under 2,000 square meters) covered in colourful and changing projections, allowing us to visit the lush jungles, the desert, the ocean and the gloating mountains, all at the click of a button. As to keeping up with the feeling, every show is different because of the audience! Even nowadays, we constantly work on the show, tweaking and innovating, and we are always in contact with the AVATAR team. Our show definitely lives up to the wonders and spectacle of that gorgeous alien world James Cameron created.
Would you say that this is one of the grander productions that you have been a part of, in terms of it being demanding of you and your skills?
The scale of this show is what makes it different to the other theatrical pieces I’ve been a part of. Having to run the length of an arena, whilst keeping a puppet and character alive has been the biggest challenge, pushing the levels of my stamina to the max! But the result is breathtaking. It’s a beautiful visual odyssey, and a unique show combining puppetry, theatre, cinema, and, of course, the wonderful acrobatics from Cirque du Soleil. There’s just something for everyone!
For further details, visit Cirque du Soleil’s TORUK website.