Cirque Du Soleil's 'Toruk' Re-Creates Magic Of 'Avatar' At XL Center

Editor's note: The weather conditions have forced the cancellation of the March 15 performance of "Toruk." Information about refunds or ticket exchanges here

The Omaticaya, Tawkami and Anurai clans live! The Sky People breathe! Pandorian animals frolic! Na'vi is spoken! In Hartford!

When James Cameron's science-fiction epic "Avatar" appeared in theaters in 2009, it marked breakthroughs in how movies could be made and seen. It took advantage of new motion-capture, CGI and stereoscopic filming techniques and was shown in new 3D-projection formats on IMAX screens.

Not the most likely candidate, then, for a live-stage rendition. Unless you can interest the multidisciplinary magic-makers at Cirque du Soleil. The Canadian circus theater company is to live stage events what James Cameron is to cinema: futuristic, colorful, splashy and endlessly creative.

"Toruk — The First Flight" adds a new chapter to Cameron's "Avatar" saga (about galactic colonization in the 22nd century), not to mention a whole new of experiencing it. The show, which comes to Hartford's XL Center March 15 through 19, is thematically connected to the original movie and to the several planned film sequels, but tells its own tale of faith, community and survival in the Pandorian realm.

"Toruk," says Fabrice Lemire, the show's artistic director, in a recent phone interview, "is not a replication of 'Avatar.' It's inspired by 'Avatar.' It's taking place within the James Cameron legacy. We're not adapting established material. This is about two unique, creative institutions wanting to work collaboratively together. We had to insert our format into theirs. Everything is done with respect. We're very pleased with the support we've gotten from James Cameron."

The connection between these two entertainment monoliths began nearly a decade ago with a chance meeting between Cameron and a couple of Cirque's leaders, which yielded the vague comment: "Why don't we do something together someday?"

It's not unusual for Cirque du Soleil to work with other entities on shows — "Love," for instance, re-imagined the music of The Beatles. But "Toruk," Lemire says, is "our first-time full-out collaboration based on an existing subject." It hews very closely to designs, scenarios and even languages from the film, which has led to new challenges for Cirque du Soleil.

"Toruk" focuses on five distinct tribes in the "Avatar" universe. That format has some similarities to other Cirque du Soleil shows — including "Ovo," which played the XL Center in 2016 — in that it allows the different types of circus acts to each have a distinct look.

What's especially different about "Toruk" is that, for the first time, a Cirque du Soleil show has a narrative element, spoken in English. In most of the company's shows, if there is talking it is done in its own made-up language. Even the titles of Cirque du Soleil shows tend to be made-up words. (A recent exception to that rule is the company's current Broadway endeavor "Paramour").

"It's a new step for us," Lemire says. "The narration in English is to create a bridge between the story and the action onstage." "Toruk" also uses the invented alien languages from "Avatar."

"Everything is live," Lemire says. "The storyteller tells a story in English. Other performers speak the language of the film. There's more of a dramatic through line. This is not just a physical performance. We are asking all the performers to be actors and learn this invented language."

One of those actors is Helen Day. She has appeared in Tim Burton's recent film of "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" and in numerous TV series and short films in her native England. Day is also a trained puppeteer, part of the six-person puppetry team that manipulates dozens of creatures in "Toruk." This includes the title character, who Day says is operated with long wires "like a reverse marionette.

"The puppets can be very different," Day says, "but all of them are physically demanding. The first problem we had to overcome is that they are very heavy. And very large. I'm 5 foot 8, and some of the puppets are 5 foot 7. They are a huge part of the show.

"This is a very theatrical thing. But you want it to move like a theater show. We're able to explore new things while staying true to the spirit of the film as well. This show is set way before the film. It's different and unique.

"There may not be be any scenes that just puppets, but there are scenes that are dominated by puppets. You can't get rid of the puppets. This show has more puppets than any Cirque du Soleil show ever."

Another distinction of "Toruk" is that it is built for venues such as the XL Center. Cirque du Soleil made its reputation decades ago by staging its shows in its own elaborate tents and controlling all the presentational elements.

"Because of the elaborate projections and the heavy equipment, we made this show for arenas," Lemire says.

Lemire has brought many fresh ideas, and encountered many new challenges, since joining Cirque du Soleil in 2008. He's served as artistic director of several different shows.

"Who knew, when I started as a simple dancer, that I would do this?" Lemire says. "What I am doing now is consciously learning new ways to do circus, to create my own vision. This is the way the company grows and expands."

Under Lemire's artistic direction, "Toruk" is shooting for the moon. The moon planet of Pandora, that is.

TORUK — THE FIRST FLIGHT has seven performances March 15 through 19 at the XL Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Hartford: Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $51 to $120. 860-249-6333 and xlcenter.com.

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