'Toruk' A High-Flying, Spectacular Spectacle At The XL Center

The inhabitants of the moon world of Pandora have never seemed more alien than they did on the delayed opening night of "Toruk — The First Flight" at the XL Center March 16.

Their home is a hot dry barren landscape. Unlike their audience, none of the Pandorans had spent the previous two days shoveling snow in below-freezing weather.

Admittedly, these appealing creatures — blue-hued, barely clothed humanoids with pointy ears and long tails — have to endure a river of fire, a raging flood, molten lava running down the sides of a mountain and other spine-tingling supernatural disasters in the course of this lavish theatrical spectacle. But the lack of snow and ice made the struggles of the Omatikaya, Anurai and other Pandoran clans seem that much more otherworldly.

"Toruk — The First Flight," created by the renowned Canadian circus theater innovators Cirque du Soleil and inspired by James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster film "Avatar," is at the XL Center through March 19. Wednesday's show was canceled due to the snowstorm. The center has opened up additional sections of the auditorium, adding 2,000 seats for each of the other performances to compensate for the lost night.

This isn't one of those shows where audience members feel inclined to dress up as characters from the movie. Those stiff blue tails would be uncomfortable to sit on. Yet there is a different way that the crowd becomes part of "Toruk — The First Flight." Audience members are encouraged to download an app on their phones, then watch the screens turn into stars, sinister wolfen eyes or just bright colored lights.

One doesn't have to be up on Pandoran lore or speak the Na'vi language, to enjoy "Toruk." The show tells its own unique adventures, distinct from the "Avatar" movie or its forthcoming sequels. "Toruk" takes the clinical, sleek and rather tedious CGI aliens of "Avatar" and turns them into living, breathing, sweating, tail-twirling, backflipping, rope-climbing, cliff-scaling, trampolining, drum-thumping, singing, dancing tumblers and acrobats. "Avatar" gave the Na'vi peoples dignity. "Toruk" gives them wild passionate quests and elaborate tribal ceremonies.

Just as its rapid pacing, loud multistyled musical soundtrack (by frequent Cirque du Soleil composers "Bob and Bill"), raw energy and live danger elements make "Toruk" feel different from "Avatar," the show also stands apart from other Cirque du Soleil endeavors. "Toruk" has an English-speaking narrator instead of the miming and made-up languages the company generally uses. Legends are told of floating mountains, the Tree of Voices and the Flock of Banshees, while massive puppets, projections, foam platforms, and dozens of colorfully attired performers makes these myths a reality. The show's title refers to a "fire-colored predator that rules the sky." Two young Omatikaya men seek the swooping pterodactylian Toruk's help in saving their tribe from physical and spiritual destruction.

The circus skills, as in all Cirque du Soleil shows, are world-class. One stand-out routine, the Palukan Bone, is performed on a revolving, seesawing apparatus that resembles the skeletal spine of a dinosaur. Another act finds an aerial artist dangling from long ropes around each wrist, then letting one of the ropes go. Tricks with climbing poles and long sticks are staged as battles against wild animals and fire demons. Casual acrobatics are a constant as the performers leap from one area of the vast stage to another. This is a community that flips and somersaults with the same ease with which they walk. Some scenes are more like a grand-scale dance extravaganza than a circus act — and, to paraphrase that old expression about Ginger Rogers, these dancers do it backwards with long tails.

"Toruk" brings interplanterary spectacle, multimedia magic and staggering feats of kite-dodging, boomerang-ducking, mountain-climbing, fire-juggling and beast-fighting to chilly Hartford.

Hot enough for you?

TORUK — THE FIRST FLIGHT continues through March 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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