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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The making of Cirque Du Soleil’s Avatar-inspired show Toruk – The First Flight

Ahead of its 12-day run at Dubai World Trade Centre, we find out how the mammoth show is put together

We first encountered the far away planet of Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. Strangely, despite the film becoming, and remaining, the highest-grossing movie of all time till date, we’ve so far been spared the sequels and “universe building”, unlike other smash hit franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel Superheroes or even The Matrix.

This wasn’t always the plan. Cameron announced two sequels back in 2010, with the first initially scheduled to release in 2014. The addition of a further two sequels, however, along with the need to develop brand new technology to allow the oft-ground-breaking Cameron to shoot motion caption scenes underwater for the first time ever, pushed the release back, with the first sequel now tentatively pencilled in for a December 2020 release.

Before that, however, UAE audiences can revisit the Avatar “Universe” courtesy of renowned Canadian performance art, dance and circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, who bring the stage show prequel Toruk – The First Flight to Dubai World Trade Centre for a 12-day run, beginning on January 4. The show has already wowed audiences around the world with a tour that has so far lasted over two years since its official premiere in Montreal in December 2015.

The stage show is set 3,000 years before the events of Cameron’s first film, and tells the story of two teenage Na’vi (the giant blue aliens from the film) tribesmen who set out on a daring mission to tame the fearsome Toruk – a giant pterodactyl-like bird – in order to save the Tree of Souls, which is a vital part of Na’vi culture.

Of course, when you attend a Cirque du Soleil production, the story is secondary to the sheer spectacle of the event, and Toruk promises plentiful projections, light shows, giant puppets and kites, circus skills, stagecraft and a pumping musical score.

The show does seek to establish itself firmly within the universe of the movie – James Cameron himself was a member of the original creative team – however, it’s only natural that a stage show is unable to create a world identical to that on the big screen. The 3,000-year time lapse perhaps helps here as we are seeing Pandora long before the events of the movie, and also one humans haven’t yet discovered, which eliminates the need to somehow have the nine-foot-tall Na’vi performing while towering over human characters.

Costume designer Kym Barrett admits that, while she set out to respect the dress codes established by James Cameron’s team, she was given a degree of artistic licence, and did not simply copy what was done in the movie: “While we worked within the parameters of Pandora, we had room to create our own version of the mythical first flight,” she says.

The puppets, too, take a diversion from the CGI alien creatures of the movie. The Toruk team opted to make real, physical puppets rather than use animatronics, and leave both the puppeteers and the strings in full view: “On Pandora, the animals are strange, menacing and beautiful all at once. These creatures exude a sense of grace and nobleness, which I wanted to convey. I wanted my designs to be a tribute to nature, as is the show,” says puppet designer Patrick Martel.

Puppet highlights include fan favourites such as direhorses and viperwolves from the original movie, as well as newcomers such as the huge, 40-foot wingspan Toruk, which requires six puppeteers to operate onstage.

The show’s touring producer Ken Mills concedes that some changes have been made to accommodate bringing the world of Avatar to the stage, but adds that it is vital that fans are convinced they remain firmly within that world: “Avatar is extremely popular everywhere we go,” he says. “We get record crowds everywhere – even more so since the sequels were announced – so we do get a lot of superfans coming, sometimes dressed up in costumes that are nearly as impressive as ours. There’s real dedication out there, so you have to be faithful to that.”

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Mills has the unenviable task of moving the giant production around the world. The show has already played on five continents and the bulk of equipment travelled to Dubai in around 40 shipping containers, while the team are required to charter four 747 cargo planes if they travel by air.

Surprisingly, however, when asked to pick his favourite visual element of the show, Mills doesn’t go for a giant puppet or a daring circus feat, but something rather more prosaic, albeit an extremely hi-tech prose: “There’s a tremendous amount of tech playing into the show and the story,” he says. “We have 40 Barco projectors, 20 x 30k super HD projectors and 20x 20k ones, and for me, the way we change the aesthetic of the scenes between the five Na’vi clans in the show and their individual aesthetics, and the speed at which we can do it, are the most impressive.”

Toruk – The First Flight opens on January 4 at 8.30pm. For tickets visit www.tixbox.com