Toruk – the first Cirque

My relationship to the Avatar movie has always been somewhat ambiguous. I still occasionally watch the thing on DVD (no, the extended director’s cut hasn’t really salvaged this mess) as a guilty pleasure when I’m just in the mood for something really dumb, but other than that I’m probably one of the few people who’s not necessarily looking forward to another three films of same ilk. Back then I loved the depiction of the lush exotic planet (and as a 3D artist who occasionally dabbles with and obsesses about virtual landscaping and plant creation appreciated the tremendous amount of effort that went into it), the poor story, cheesy acting, ridiculous names (Hallelujah Mountains, really?) and ultimately the often failed CG on the blue smurf characters not so much.

Still, there’s no denying that the movie has spawned a whole very profitable franchise and that’s why we’re going to see more of it one way or the other. I could live with a scenic park attraction and might actually want to visit it, but I’m not sure if the Cirque du Soleil building a show around it was the best of ideas. Struggling to stay awake from my illness-induced exhaustion I watched Toruk – the first Flight yesterday evening on arte.tv. You can grab it on arte +7 for the next several days and you should jump the chance before you never get to see anything of the show again unless you attend it. Sadly the Cirque out of some misunderstood protectionism over their IP seems to think we are no longer worthy to get their shows on DVD/ Blu-Ray or on demand, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. I’d watch any of their shows live even if I saw it a hundred times on screen already.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, the blue smurf problem. While it reassured me that I still like a nice male butt in a Spandex suit, artistically it’s one of those “oh my” moments. I love how much effort goes into costumes and designing a unique make-up look on every other show, but this just isn’t what I would expect of the Cirque. The dangling, inanimate tails looked just ridiculous and making someone blue from head to toe is visually more distracting than you might think. They should have foregone some of that stuff in the interest of allowing more leeway for the artists to actually be recognizable and making things a bit more easily discernible.

The latter is hard enough, anyway, because the artists are literally battling against the constantly running projections. It’s an interesting technical feat and must have taken months of figuring out the details and develop the looks, but in the end I found it way too distracting. The performers are constantly swallowed by light and sometimes barely stand out. Since the area is huge, they already appear tiny and as a spectator you have to be attentive like an eagle to spot them in the scenery. I also imagine it must be quite exhausting for the artists, since they have to travel huge distances. The “stage” is the size of a hockey field, mind you, and it just takes a while to get from one end to the other.

That being said, the sheer dimensions are staggering, but the grandiosity of it all is also the show’s biggest problem in my view: It tries to impress and manages to do so with all the technical stuff, but it does this at the cost of the human factor. Not only is it difficult to spot anything, but there’s simply not much in terms of structured acrobatic performances. Yes, of course there’s jumping all the time to mimic the Na’vi kind of running movement, but not really much in the way of distinct “acts”. More or less this plays out as a continuous stage play with a narrator and occasional performances sprinkled in, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you feel like you didn’t attend a circus/ varieté performance.

I found this lack of the feeling of being immersed in a “real” show also being furthered by other factors. While the music isn’t particularly revolutionary, some songs are okay, yet you never get to hear them properly. This is quite the opposite of most Cirque shows, where the soundtrack acts as a guide. Here it takes a backseat and is often drowned out by sound effects that accompany the projections and of course the constant shouts in Na’vi language, which after a while gets a bit annoying.

In my opinion this is also the biggest problem at the core of it all: The show insists on re-creating the movie and it’s actually true – without having seen the cinematic version, you won’t understand half of what is going on, be that the blue performers, the puppeted other creatures (another thing that looked more than slightly ridiculous if you ask me), that talk of Eywa or the general setting. One might even argue that they had too many people watching over their shoulders and God forbid had they deviated from the great master plan of what the licensing allowed them. Unfortunately it also has prevented a better show from emerging, which I have no doubt is buried in there somewhere and if I had anything to say about it, it would in fact only take some tweaks and restructuring to make this a lot better.

I totally “get” what they were trying to do, but it seems they haven’t succeeded that much. For all intents and purposes, this is more of a franchise tie-in for Avatar than it is an original Cirque show and as such it would probably work nicely in Disneyland next to the Pandora park, but as a touring show on its own I’m not so sure. It just doesn’t build the atmosphere and the technical requirements already are a strong indication that this will only ever make stopovers at large and reasonably modern/ new arenas that meet those prerequisites. Of course I would see it if it made a stop in my area, things being that the choices of Cirque shows here in Europe seem to get fewer every year, but I still have rather mixed feelings about it.

For all its trimmings it’s a masterful and skilled, yet massively flawed creation that totally fails to evoke any emotion and that’s what to me a good show about. Yes, I want to feel warm and fuzzy inside and I even love being depressed about it and pondering how my life had turned out if I had become one of those guys with a nice ass in tight suits. Oh, the endless possibilities… ;-) I just didn’t have any of that and combined with my tiredness it made for a slightly dreary evening that seemed to just drag on.

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