The First Flight: Cirque Du Soleil’s Avatar-themed show transforms the Nutter Center

By Terri Gordon

Photo: Youssef Shoufan; costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil
Once upon a time, in the early 1980s, the small Canadian town of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, hosted a small troupe of local street performers as they “roamed the streets,” entertaining onlookers with juggling, music, fire breathing, and dance—often on stilts. Among the group was an artist named Guy Laliberté. As locals took note, Laliberté and the increasingly popular troupe’s founder, Gilles Ste-Croix, began to think bigger. They started a club, and created an annual event—an opportunity for street performers to get together—sort of a performance art conference. After three successful years, they began to think even bigger. They dreamed of creating a full traveling revue—a circus, as it were.
They got their chance in 1984, as Quebec City prepared to commemorate the anniversary of Canada’s discovery. The city decided they wanted a show to inspire the celebration. Laliberté proposed something he called Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun). The rest, as they say, is history. Cirque du Soleil went on to become the well-known enterprise it is today, with its ever-expanding retinue of shows—some that travel, and some that stay put—in Vegas and around the globe. The shows are extremely popular, known for their costumes, color, music, and acrobatics.


Toruk—The First Flight

Toward the end of 2015, Cirque du Soleil launched the traveling show “Toruk—The First Flight.” Inspired by the James Cameron movie “Avatar,” “Toruk” takes the audience into Pandora, the land of the Na’vi, with its foreign language and blue-skinned people, for a story that speaks to the “depth of humanity,” as director and writer Michel Lemieux puts it.

A prequel to “Avatar,” “Toruk—The First Flight” is set about 3,000 years before Cameron’s story takes place. As Cirque du Soleil shows go, it’s a bit more theatrical, a bit less acrobatic. It mixes multimedia with acting and acrobatics to tell a story.

Lemieux comes to “Toruk” as a member of his own company, 4D Art, where he and business partner Victor Pilon have spent over 30 years adding dimension to performance art using modern technologies and video projection.

For “Toruk,” Lemieux and Pilon worked with a playwright to produce the script—first in French, then translated into English, and eventually into Na’vi, a language created for Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Lemieux likens the tale to a bedtime story, the kind a grandfather or grandmother might tell. Direhorses and viperwolves inhabit the moon as they do in “Avatar”—and, of course, the toruk, or great leonopteryx, with its 40-foot wingspan—but the austrapede, a mix of ostrich, flamingo, and dinosaur, and the turtapede, a sea-creature resembling a starfish and turtle, also exists. Civilization is not yet as evolved, so the culture is different from that of “Avatar.”

The story revolves around the Tree of Soul, its impending doom, and the three young people who attempt to tame a toruk to save it. When a shaman’s vision foretells a catastrophic natural disaster, Ralu and his friend, Entu, both members of the Omaticaya clan, set out, joined by Tsyal, of the Tawkami clan, to find a solution, all lending their special talents to accomplish the task. It is a daring quest—the kind of undertaking only youth can achieve, with its idealism and passion—and a fitting initiation into adulthood.

Given the “Avatar” connection, Lemieux and Pilon’s script needed James Cameron’s OK, so they took the finished script to him. They were thrilled at the opportunity to work with him and impressed by his hands-off approach.

“We wrote the show and presented it to him, and he acted as a script doctor,” Lemieux recalls. “It was a luxury to have James Cameron as a script doctor!”

While Cameron added his two cents, he allowed Lemieux and Pilon the freedom to create their own version of his world.

Puppets, kites, and projected images immerse the audience in the world of the Na’vi. Forty separate video projectors create its teeming forests, its floating mountains, and the Tree of Souls—the sacred tree. Projections and lighting create the earthquake and volcanic eruption that threaten the people and their tree.

A costume and makeup team creates the blue skin tones and lemur-like qualities of the Na’vi. Hidden in the artists’ costumes, a state-of-the-art tracking system reacts to and syncs their movements with video projectors, enhancing gestures and effects.

Performers are on stage for the duration of the program, seamlessly helping to make set changes, as well.

“It is exhausting,” Lemieux says. “They are there all the show… The stage is immense. It’s 100-feet-by-200-feet, and they have to jump and to carry sets and do all sorts of acrobatics.”


The Storyteller

In addition to the three young Na’vi, the Storyteller, one of the last members of the Anurai clan, is a vital character. He sets the stage, as it were, in a monologue at the beginning of the show, then moves in and out of the tale as he’s needed, often speaking from the periphery of the activity. According to Canadian actor Raymond O’Neill, it is the first time the company has used an actor in a “pivotal, central role.”

It is a role O’Neill fell into at the end of a long career. A classically trained Shakespearean actor, O’Neill had essentially retired. At the age of 60, he retreated from the world of stage and television and entered a Buddhist monastery. He was interested in “more personal, contemplative work,” with community involvement.

“So, I was living in this Buddhist monastery, indulging my appetite for truth and meaning,” O’Neill relates. “I spent time writing [about my life and journey], but the writing kind of led me full circle in that I realized I had been given skills, and that I still had something positive to give, and that acting and directing and working with theatre people was really where I [belonged]. Who was I kidding?” he laughs. “I wasn’t a monk!”

So, O’Neill left the monastery, set himself up in a cozy apartment, and then…

“The Cirque du Soleil job just appeared, and they’re looking for a mid-60s, classically trained actor, tall, in good shape, with a strong voice. The job starts on July 20—my 64th birthday.”

It seemed tailor-made. The moment of angst he felt—he’d just settled into the apartment, after all—dissipated as he made his way through the audition process. He fell in love with the project and its story, the positive message put forth about community and nature and the connectivity of all living things—truth and meaning, again.

“It feels good to go to work and share the joy I feel,” O’Neill states, noting that the audiences are quite a bit bigger than those drawn by classical theatre. “I get a lot of joy out of taking my little piece of the pie and serving it up with as much integrity and as much joy as possible. I hope people walk away feeling that they’ve been to a good show.

“It’s visually spectacular; there’s a story being told. There’s the classic acrobatic work you expect from Cirque, but they’re entering into a virtual reality, computer generated world that’s just—the visuals, the costumes, the color. It’s just spectacular, visually stunning.”

In the end, it is revealed that the Storyteller is actually an elder, and connected to the narrative.



Ralu, the Na’vi boy who leads the quest for the toruk, is played by Jeremiah Hughes, a well-rounded performer who started dancing with the Canadian Dance Company at the age of 11. He later studied acting and gymnastics. All of this is just the kind of experience it takes to portray the Na’vi. He takes the role to heart, playing protector and mentor to Entu as they look for the toruk, and try to save the tree and its environment. He taps into his real-life role of older brother to inform his character, and feels “elevated” as a person from playing the disciplined, principled character. It is not his first work with Cirque du Soleil, but it is clearly one he relishes.

“It’s been such an amazing journey,” Hughes says, “The show evolves week to week—sometimes even show to show. We find moments we approach differently, or we add new acrobatic elements.

“There’s such a freedom with the role that I can be honest and genuine with the space and challenge myself to try a new skill, or feel deeper, or try changing the tempo of a scene.

“My character is young, brash, and proud, a defender, always looking out for his adopted little brother where there’s danger or adversity, always putting himself in front of the danger to protect [him]. I bring special skills—dance, acrobatics, musicality—but really, it’s about just bringing an open heart every night.”



Lemieux and Pilon have done their jobs, creating a reality that Lemieux characterizes as “somewhere between reality and virtual reality.” A student of production, he is doing precisely what he dreamed of as a child, when he created shows in his bedroom, coercing his parents and sister to attend.

Lemieux tells of an early show he developed for an arena setting. The set was reminiscent of his old room—when bunk beds created a stage for puppets.

“My father came to see the big show,” Lemieux recalls, “and he said, ‘I recognize you when you were 6 years old, in your room, doing the show.’

“So, I think I am still kind of a kid—a grown up kid, having bigger toys and having the chance of working with immensely talented people.”



Cirque du Soleil presents ‘Toruk—The First Flight’ Wednesday, March 22–Sunday, March 26 at the Wright State University Nutter Center, 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway in Fairborn. Shows start at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, with Saturday show times at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sunday show times at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets range from $39–$103 for adults, with child and senior discounts available. For tickets or more information, please call 937.775.3498 or visit or

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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