“We wear tails in the show and that changes things…”: Cirque de Soleil performers Lydia Harper and Antony Antunes on moving like Na’vi in Toruk − The First Flight
Journey with the cast of Toruk − The First Flight to an ethereal land with mystical beasts and those strange blue alien creatures the world came to know and love nearly a decade ago. Based on the groundbreaking cinematic experience by James Cameron, Toruk invites the audience into a pre-Avatar Pandora. Created and developed at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal in 2015, the show has since been on tour and is set to close out in London at the end of the month.
The production, which has been notably touted as an immersive, multimedia experience, embraces a robust storyline and is sure to surprise even the troupe’s most die-hard fans.
We caught up with acrobat Lydia Harper and puppeteer Antony Antunes from the cast prior to the show’s UK premiere to talk about their favourite moments, the biggest challenges and of course the thrill that comes along with performing in one of the most ambitious live shows on the circuit.
Congrats on your run so far with Toruk − The First Flight. You’re both British performers − how does it feel to finally bring this show to the UK?
Lydia Harper: I cannot wait! It’ll be really special for my friends and family to see what I’ve been up to for the past few years. I went to circus school in London at the National Centre for Circus so it will be nice to come full circle in my circus career!
Antony Antunes: Having been to so many countries, it’s a great feeling to bring the show to all my family and friends, who’ve been supporting me whilst I’ve been on the road.
Are there any other Brits who will be coming home in June?
LH: Yes − there are two British puppeteers, two acrobats, one kite specialist and a fair few British technicians.
AA: The cast is one big international family, so there are a handful of Brits on and off stage.
That’ll definitely be exciting for everyone performing on their home turf. Lydia − as an original cast member, how heavily were you involved in the creation of your acrobatic acts?
LH: I’ve actually been with the show since creation! Because it’s set on the moon of Pandora, traditional circus equipment or ideas wouldn’t fit in, so the designers created new apparatus for us to try out at the Cirque du Soleil Headquarters in Montreal. The whole team was involved: artists, coaches, directors and designers. It’s very special to perform something each night that you had a hands-on role in creating.
Generally speaking, do performers typically bring acts with them to shows or are the acts set in advance and joining performers learn them?
LH: It really depends on the show. Since Toruk has such a specific theme, all of us artists had to relearn and adjust our technique to fit the Na’vi style of movement. We wear tails in the show and that changes things…
Antony, you joined the show a little more recently in November of 2018. How was that and what was the rehearsal process like for you as a newer member?
AA: For safety and precision purposes, everything that happens on stage needs to be rehearsed, checked and then validated, so the process was more stretched out than I’m used to. However, I was welcomed into the cast with open arms from the start, which made the rehearsal process fun and exciting.
And which puppets do you operate?
AA: I perform with all the puppets in the show! We often take turns doing specific scenes or characters and that keeps every show (often two a day) fresh and in the moment.
That’s incredible. How did you develop their specific movements and mannerisms?
AA: The creatures on Pandora − from the world of Avatar − are Hexapods, meaning they have six limbs, which really affects the way we manipulate the creatures’ movements and behaviours. We also create all the sounds of the creatures live on stage using microphones. The sound department sometimes alters the pitch and tone slightly to give that otherworldly quality the audience hears, but it all starts with us.
What would you say was the most difficult thing to master for the show? A lot goes into preparing for a production of this magnitude.
LH: The hardest part for me is keeping the Na’vi physicality whilst doing technical acrobats. During the creation phase we had Julène Renée − who did the motion capture for Avatar and is a Na’vi movement specialist − teach us how to move, eat, breathe and think like the Na’vi. It was an invaluable experience, especially as it’s such a specific style of movement. Making everything look incredibly easy and agile whilst staying graceful and athletic is its own challenge. Currently, I’m an Artist Coach for Toruk and my main responsibility is teaching and maintaining Na’vi movement quality. We want every audience member to experience the world created by James Cameron so it’s a big job!
AA: When we aren’t puppeteering a character, we are often on stage as the Spirits of Ewya, manipulating props or helping to transition from one scene to the next. We also had to learn how to move like the Na’vi for these moments but with a more ethereal quality, so keep an eye out for us slinking, sliding and swinging about the stage! It was definitely a new experience for me.
I imagine the makeup must also be a challenge as well. I heard you all have to apply your own before every show?
LH: The makeup took me so long to learn! The first time I did it, it took me 3 ½ hours and I didn’t finish! But I can do it in about 45 minutes now. It’s complex makeup with many steps that involve cream foundations, setting powder and multiple powder shadows to add depth and details. Taking it off takes about seven minutes − obviously it’s super important for us to take care of our skin since we put so much makeup on it each day, so everyone has their own technique that works for them when gently removing their makeup. After four years it’s now second nature for me. It’s a nice pre-show moment of quiet to focus, meditate or catch up on all the gossip in the dressing room.
Considering this show in particular has been described as narrative-heavy, multimedia performance, what can fans expect that’s perhaps different from what they’re used to seeing at a Cirque du Soleil show?
LH: Toruk immerses the audience in a completely new world. We still have all the acrobatics, magic and beauty of other Cirque shows, but it’s all carefully woven into the story and the journey we take you on.
AA: In terms of the multimedia aspect, we use the entire floor as our stage and with a total projection surface larger than 5 IMAX screens, the multimedia elements are almost a show in and of themselves. We also have new disciplines like boomerang juggling and indoor kite flying, which have never been done in a Cirque show before. Toruk also stands out because it follows a strong storyline, which is another first. While the performers on stage speak in the Na’vi language without translation, we have a Na’vi storyteller who brings the audience into our world and guides them through in English. I think that if audiences come with an open mind and a willingness to embark on this wonderful immersive adventure, fans of Cirque du Soleil will definitely connect with this stunning new live experience.
Do you have any personal favourite moments?
LH: I can’t tell you too much about mine because it is part of the finale of the show but it involves a wall-climbing running act, awesome video projections, lava and a whole lot of water!
Now that sounds awesome.
AA: I’d have to say that I love the moment when the Hallelujah Mountains first appear. We manipulate the space to bring the characters onstage and the audience into the floating mountains of Pandora. As part of the set rises, the lights, smoke and music build up to then reveal the Toruk, our 12-meter-wide puppet, for the first time.
And finally, was it at all intimidating to be making a production based on Avatar, in particular considering its success as a motion picture? Has Toruk lived up to the challenge?
LH: It was terrifying! Avatar has such a huge fanbase and the film is so spectacular! However, I can’t imagine a better company for taking on this challenge than Cirque du Soleil. I remember in one of our previews, a superfan of Avatar came to watch and we were so nervous to meet them. But they loved it! We often have superfans that come to the show in full Na’vi costume, and understanding the Na’vi language we speak on stage − it’s incredible. With all of the multimedia elements, the artistry of the performers and the beautiful puppets, I think we have created something very special.
AA: The creative directors worked for five years with James Cameron and his team before we even started the casting and creation process. Everything was put in place to make sure Toruk was truly part of the world of Pandora. Even nowadays, we constantly work on the show, tweaking and innovating, and we are always in contact with the Avatar team. Our show definitely lives up to the wonders and spectacle of that gorgeous alien world James Cameron created.
Photos: Matt Beard © 2017 Cirque du Soleil
Toruk: The First Flight is at the 02 Arena on 26th June 2019. For further information or to book visit their website here.
Watch the trailer for Toruk: The First Flight here: