“Avatar” is the groundbreaking epic that was written, directed, produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. The initial development for the 2009 film began back in 1994. However, the multitalented helmsman decided to put the project on hold until technology could advance enough to adequately depict his vision.
In late 2015, Cirque du Soleil premiered “Toruk: The First Flight,” a production that was inspired by Cameron’s “Avatar.” The show was unlike anything that Cirque du Soleil had attempted before. It was a mind-blowing spectacle of storytelling, athleticism, puppetry, computer enhanced effects, music, and more. It could be argued that “Toruk: The First Flight” is an even more remarkable achievement than the original film because it is all done live.
After a bit of tweaking and trimming to tighten the narrative and allow for even more acrobatics, “Toruk: The First Flight” is back, bigger and better than ever. On Wednesday, March 8, this phenomenal show comes to Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center for a special five-day eight show engagement. After Philadelphia, Cirque du Soleil continues to Hartford Connecticut and Dayton, Ohio. [Tickets available, here.]
Fabrice Lemire is the Artistic Director of “Toruk: The First Flight.” He’s been with the production from the start, so he’s been hands-on with writer/directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon at every step of the creative process. “It took us 15 weeks, which is actually a short period of time,” Fabrice informed early last Tuesday morning from his hotel room in Cleveland. After the interview, Lemire was headed to the gym. “We had to make drastic choices because of the time restrictions. However, because I was part of that process, I had the tools in my back pocket in case there was an opportunity, while the show was evolving and in operation, to contribute, which I did.”
When asked about the path that brought him to Cirque du Soleil, Fabrice talked about his early childhood in Paris where he studied music, piano, and dance. He explained how his passion for the performing arts eventually led to a career in dancing.
“I’ve never had a job,” he pointed out, “I’ve always been in the performing arts just not in the capacity I am now. I like the aspect of being hands-on and the responsibility of taking a vision — my vision and the vision of others — and putting it into action.”
Although moving from a dancer to a director was a very organic and natural process for Lemire, it wasn’t something the industry easily accepted.
“I stopped dancing in 2001. At 31 years old, I put my shoes away because I wanted to focus on collaboration with choreographers and other people. I wasn’t declining, I was still growing as a dancer, but I’d had enough of that side. For the industry to really understand that I was done, I needed to make a drastic move. I was living in San Francisco at the time, so I moved back to New York to make a clean cut from my career in dancing.”
Even though Fabrice still possesses a remarkable physique, he added, “I’m paying the price for not dancing. That is why I am forcing myself to wake up early in the morning — like today — to go to the gym. Aging and gravity, it’s all catching up with me. Plus, the traveling we do, sitting on planes, sitting in chairs in arenas, it’s all taking it’s toll. I have to work a lot harder and I don’t see the results as quickly.”
In 2003, Lemire’s journey brought him to Las Vegas to work on Celine Dion’s show called, “A New Day…” It was there that someone from Cirque du Soleil took notice of his skills and recruited him as a talent scout for the company.
“And here we are, eight years later,” he announced. “I am on my fourth show for Cirque, third one to direct, and it’s been a natural progression. I believe that my background, my knowledge of performing arts and the artistic world, has allowed me to migrate this way.”
“Toruk: The First Flight” is an incredible production. It lingers between worlds, not quite James Cameron’s “Avatar,” but not your typical Cirque du Soleil show either. It’s more of a theater piece. There is a narrative and the actors speak in dialogue (in Na’vi) throughout the show, something that is unique to this production.
“This was written more as a storytelling epic, it was not treated as an acrobatic show,” Fabrice explained. “And that actually backfired on us the first year. Fans of Cirque du Soleil came with a high expectation of what this should be because of what they had seen in the past. But we took a curve in the creative writing. We decided that the acrobatic element would only come in to support the narration and to support an emotion, it was not the driving force of the production. We focused on the more theatrical aspect of the show.”
The reason the focus shifted was because Cirque du Soleil didn’t want to fall into a comfort zone while working with James Cameron and Lightstorm, they wanted to challenge themselves.
“The show you are going to see in Philadelphia is very, very different from the show we presented a year ago at the premier in Montreal,” Lemire stated. “And that’s simply because it’s the way this company functions. We have the ability to constantly give love to a project as it is presented in front of audiences. It’s a lot of work and it’s time-consuming, but it ensures your vision is very clear and everyone, from the crew to the performers, understands that vision.”
“We’ve added a lot of acrobatic elements to the show. I brought in a guy with a boomerang, we have a stick performer in the middle, and I have a new contortionist. So we’ve added layers to make sure this show really provides the audience with that extra wow factor!”
“We are not just hiring performers for their physical skill sets,” Fabrice noted, “we are asking them to completely expand their horizons and their mindsets. The main characters are miked and they are speaking the language of the film. They had to learn this language. As a little anecdote, about six or seven months ago, Dr. Paul Frommer, they guy who created the Na’vi language, brought a group of ‘Avatar’ superfans to a show — I call them superfans because they can actually speak Na’vi. When we did a Q&A after the show, they told me they clearly understood everything the performers were saying on stage.”
“The artists in this show are not just performing what they’ve already been doing for so long, we’ve asked them to bring so much more of themselves into this production,” he added. “It’s not easy for everybody to be able to do that. If a contortionist isn’t miked, she doesn’t have to think about the breathing aspect while she is performing. That was a huge thing everyone had to learn for this show. We don’t want it to sound like our performers are dying on stage while they are running around.”
“For ‘Toruk: The First Flight,’ we needed the right type of performers, artists who were willing to challenge themselves for a show and move outside of their comfort zone.”
Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight” is an extraordinary, must-see production filled with action, feats of incredible athleticism, breathtaking scenery, and rousing music. It redefines what is possible on a live stage and reawakens the wonder in us all.
Dates and times for Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: The First Flight” at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center:
Wednesday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m
Friday, March 10 at 3:30 p.m
Friday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m
Saturday, March 11 at 4:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 11 at 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 12 at 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 12 at 5:00 p.m.