The Offspring and I went to see the Cirque du Soleil production of TORUK last night and it was spectacular, but not quite as magical as the production I saw a great many years ago. Clearly, nostalgia played a part, and I do know that memory cheats, but some of the real differences are worth mentioning.
Back when I saw Cirque du Soleil for the first time, the performance was under a Big Top, and although huge, it made the experience much more intimate. Last night’s performance of TORUK took place in the Rod Laver Arena, and to me, the place is insanely big.
This is a photo I took before the performance began:
Apologies for the quality of the photo, but that hand on the right makes a perfect point – the other side of the arena is a looooong way off and the people there look like fly specks. The dark, purple area in the middle is the ‘stage’.
The Offspring made sure we had excellent seats very close to the stage, but I was still gobsmacked by the sheer size of the place. It felt more like a football oval than the venue for a performance.
Another point of difference between then and now was the security. Every single person was checked – bags and bodies. The security guy didn’t wave the wand thingie over me – too grey and inoffensive looking? – but the Offspring was wanded, and the efficiency of the security people was both reassuring and rather scary. Way back then, there was no need for such stringent security, and I’m saddened by how much the world has changed.
Melbourne has more public transport than most Australia cities. We have an excellent train network and the inner city area is well supplied with trams as well as buses. Nevertheless, we are also a city of cars, and never has that been more obvious than last night.
The Offspring and I left home at 6pm for an 8pm performance. We drove. We barely made it to the performance in time.
Part of the problem was that Friday night traffic is always bad, plus there were road works at a critical point on one of the feeder roads leading to the Rod Laver Arena. But most of the congestion was caused by the venue itself.
This is a map of the area:
You can see how close the venue is to the Melbourne CBD. The CBD is well supplied with public transport, but the area around the arena is for cars only, and the roads were ‘chockers’ [stop-start to you non-Aussies]. What’s worse, the Rod Laver Arena is not the only venue in that particular stretch of real estate. The area bounded by the purple line is full of public venues, and they all seemed to be in use last night.
In hindsight, we should have parked elsewhere and walked, or taken one of the cute little rickshaw-type vehicles that work that stretch of road. But we didn’t know what conditions would be like and had a terrible time getting there. At one stage we thought we might miss the performance altogether.:(
That kind of stress is not conducive to magic, so I was not in my happy place when the performance of TORUK began. Nevertheless, there was enough magic in the show to bring a huge smile to my face. You see, TORUK is like a modern day opera with circus elements.
Opera? Really? Yes…well, sort of. If you think of opera as a story told through music and acting then TORUK is not far off the mark. Cirque du Soleil has always been known for creating beautiful, evocative music, sung in a ‘language’ no one understands. In fact, like opera sung in Italian, the ‘no one understands’ bit is the true genius of the music because it does away with the language barrier completely.
And then there’s the story. TORUK takes the Avatar concept and subtracts anything overtly ‘human’ from it. The story is Na’vi-centric [the blue natives of Pandora] and follows three young heroes – two males and a female – as they overcome great obstacles to gather five sacred objects. These objects are needed to stop a volcanic eruption from destroying the Na’vi sacred tree.
Anyone familiar with gaming would immediately recognize the story as a ‘quest’ plot, and as with the Lord of the Rings, the quest is also a story of personal development. Told through mime, and action sequences that showcase the circus elements, the story is complex enough to need a ‘narrator’, and this is the one element I could have done without. Every time the narrator spoke in English, I fell out of the story.
The Offspring disagrees with me about the storytelling aspect of the performance, so I may be in a minority of one here. Nevertheless, I believe the English actually broke the magic that I’d come to expect from earlier productions. I have no idea whether the rest of the audience felt the same or, like the Offspring, appreciated knowing what the hell was going on.
Anyway, that was the only element that was a negative for me, and it was more than counter-balanced by some of the other, innovative elements of the show, such as the puppets. Controlled by performers in dark body suits, the ‘beasts’ of Pandora really made me smile, but then I’ve always loved puppets – Dark Crystal anyone? – and the Japanese art of Bunraku.
Couldn’t resist showing you some examples. First up is a scene from the Dark Crystal by the late Jim Henson:
And from the other side of the world, Bunraku from Japan:
The TORUK puppets were not quite as sophisticated as either of these two examples, but they were still amazing and totally unexpected in a ‘circus’ performance. But then, Cirque du Soleil has always been more than just a circus. Right from the start they refused to have live animals, and although they used to have clowns, the more death defying circus acts were always woven together into a theme that told a story of sorts.
Those innovative, non-standard circus elements are what made Cirque du Soleil such a ground-breaking company, but TORUK has taken that evolution to a new level. It is story-telling with music that uses circus elements instead of being defined by them. The result is a spectacular and beautiful performance.
And yet, if I’m honest, it was still the death-defying, gasp-inducing circus elements that really took my breath away, and two ‘acts’ really stood out. One featured a gymnast working on something like the ‘rings’, and the second featured a gymnast/contortionist.
My dad was a champion gymnast in his youth, and I learned to appreciate the skill through him. Especially the rings:
The rings are all about strength, control, skill. The young man who performed a version of the rings in TORUK used only straps. If Dad were still alive he would have applauded his strength and artistry.
The second element that blew me away was a contortionist who bent his? her? body into impossible positions while balancing on what amounted to a very large seesaw. The following Youtube video isn’t from TORUK but it does show how amazing the Cirque du Soleil performers can be:
I should also mention the performer who ‘juggled’ five boomerang type thingies. Simply amazing.
And did I mention the sets, props and light show? I’m not sure how they did it – laser projections perhaps – but they made it look as if water were flooding across the stage. Colour me gobsmacked.
Would I recommend TORUK to others? Oh god yes. Seeing TORUK was our big treat and Christmas present this year, and it was worth every penny. 🙂