“After you, it’s the best country in the world.” Jean Sebastien’s quip elicits laughter. ...

Jean Sebastien Roberge is the Assistant Production Manager of Toruk: The First Flight, a Cirque du Soleil production inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar. He is talking about Canada, of course, in response to a student seeking to ascertain that Cirque du Soleil indeed came from Montréal – or to be more accurate, its outskirts. Jean Sebastien’s enthusiasm is unsurprising given that he comes from Montréal himself. In one and a half hours, we will have met members of the crew hailing from Ohio, Nevada, and Florida, but without a doubt, the story of Cirque du Soleil begins in a street in Quebec where four young men used to busk.

I have something to confess: I haven’t actually been to a Cirque du Soleil show. Don’t get me wrong, I love original soundtracks and all things theatrical, especially when spectacular acrobatics feature so prominently in the performance. There are simply too many things I have yet to cross off my bucket list. This is why, when I was invited with the other interns in the Marketing Communications department of NUS Centre For the Arts on a backstage tour on the set of Toruk, we waxed lyrical for days – we knew that had we chosen to do something else with our summer vacations, we would never have been exposed to an opportunity like this

If there’s anything I adore more than watching a performance, it’s listening to a good origin story. Jean Sebastien set the scene for the tour perfectly, taking us back to 1984 when these men were “at the beginning of an explosion of talent”. He explained their roots, how their careers in entertainment stemmed from street-side performances of juggling and stilt-walking. At some point, he told us, some creativity came to them, and life is a question of timing – at least in the case of these four men, who were able to provide a novel experience for a government searching for something new in the field of entertainment.

Before they received a government grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, they had nothing. Now, they have about 50 productions all over the world.

It seems apt to me that the tour began with that story, for subsequently, hearing firsthand about the creation and production of the show clued us in on the importance of having a story to tell. According to Artistic Director Hugo Martins, the acting, theatrical and emotional components of Toruk differentiate it from their other shows. As any other Cirque du Soleil show, it has the acrobatic component, Hugo tells us with his grandiose arm gestures, “but what makes this show unique is a strong theatrical component”. This Cirque du Soleil show is special because it is driven by a story, and for this purpose, enormous efforts were put into crafting an exquisitely detailed fictional world.

This is exemplified in the work put in by the cast with regard to characterisation. Hugo describes how the actors learned the Na’vi language and movements, originally created by James Cameron’s team, Lightstorm Entertainment, for Avatar, so that “they [could] really embody the Na’vi race”. Not only did the cast learn an entire language with proper vocabulary and structure, but also how to move like the Na’vi, encapsulating the essence of these humanoids both in words and body language. Afterwards, when we observed the cast during a rehearsal, their deft movements and seemingly effortless coordination emphasised just how successfully they had internalised these actions. The cast also had to learn to put on a full face of complicated stage makeup, which they do for themselves at the start of every day.

Members of the cast of Toruk in the midst of a rehearsal.

The workload is no lighter for the crew on the set of Toruk. Peewee Steelsmith described his job as head of the props department as “constant, constant, constant work… it is a challenge, but it is fun and the people around here are amazing”. In addition to the pressure of maintaining Cirque du Soleil’s high standards and constantly trying to evoke “new feelings and new sensations in the audience”, having to move cities every week or two makes the pace of work on set consistently intense.

Cirque du Soleil has seen many firsts during the conception and production of Toruk. This is the first time Cirque du Soleil is using a whole arena as its stage and the first time puppets are being used. Toruk, the eponymous creature, not only requires the use of mechanisms, but needs the help of six puppeteers to fly. As stated by the Production Manager of Toruk, Kenneth Mills, this production is best known for its use of projections. The entire set covered by 40 video projectors.

A significant part of Hugo’s work as Artistic Director certainly goes into ensuring that the portrayal of Toruk and the quality of this production “stays faithful to the creators’ vision”, but we were excited to hear that there are, in fact, additions to Toruk that did not exist in Avatar. New creatures were invented that did not appear in the movie’s depiction of Pandora, and the fluid, organic music that goes into Toruk was composed specially for the production by Bob & Bill, who have worked multiple times with Cirque du Soleil. Regarding the soundtrack, Hugo said, “It’s beautiful music… a big highlight of the show is the soundtrack.”

Undeniably, the fact that James Cameron and his team have had so much to say since the conception of Avatar is largely what makes the work put in by the various members of the cast and crew so worthwhile: this the reason that there is a story to share in the first place. Hugo shared that the directors of Toruk were able to benefit from the research conducted by Cameron’s team for the Avatar movie, which took four to five years to complete. When asked if the actors’ input affects the development of the script, Hugo replied, “That’s the beautiful part of creation, of course – the artists are like tools of the creators, but the exchange is both ways.” He explained that when the directors start working with the artists, they take whatever input and suggestions the artists can give them that help them to convey their main message to the audience, for “that is [their] main responsibility as artists, to get in touch with the audience… to put them in touch with their own emotions”. Storytelling is crucial, and with such a diverse cast, it is vital that these different perspectives and ideas are engaged to find the best ways to tell the story. “When we can establish that connection with the audience, that is when the magic really happens.” This is also the reason for the Storyteller in Toruk, who narrates the story in English – “because if it was all in Na’vi, nobody would understand!”

Just as the spirit of Pandora is epitomised in the language and movements of the Na’vi race, Hugo displays a profound understanding that his multi-cultural cast. This probably stems, in part, from his own background as an artist – he started out as a gymnast before becoming a dancer, following which he delved into show production and choreography, eventually becoming an Artistic Director at Cirque du Soleil. As an Artistic Director, he tells us that “having to manage so many different people from so many cultures” has allowed him to “learn about [himself]”.

It isn’t difficult to imagine that working with such a diverse cast and crew can lead to amazing learning experiences, when the truth is that even a day of going behind the scenes of such a huge performance and meeting a crew that has been around the globe can make you dream of pursuing your most impossible creative goals. After all, the idea of having their work bring joy to people everywhere must have seemed unthinkable to those four men just over thirty years ago.

Going backstage with Jean Sebastien, it was clear that Cirque du Soleil, having entertained 90 million people all over the world on 6 continents, and still entering new markets, is inexorable. “Our goal? To see all the world, I guess!”

By: Jaclyn Tan, Marketing & Communications Intern (Year 2, Yale-NUS College)
Images by: Xu Ling, Marketing & Communications Intern (Year 2, NUS Business School)