Toruk The First Flight

           Cirque du Soleil  at the United Center

                        by Dan Zeff

Chicago – “Toruk—the First Flight,” now playing at the United Center, is the latest Cirque du Soleil spectacle. Inspired by the motion picture “Avatar,” visually “Toruk” is the Cirque du Soleil at the top of its creative game. But it demands the audience’s tolerance in dealing with the tiresome and elusive plot. For viewers willing to cut the storyline some slack, “Toruk” merits a visit for its wondrous special effects. For those who insist that a show’s narrative be emotionally involving, or at least coherent, good luck.

Being one of the few people in the Western world who never saw the movie “Avatar,” I was obviously at a disadvantage trying to sort out the characters and storyline. But I suspect that even being fully acquainted with the movie wouldn’t bring me any closer to accepting the wearisome and elusive “Toruk” plot.

The story takes place on a moon called Pandora, but several thousand years before the time frame of “Avatar.” The main characters are members of the Na’vi tribe, or people, or whatever. The plot centers, if I got it right, on a volcanic disaster that threatens the sacred Tree of Souls. Somehow, the Na’vi have advance knowledge of the coming cataclysm. There is only one way to save the Tree of Souls, and presumably, the Na’vi civilization. Send a pure-hearted warrior to go out into the Pandora world to gather a talisman from each of the five Na’vi tribes and then fly the giant birdlike predator Toruk to rescue the Tree of Souls. To save the day, three adventurous young Na’vis hit the road to gather the talismans, encountering all sorts of obstacles along the way. Spoiler alert: the threesome finally grabs the talismans, the Tree of Souls is saved, and the story ends happily.

That’s enough about the story. I stopped paying attention to the narrative about halfway through the evening and concentrated on the brilliant visual presentation. Forty high-definition projectors transform the floor of the United Center into the lush vegetation of Pandora. There are stunning images of water flowing across the stage and one particularly remarkable visual sequence that shows characters desperately trying to scale a cliff with giant chunks of rock falling all around them. It’s breathtaking moments like these that make “Toruk” a theatrical wonderland.

But Cirque du Soleil did not carve out a unique niche for itself in world-class entertainment by telling stories. The three dozen Cirque productions over the past 30 years have wowed audiences with their brilliant circus acts, complemented by exotic costumes and sets. There may have been a mildly unifying theme occasionally but primarily the circus acts, both traditional and cutting edge, made the Cirque such a success throughout the world.

“Toruk” does inject some circus displays throughout the show, mostly rope climbing and silks climbing and gymnastics, but the acts are often overwhelmed by the vast space of the United Center and all the distracting movement going on among the ensemble on the floor. Nobody walks when they can run, and much of the action resembles a bizarre track meet with characters dashing around in circles.

This is also one of the wordiest Cirque productions I’ve seen, with the Na’vi characters all speaking in their own unintelligible language. The only English heard comes from a character called the Storyteller (Raymond O’Neill from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) who sonorously narrates parts of the story. The Na’vi manage to express themselves through body language and vocal intonation, to little effect. But verbalizing is a questionable strategy because giant arenas like the United Center are not acoustically friendly to the spoken word.

The show owes a debt to “The Lion King” with its use of puppet characters operated by handlers in full view of the audience. The production is populated by a wide selection of fantastical animal figures, some flying through the air. The menagerie includes some strikingly imaginative critters but they are there mostly to be looked at rather than to contribute to the story, the exception being Toruk, who makes a late dramatic appearance. There is a small group of evil looking animals called Viperwolves that slink on and off stage menacingly from time to time, like the hyenas in “Lion King.” But such figures lack the wit and dramatic purpose of Julie Taymor’s creatures.

The Na’vi characters all wear blue costumes and blue makeup and have tails. The difference between male and female characters is notably evident, but overall I couldn’t tell one character from another and in the absence of an understandable language the performers couldn’t do much persuasive acting. The show does employ several dozen players and musicians, including some fine percussionists. The backstage must be run with drill team efficiency to accommodate the countless number of quick costume changes the show requires.

The music follows the Cirque tradition of being loud, continuous, and highly rhythmic. As usual, a female vocalist sings lyrics in an unknown tongue with impressive vocal power and range. But it was the team of percussionists that carried the show musically.

“Toruk” runs a little over two hours, including one very long intermission. The creativity of the visual production can’t be overestimated. But the spectacle is constantly at war with the tedious and humorless and pretentious storyline. I couldn’t care less whether the Na’vi warriors saved their Tree of Souls but the visual magic blew me away.

To summarize, “Toruk” illustrates that the Cirque du Soleil hasn’t lost its mojo when it comes to imaginative eye-popping sets, costumes, and, above all, lighting effects. There is always something striking to look at, both on the floor of the United Center and in the air. This is a high-energy concept, though relentless movement doesn’t always equate into attention-grabbing action.

“Toruk” runs through August 7 at the United Center, 1901 West Madison Street. There are afternoon and evening performances Friday through Sunday. Prices vary considerably, depending upon seat location, date of performance, and where the buyers purchase their tickets. For information, visit

                     The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

          Contact Dan at August2016

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*************************************************         Zarkana     Cirque du Soleil

             at the Aria Resort(Las Vegas)

LAS VEGAS—“Zarkana” is the latest Cirque du Soleil mega production to take residence in Las Vegas. The show opened in November, enclosed in a vast and opulent theater at the Aria resort on the Strip. It replaces “Viva Elvis,” a rare Cirque dud. “Zarkana” show breaks no new ground in the 25-year old Cirque du Soleil tradition. If you are happy with the Cirque style of entertainment, you should get lots of pleasure from “Zarkana,” accepting the proposition that you can never have too much of a good thing. If you are seeking a new and innovative amusement experience carrying the Cirque du Soleil brand, the show may breed some discontent.

“Zarkana” takes the audience on a typical Cirque du Soleil journey into an exotic, sometimes grotesque fantasy world. Like most Cirque shows, there is a thread of a narrative, but it’s impossible to keep track of the plot line throughout the 90-minute evening. The show is opened by master of ceremonies/magician Zark (Paul Bisson, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Chicago television personality Svengooli). Zark returns to an abandoned theater and with the assistance of a clutch of weirdo humanoid figures he tries to organize a show. That’s as much plot as I discerned.

“Zarkana” is actually a string of unrelated circus acts, a few of startling originality and many familiar from other shows.The trappings of the production are pure Cirque du Soleil. Characters speak in an unintelligible pseudo language that sounds part French and part Spanish and part Italian. The live percussion-heavy orchestra pounds out a continuous stream of rhythmic high decibel musical accompaniment. A pair of female vocalists sings their gibberish lyrics with much expression, suggesting that they understand the lyrics even if the listener is baffled.

The visuals are stunning, as usual in a Cirque production, with a blend of projections and lighting that maximize the theater’s high tech resources. For lovers of sensory overload, “Zarkana” will not disappoint.

The show gets off to a rousing start with Masha Choodu, a lady juggler of remarkable skills and invention. What she does with tennis balls at warp speed velocity is extraordinary. The most novel act of the evening is delivered by Vira Sivirotkina, a woman who manually creates sand paintings on the surface of what looks like an ornate barrelhead. The pictures are then projected onto a large screen above the stage. It’s a remarkable exercise in dexterity and imagination and the production could use more like her. A troupe of young men make a poetic exercise out of tossing large billowing flags back and forth, an outwardly simple act that demands pinpoint discipline and timing in its execution.

The program also includes a number of acts that patrons will recognize from other Cirque shows. There is a high-risk hand balancing act and a high wire act, both proficient but nothing I haven’t seen before. One act I have seen several times that still knocks me out is the Wheel of Death. Two men scramble on and within a giant rotating pendulum called the Wheel of Death. The men wear no safety cables as they clamber all over the fast-moving pendulum, sometimes jumping rope as they maintain their balance. If this isn’t a death-defying act, it definitely invites the possibility of grievous bodily harm.

A company of trapeze artists is sensational, performing multiple somersaults high above the vast stage with breathtaking precision and only one or two excusable misfires. Seven men perform a group act on hoops called Cyr wheels that was as remarkable for its multi-media whiz-bang as for its real life performance. “Zarkana” is strong on acrobats, the featured act being a company called Banquine that presents 15 gymnasts performing all manner of impressive acrobat maneuvers and pyramids.

Lamentably, “Zarkana” reserves an excessive amount of stage time for two clowns. In the many Cirque du Soleil shows I’ve seen the clowns have been relentlessly unfunny, mugging and pratfalling for endless minutes (I’ve never found the Ringling Brothers clowns funny either so maybe I am resistant to this type of circus comedy). In any case, the “Zarkana” clowns go on and on, though the audience seemed to enjoy them either because the viewers actually thought they were funny or the patrons were sympathetically responding to the huffing and puffing the performers were putting into their routines.

Compared to other Cirque shows in Las Vegas, “Zarkana” is leisurely in its pace. A little less faux operatic singing by Zark and a little more energy in the staging would accelerate the production’s momentum and dissipate the occasional dead spots. But overall “Zarkana” is a worthy addition to the Cirque Las Vegas stable, not at the same level as “O” and “Love,” the gold standards for Cirque shows on the Strip, and just below the long running “Mystere,” but definitely on a higher plane than “Ka” and “Zumanity.” I haven’t seen the seventh show, “Criss Angel: Believe,” about which opinion seems to be divided. “Zarkana” will work best with audiences attending their first Cirque du Soleil performance, when everything will seem novel and eye opening. Veteran Cirque patrons could find the show over familiar, though the juggler and the sand painter are worth the price of admission by themselves. And the theater itself is a stunner.

“Zarkana” is playing an open run at the Aria resort, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard. Performances are Friday through Tuesday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $180. Call 877 253 5847 or visit

            The show gets a rating of three stars.

         Contact Dan:      December 2012

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