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When we first saw the promos for Toruk: The First Flight, a Cirque du Soleil show based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar, we were skeptical. Avatar is cool and all, but does it really need an origin story? We chatted with Lisanna Ohm, one of the show’s actors, along with Tomas Duchaine, Toruk‘s production manager. And they totally changed our minds. 

“The story takes place thousands of years before Avatar,” says Ohm, explaining the basic plot of Toruk to us. Ohm, whose official Cirque title is acrobat, plays a Tipani Chief, one of the chiefs of the Na’vi peoples’ five clans. The story follows three teenagers, all from different clans, as they go on a quest to the floating mountains to find the large red and orange bird that rules Pandora’s sky. 

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The performance is narrated by a storyteller who speaks in English, but every other actor speaks in Na’vi, a language Cameron specifically invented for Avatar. “I couldn’t carry on a conversation in it,” laughs Ohm, but she says she has a basic grasp on sentences like, “Oel ngati kameie.” That means, “I see you,” FYI.

All of the actors look just like Na’vi people should — fully blue and more or less naked, conveyed through full body leotards. “The makeup is pretty extensive. There’s no skin showing,” says Ohm, adding that the actors went through 10 hours of makeup training before going off on their own, with each application taking about an hour to complete. Ohm admits that she’s now a pro at getting the stuff off, too. 

“The acrobatics are an extension of the story,” says Ohm. “You feel like you’re in a movie. It’s not like I’m going to see a circus act,'” she says. “It’s beautiful. We’re proud of what we’re offering.”

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Thomas Duchaine is to thank for a lot of what the performance offers. As the production manager he oversees everything from the technical service to acrobats to rigging to sound — you get the idea. “It’s a big team, everything’s shared,” he assures us. “Our biggest challenge is making sure we’re organized.”

Cirque du Soleil has passed through all of the venues on Toruk’s current tour, so Duchaine has an idea of what works at which location. No amount of prep can prepare the show’s producers or performers from an emergency, for which Duchaine has several back up plans. “We have rescue scenarios,” he says. “We have troubleshooting. If one system fails, there’s one that runs parallel to it.”

“We’re pushing the envelope like they did in the movie,” says Duchaine. “It’s pretty much avant-garde.”

Check out Toruk at the North Charleston Coliseum next Thursday-Sunday.

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