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Cirque du Soleil’s “TORUK – The First Flight” Set to Take Off in Richmond Coliseum


It’s just hours before the dress rehearsal and soft opening for Cirque du Soleil’s new show TORUK – The First Flight and Neilson Vignola is feeling both excited and exhausted. The production, inspired by James Cameron’s record-breaking film AVATAR, is breaking new ground for Cirque’s family of shows.

“This is a brand new process for us,”
Vignola says, speaking from the arena in Bossier City, Louisiana, where the show has
been practicing. “James Cameron was here two days ago and he was very happy with what he saw.”

TORUK – The First Flight takes place thousands of years before AVATAR and before humans visited Pandora. “Every character that you see on stage are Na’vi living on Pandora,” Vignola says.

For the first time, the production features a narrative shared by a storyteller.

The show’s plot follows three teenagers – friends Ralu and Entu, members of the Omaticaya Clan, and Tsyal, a member of the Tawkami Clan – trying to help save the Tree of Souls. The word Toruk in the Na’vi language refers to the great leonopteryx, the mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky.

The grace and strength of the Cirque du Soleil production is apparent.
The grace and strength of the Cirque du Soleil production is apparent.

Anyone familiar with Cirque du Soleil productions will notice that TORUK is not the entertainment company’s typical show. “We have a storyteller [a member of the Omatacaya Clan] which we have never had in a Cirque du Soleil show,” Vignola says. “Also normally Cirque has acrobatics throughout the show. TORUK will have acrobatic moments but it won’t look like what you have seen before.”

The show also features 16 puppets that represent the creatures of Pandora. “Cirque du Soleil has never used puppets like this before,” Vignola says.

Many productions today use animatronics – animal figures animated by electromechanical devices – but the creative team decided to instead create puppets with strings, a rod or controls that are visible. Puppeteers are also in full view. “Trying to do animatronics was too technical. It’s not the direction of our show,” Vignola says, adding that the puppets “become very important characters of our story.”

L'équipe de création passe de la théorie à la pratique.
Preparation means hundreds of hours of practice from the creative team.

Cirque du Soleil received approval from Cameron to add the two new creatures that were created – the Austrapedes and the Turtapede. They will join the Viperwolves and Direhorses, which were directly inspired by AVATAR.

The show also uses multimedia video projections – there are 40 video projectors in all — throughout the production that project everything from the lush landscape to an earthquake and volcano eruption. “The set is a huge screen itself,” Vignola says, adding that at times the video projections – think waves or a starry sky – overflow into the audience.

Costumes for the show have been a “huge challenge because we are referring to a world seen by about a billion people,” Vignola says. “People are looking to see Na’vi people who are normally 10 feet high but we are not going there even though we did select tall acrobats.”

The costumes all have an organic, handmade look. They were made with items that represented what the Na’vi found in their natural surroundings, everything from seeds to precious stones. In reality they are made of items such as cutouts of loofah sponges or crinoline.

Costumes, masks, and elements of puppetry have a unique, organic feel.

Designers also had to tailor the costumes around the Na’vi physique, which includes a lemur-like tail. “The costumes have to respect that and make them look great,” Vignola says of the artists in the show. “When you have too much on a costume it is difficult for the acrobat. You have to make sure the costume doesn’t bother them. The costumes have to respect the world of AVATAR as well as the acrobats.”

The family-friendly show will perform in Richmond before its Grand Opening in Montreal on December 21. All of the creation team, including Vignola, will be in town to follow the show.

After its grand opening, the show will travel in a world tour. “We plan for four years and have ideas for even longer,” Vignola says, noting that the creative team is always tinkering with the show to make it better. “Our shows are never finished. There is always something to add or tweak. It’s a never-ending story.”

TORUK – The First Flight runs Nov. 27 through 29 at the Richmond Coliseum. Tickets range from $37 to $112 plus applicable fees and are available at Richmond Coliseum’s sweetFrog Box Office, online at, area Ticketmaster outlets and Charge-by-phone at 800-745-3000. Ages 2 and older must have a ticket.

Thanks to Joan Tupponce, RFM’s special entertainment correspondent.


An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.

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