Behind the Scenes at Cirque du Soleil’s TORUK–The First Flight {United Center, Chicago}

Summer may be simmering down in the suburbs, but a theatrical powerhouse just set foot in the city. Cirque du Soliel TORUK–The First Flight, based upon James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster movie Avatar, is playing at the United Center in Chicago now through Sunday, August 7, 2016.

Image source Cirque de Soleil website

Whether you are an avid Avatar fan, or a Cirque du Soleil enthusiast, this production promises to be amazing and like no other Cirque du Soleil show you’ve ever experienced. TORUK–The First Flight is a prequel to the Avatar story. It is also the first Cirque du Soleil production that includes an English-speaking narrator. Combining the acrobatic artistry of Cirque du Soleil with vocalists, theatrics and special effects, the stage is transformed into the fictional land of Pandora.  Little Lake County was invited to visit the set of TORUK–The First Flight and take a peek backstage in order to experience firsthand the artistry and splendor of this show.


Puppets, kites, veils, and lighted and articulating props create a vivid, three-dimensional world on stage. And the artists–I was awestruck by their strength and dexterity, and the complex stage set they navigated. Tumblers mounted and dismounted a giant skeleton-like sculpture, and practiced balance exercises on it while it rotated in a circle.


And the Toruk, the giant, flying predator with a 40-foot wingspan, comes to life on stage with the help of six puppeteers. I witnessed the flight of the Toruk, complete with an artist balanced on its back. This troupe also features an artist from Barrington Hills–Stacey Magiera. She was a gymnast in Wheeling and is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It wasn’t until I reached the backstage area that I fully realize the enormity of the stage set. Huge props were stashed backstage, including the puppet shells of the Direhorses, which require two people to maneuver across the stage during the show.

As the rehearsal continued, props were moved about around the stage, and a continuous flow of artists came to an area backstage to stretch and limber up.


After the backstage tour, I was taken into the hallway, where the show’s costumes were organized and hung, ready for the evening’s opening show. The full-body costumes for the Na’vi looked like morph suits. Other costumes were decorated with colorful adornments.

Cirque de Soleil TORUK

The ornate wigs and headdresses, and other costumes, were astonishingly intricate. Each costume was labeled and numbered, and the wigs and headpieces were arranged and labeled by clan.  It was impressive, and really interesting to see the costumes up close.

Cirque de Soleil TORUK

It was here that I also met Brandon, an artist with Cirque du Soleil from Johannesburg, South Africa.  He was eager to share his enthusiasm for this show with me. Brandon explained that the performance debuts in a new city each week; artists arrive in a new town on Monday, are readied to perform by Wednesday, and put on two shows each day through Sunday. Then it’s off to the next venue. The performers do find a little time to explore each city a bit, despite a rigorous schedule.

Cirque de Soleil TORUK

I wondered how artists begin their careers and what it takes to join the circus, or “cirque,” in this case.  Brandon explained:

I started out in tumbling at age seven.  I competed at the All World and Junior World Levels, and then moved on to high board diving.  I’ve worked on movie shoots and done stunt work, and finally landed at Cirque du Soleil. Now I get to “play” every day and do what I love.

Brandon is 31 years old and joined the production a year ago.  Brandon told me that a typical workday for an artist begins around 12:00 p.m. and lasts until about 11:00 p.m. when the show concludes.  Performers engage in two to three hours of rehearsals, a two-hour makeup session, a warm-up session before the show and costuming.  Places are taken by the troupe, and the show begins.

Cirque de Soleil TORUK

I was able to watch Brandon and his fellow cast members warm-up and rehearse after our interview.  The talented artists scaled ropes, climbed the stage sets and mastered aerial feats that were beyond my imagination. The set had dramatically changed since the earlier rehearsal, and there was so much movement and so much happening at once.  Yet it was only a glimpse of what it looks like during showtime.

Cirque de Soleil TORUK

“Come–see the show,” Brandon exclaimed during our interview. And he added, “this production is a marriage of technical wonders and acrobatic expertise, and really creates another world for the audience.” It’s also a family-friendly production. Honestly, I can’t wait to experience Cirque du Soleil TORUK–The First Flight in its full glory, complete with narration, music and full theatrics. I hope you don’t miss this opportunity to see it either!

Cirque du Soleil TORUK–The First Flight
United Center, August 3 – 7, 2016
1901 W. Madison St, Chicago | (312) 455-4500

Disclosure: The author was invited to attend a rehearsal and was provided access to an artist in order to facilitate this story. All thoughts and opinions are the author’s own.


About Jennifer Johnson 52 Articles
Jennifer is mom to a teenage boy and a tween girl, and spends her time changing radio stations in her minivan while driving to band concerts, learning new texting lingo and keeping track of the latest trends in electronics and hairstyles. Jennifer spends any free time she can find trying to stay organized, testing out new recipes that everyone might eat, reading, crafting or trying to beat her own best score in SpellTower. She also serves as a managing editor at Little Lake County.

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