Ever heard of a viperwollf? Ridden a direhorse? How about an austrapede?
These are a few of the otherworldly creatures Louisville and Cincinnati audiences will see at TORUK: The First Flight, a live, multimedia Cirque du Soleil show based on the mythical world in James Cameron’s film Avatar.
Set 3000 years before the events of the movie, the show centers on the plight of the indigenous Na’vi (the blue humanoids with tails) as they attempt to save their home world, the moon of Pandora and its Tree of Souls, from a natural catastrophe. A pair of adolescent boys learn that the the power of the Toruk, a mythical winged creature and powerful predator, is the only thing that has the power to save them.
Narrated by a Na’vi storyteller, the show brings to life and expands the lush visual landscape pioneered by Cameron in the film with 40 video projectors. The production also brings to life Pandora’s exotic creatures via state of the art, large-scale puppetry. That’s where the viperwolves, direhorses, and even Toruk comes in.
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That’s also where Nicholasville native Kristi Hughes comes in. She’s one of show’s six puppeteers who portray the story’s mythical creatures.
“This show is the first time that Cirque du Soleil has decided to work with puppeteers,” says Hughes. “It’s an honor to be working with Cirque du Soleil in this capacity.”
Hughes’ path to the Cirque du Soleil stage began when she majored in drama and French at Centre College. The encouragement of her theater professors, as well as a life-changing stint studying abroad Europe, planted the seeds for the life she’s living now, she said.
“That experience, the study abroad program opened my eyes and convinced me I somehow wanted to live there,” says Hughes, who made her dream a reality and has been based in Berlin, Germany for the past 10 years. While there she performed in the Berlin production of War Horse.
Hughes works throughout Europe as theater maker, actor, mask performer, clown, puppeteer and teacher and is a member of the mask theater company, TheatreFragile.
She says she’s thrilled to be able to return home to perform.
“I haven’t performed here since 1998,” says Hughes, referring to a role in the ensemble of Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“I don’t think I even had a name, but I got a little paycheck,” says Hughes, who added that the experience encouraged her to keep going.
In Toruk, Hughes and her five fellow puppeteers are clad in black and personify the spirit of Eywa, the Na’vi equivalent of Mother Earth. Sometimes their shadowy forms appear, visibly manipulating puppets. Other times, they are physically inside the puppets, bringing separate parts of them alive.
The puppeteering team also work collaboratively with sound and breath, one of Hughes’ favorite aspects of the show.
“We have mics on and we’re doing all of our own sound,” says Hughes. “In the second act when Toruk appears we come together and there’s this moment of breathing together and getting our focus as basically we have to be in one mind, body and spirit for the six of us to bring one being to life,” says Hughes.
“Then we also make the sounds of that being and literally breath together as that being. I love that.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
Toruk — the First Flight
When: April 28 - May 1, Louisville; May 4-8, Cincinnati
Where: KFC Yum Center, Louisville; U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati
Cost: $40-$130 in Louisville; $25-$130, Cincinnati