When Cirque du Soleil was new, there was novelty in a circus that focused entirely on the human body, with no animals to tame or do tricks with. In that sense, it's a surprise to find that the dominant figures in the newest Cirque offering are giant animal puppets.
Toruk – The First Flight spins off from Avatar, the 2009 blockbuster film set on a remote tropical moon crowded with flying dragons, viperwolves and hammer-headed dinosaurs. The show, which opened in Montreal's Centre Bell on Monday, is a troubling redface spectacle in which the human performers spend much time handling puppets, not so much doing the kind of acrobatic feats for which Cirque became known.
Avatar told the story of blue indigenous humanoids under siege by rapacious humans, and of a white disabled ex-Marine who achieves the Grey Owl-ish fantasy of becoming more native than the natives. Toruk is set before the invaders arrive, and the Na'vi people are threatened this time with destruction by natural forces.
The show has the narrative structure of an adventure video game, in which two Na'vi warriors must collect five sacred objects to save their people. Along the way, they encounter a menagerie of beasts from Avatar, including flying banshees, six-legged horses and Toruk, the biggest flying predator in the sky.
The real stars of Toruk are the designers: Patrick Martel (puppets), Carl Fillion (set and props) and Alain Lortie (lighting). The show's vast scenic projections make the craggy playing area a constantly changing world of wonders, culminating in a virtual flood that sweeps across the stage from projected waterfalls.
The human participants, who are supposed to be three metres high, often look puny in this milieu. Those who aren't manipulating savage dogs or giant flowers mostly scamper about and do decorative flips and leaps, occasionally climbing up something to spin or somersault onto a mat. It's pretty small beer by Cirque standards, though the tableau at any given moment looks like the best National Geographic photo feature that you will never see.
Even the protagonists have little to do once the quest gets rolling, other than to mime fear or astonishment as the next big puppet floats in. The heroes become part of the audience, like Marie and the Nutcracker watching the pageant of dances in the second half of The Nutcracker.
There's no dramatic tension, because we know the lads will win somehow, and because the puppets and a ponderous narrator impose a stately rhythm on the show. Toruk is made for Avatar fans who want to see its world recreated in an arena, and who may be content to see how inventive writer-directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon can be about ticking off specimens from the film's flora and fauna.
As a fantasy about indigenous people, however, Toruk is obnoxious to a degree that Avatar wasn't. The Na'vi in the film were facing naked colonial violence, and an explicit threat of cultural genocide. You could see the movie as an environmental parable about the kinds of colonial relationships still active in many parts of the world, including Canada. But there are no white people in Toruk, and in their absence, the whole elaborate spectacle descends into redface.
This kind of redface doesn't recycle negative stereotypes of native people, only the noble ones. Toruk presents a fabricated indigenous society of a kind that many white people would like to see in the world. It leaves out everything that may seem alien or threatening about real indigenous people.
The imaginary Indian, to borrow a term from historian Daniel Francis, has a long history in Canada, but as our new Prime Minister says, this is 2015.
Anyone who has any inkling about what's in the recently issued Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will have a hard time accepting Toruk as a benign entertainment. It's also propaganda, for a continued state of willed oblivion about real indigenous societies.