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An Avatar-inspired Cirque du Soleil show comes to New Orleans

Toruk — The First Flight runs at the Smoothie King Center Feb. 1-5

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In James Cameron's Avatar, 22nd-century humans invade the lush ecosphere of the distant moon Pandora, seeking to extract a rare mineral necessary to sustain life back on Earth. The mission threatens to destroy the lives and home of the indigenous, blue-skinned Na'vi people, and a battle ensues, leaving emissaries from each side caught between the two species.

  Fans of the 2009 blockbuster film have to wait until the end of 2018 to see the first of several planned sequels Cameron is making with his Lightstorm Entertainment. In the meantime, Cirque du Soleil has occupied Cameron's fantastical world with a vision of its own, an original story that predates Avatar by several thousand years. Toruk — The First Flight, named for a creature that appears in both stories, is at Smoothie King Center Feb. 1-5.

  Toruk follows two young Na'vi hunters, Ralu and Entu, on their quest to summon a fearsome creature to save their home in another time of danger. The adventure leads them and a female companion, Tsyal, through the wilds of Pandora, which are populated by exotic creatures, including the film's viperwolves, turtapedes and austrapedes, brought to life as giant puppets. One flying creature requires six puppeteers to operate. Performers hang from aerial platforms, perform on assembled riggings on the massive set, fly giant kites and run through Pandora's various terrains.

  Cirque du Soleil is known for creating its own mythical and exotic worlds, and filling them with acrobats, aerialists and clowning. Since its founders began to reimagine modern circus in Montreal in 1984, the company has created nearly 40 shows that tour the globe or are stationed in entertainment centers, such as Las Vegas. In recent years, tours of Quidam and Varekai have visited New Orleans. The partnership between Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) and Cirque du Soleil is part of the company's latest efforts to reach new audiences.

  "Thirty years ago, when Cirque (du Soleil) was by itself, it was unique, it was avant-garde," says Toruk artistic director Fabrice Lemire, a former professional dancer in France and the U.S. "How you sustain that sense of being in the frontline of the times is by being creative. We are not giving you a more traditional Cirque production. We're collaborating with someone who is challenging us to move in a different direction ... so we're not only depending on the skill set of the acrobats."

  Toruk is designed as an arena spectacle incorporating plenty of video projection to create its colorful world. While Cirque has presented shows in arenas before — on raised stages — Toruk gives its performers the run of available floor space. The show also incorporates new technology and media. A downloadable app allows smartphone users to track the show's action on a map of Pandora, adding details in a virtual extension of the show. In another departure from Cirque norms, the story has a narrator to guide audiences through the spectacle.

  "You look at the show more like a film," Lemire says. "The script is accessible."

  The Toruk story was created in Montreal and developed for an arena stage in Bossier City in late 2015. Following the conclusion of its current North American tour in March, it will tour in Southeast Asia.

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