The projection wizardry of Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: The First Flight pushes the boundaries of how technology can interact with live performance.

We’re projecting onto a surface the size of five IMAX screens,” says Janie Mallet, part of the touring management team for Toruk: The First Flight. “And our team contains an even split of performers and technicians.”

The latest show from Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, the largest theatrical producer in the world, came to London’s The O2 in June for the final leg of its worldwide tour. Toruk: The First Flight is a prequel to James Cameron’s Avatar, dreamed up under the supervision of Cameron’s own Lightstorm Entertainment.

Like Avatar, Toruk makes heavy use of cutting-edge technology, despite the themes of natural mysticism that run throughout its world of Pandora. The entirety of the stage which the acrobats, puppeteers, contortionists and kiters perform on is covered in projected video, and the set can be changed at the press of a button.

As the show begins, a costumed narrator stands on a raised platform, and warns the audience that the moon of Pandora is covered in hazards, such as volcanoes. On cue, a wave of projected lava billows out from underneath his feet, and washes over the first few rows of the audience.

You’re a technician, Harry

The projection wizardry achieved throughout the show is all triggered in real-time, as Access found out when speaking to the show’s heads of automation, video and lighting. “We don’t use timestamps,” says Joseph Sheppard, automation technician. “Everything is done by reacting to real time cues on stage, and instruction from the stage manager.”

Reaction is the key word. Cirque du Soleil has gone to great lengths to ensure its technology is nimble enough to react to the dynamic movement of its performers. It has worked in collaboration with BlackTrax, a system which tracks LED diodes inside each performers’ bodysuit, in order to pick them out from the busy stage with lighting and other effects.

During one forest scene, the entire stage floor is covered in what look like blue fireflies – ‘bioluminescence’, as Mallet calls it. Acrobats appear, and BlackTrax dynamically follows their movements, projecting video vapour trails behind them. Wherever they go on stage, the technology is able to react, meaning no two Toruk shows are ever identical.

The focus, however, is still very much on the choreography. Acrobat Lydia Harper says: “We work closely in tandem with the technology, but the performance comes first. The early stages of the show’s creation were about figuring out the physical movement, then mapping the tech to work alongside it.”

The interaction with technology extends to the audience, too. Toruk makes use of an app which attendees are encouraged to download before the show starts, allowing them to interact in various ways. During the firefly scene above, shaking or tapping the screen will attract the lights on stage to your phone. At another point, the light of phone screens in the audience become part of a starry night projected onto the floor and ceiling, to create the illusion of a 360-degree sky.

Breaking new ground

It seems fitting that Toruk, much like Avatar a decade ago, is pushing the boundaries of how technology can augment physical performance. Cameron’s original film pioneered new motion capture technology and visual effects, while Cirque du Soleil’s prequel is experimenting with new developments in lighting and 3D puppetry.

As the show comes to the conclusion of its four-year run, the spotlight now shifts to Avatar 2, scheduled for release in 2021. Although it’s a little way off, Access can tell you one thing with certainty – it definitely won’t have as many backflips.