Costume Design of Cirque du Soleil's Toruk

Cirque du Soleil’s latest production, Toruk – The First Flight, is an immersive touring spectacle that brings to the stage the world of James Cameron’s AVATAR in new and exciting ways. This mythical tale is set thousands of years before the events of the AVATAR film, long before humans entered Pandora, and centers on the journey to ride the mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky. Acclaimed costume designer Kym Barrett was tasked with creating this beautifully adorned world. Barrett is well known in the world of fantasy design for film, with such credits as The Matrix, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Jupiter Ascending. And she has previously collaborated with Cirque du Soleil on the touring production Totem. She shares with us an exciting look at her process in envisioning this richly imaginative story!

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

Where does one begin with such an imposing task, with a built-in fan base with such strong visual expectations? The director and the team created a story that lives within the world of Pandora, but was not limited to replicating the film. Barrett explains, “I wanted to reflect the Pandoran world of the film and respect its parameters, while also heightening the visual narrative for a Cirque ‘experience.’ We are telling the story of the first Toruk Makto as a mythology. We have some license to push the images.” The team relied on the film and the film team’s original source material to establish rules, including the use of bioluminescence, the idea that everything they wear is made by hand from natural fibers, and no metal!

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

The first challenge for Kym and the costume team was to transform the very physical Cirque performers into the blue, elongated, cat-like shape of the Na’vi. This is no easy challenge, as acrobats tend to be medium in stature and very muscular. They utilized layers of silk-screening to achieve both the body shaping, as well as the individual character patterns. According to Barrett, “Muscle contouring was tweaked by raising the navel and nipples, and strongly shading the sides of the body to create an ‘impression’ of a slightly slimmer and taller silhouette. High foreheads and full braided hairstyles help to create the feeling of a taller Na’vi.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

One of the most exciting aspects of this production is the introduction of multiple Na’vi clans by way of The Storyteller. While the film focused on the Omaticaya clan, we get a chance to meet the Tawkami, Anurai, Tipani, and Kekunan Na’vi. For these new groups, Kym looked to regional setting to help create each clan’s unique identity. Indigenous plants and materials served as the initial inspiration, but the performers’ own physicality played a large role. She explains, “As each set of acrobatics started to evolve it gave me a better idea what I could and couldn’t do with them. So their looks really evolved out of the practical as well as the environmental aesthetics.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

The costumes of the Omaticaya clan took inspiration from the film, but because these events occur thousands of years before, they are not quite as sophisticated. Instead of animal skins, we see them in woven garments. They are also far more colorful, a necessary element due to the scale of the live performance venues.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

One of the central characters, the Shaman, is a member of the Omaticaya clan and has one of the most elaborate and stunning costumes in the production. Barrett drew inspiration from the giant dream catcher-type object in the film, and incorporated it into her headpiece. The shape of the skirt is meant to mimic a funnel or vortex, which is the function the Shaman serves as a spiritual vessel for the clan. She also incorporated weaving and embellishment inspiration from North American native tribes.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

The Tipani clan hails from a quiet, austere place. Barrett was inspired by her frequent trips to China and the dusty, mountainous, barren regions. Barrett relates them to “warrior monks” and describes them as the production’s “most combative” clan. They are costumed in armor and carrying shields that are made from the shells of a large beetle like animal with a beautiful, almost metallic blue and yellow sheen.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Errisson Lawrence Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

The Tawkami are the most colorful of the clans. “They’re kind of like the chemists of the world,” Barrett explains. “They use flowers, compounds, and organic matter to make medicines. All of their costumes are made from flowers, seeds, or vines that are woven together.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Photo: Youssef Shoufan Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

The Anurai are a desert people. “Their clothing is made of some kind of animal hide. There isn’t an animal yet that exists like that. There will be at some point. So we invented our own animal skin.” The Anurai also use the bones of different animals and carve them as decorations for their costume. Barrett describes them as “the artisans of the Na’vi.” They also utilize a mother of pearl like stone from their realm for embellishment. Woven headpieces top off their look, formed by the bristly manes of a desert animal. 

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight.  Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Lastly, the Kekunan are a Na’vi clan that live near the ocean. They fly the banshee, bird like animals, and lead the main characters to find the Toruk. Their costume is made from the dried leaves of the war bonnet plant. They are embellished primarily in red accents, which are made of shells and different objects found in the water.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

War bonnet plant - AVVATAR the film.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

Creating the costumes for a Cirque du Soleil production is no easy task. There are 115 costumes in the show, and the costume department produced more than 1,000 items, including shoes, headpieces, and necklaces. To create the “extraterrestrial flora” of Pandora, the costume team used loofah sponges, molds from cabbage leaves, crinoline, open weave horsehair, linen and braided wool to amazing effect.

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight. Costumes: Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil

 

A huge thanks to Kym Barrett for sharing her process and beautiful renderings with us! Make sure to catch Toruk – The First Flight on tour now to witness a visually stunning spectacle, with fantastic costumes throughout!

 

Check out this "The Art of Avatar" book for more about the beautiful world of Pandora!