If you remember James Cameron's movie Avatar, you'll probably recall how local audiences flocked to book tickets to watch the blue Navi craze on IMAX. It was in many ways a revolutionary movie, with actors performing in practically full motion capture and in a computer-generated sci-fantasy environment. Cirque du Soleil returns to Manila with a live, advanced theatrical performance that is inspired by Avatar, Toruk. The production will feature acrobats, live motion graphics, and even a 40 ft. winged puppet set to wow on stage.
Filipino-American Rob Laqui has a very niche career as a puppeteer. He admits his career journey has been anything but ordinary and the sense of camaraderie and teamwork is what makes a show like Toruk take flight.
On the show, Toruk, you’re the lead puppeteer?
"We’re a team of six puppeteers. We have a puppet captain. I was puppet captain for the first part of the tour. Now, one of the puppeteers is the puppet captain. But because it’s so 'ensemble,' because it’s so team-driven, there wouldn’t necessarily be a puppeteer. We all have our strengths, we all have our challenges, but we all support each other to grow and get better at what we do. We’re always learning from each other."
"We make the sounds of the creatures. So, if someone’s doing the sound, I hear that I really like, or if they’re doing something physical and I’m like, 'Oh that’s cool.' We’ll share that information with each other, so we can get better and better at what we do collectively."
You’re Filipino and your side is from where?
"My parents are from Manila. My father’s family had a place in Quezon City. My mom has a place in New Manila, Quezon City right now."
We were told that there’s a giant 40 foot puppet?
"We have our Toruk, which is the title character of the show, and it takes all six puppeteers to operate it. It's sort of like a reverse marionette, so it’s hung from above the tracks. We activate it underneath by cords and leashes that are underneath the puppet. And then the wingspan is 40 feet, and it’s the largest puppet that we have, and it takes up a lot of space. It’s pretty stunning when you watch it come out."
They say you also puppeteered for the production War Horse? Can you tell us a bit about that?
"With War Horse, I had worked with puppets before, full size large-scale puppets before as a dancer, but I never really considered myself a puppeteer. War Horse was the first rehearsal that I did, that I was specifically hired as a puppeteer. And it sort of was the first job I had that propelled me towards the puppeteer route."
"So, ever since then, I’ve been making a living as a puppeteer, and the aspects of puppeteering that I learned from War Horse I still sort of hold as what I believe puppeteering can be, and what it entails: sort of that breath, the control. With War Horse, it’s three puppeteers per horse, so that they’re full size horses.
It’s like a weird kind of marriage (teamwork), is the way I always describe it. So, you can be in a bad mood, or you could be down. Someone else in your team could be that way, but the other people in the team bring you up. And so that kind of ensemble, that kind of cooperation, that kind of teamwork, is something that I still carry with me as a puppeteer."
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What’s the most difficult or challenging part of being a puppeteer?
"I would say that it’s a challenge to sort of be in shape. Every puppet is its own way of handling it, has its own physical challenges. And so to maintain it and to do it hundreds of times, to do it eight times a week, we have to figure out how to make our bodies work to be able to do that, and not break down, and come up with a training regimen to support what we need to strengthen."
Is it like a custom circuit workout?
"Yes, but that’s why we travel with our coaches. Cirque is amazing at having the resources to be able to come up with these programs. We’re not on our own. You know, with a lot of dance companies, you don’t have the luxury of traveling with your physiotherapist or your physical therapist."
"You have to be independent and figure that our all on your own, sort of how to get by. And so we have the resources to be able to make that happen. It’s a challenge but we’re also supported in making that challenge less challenging."
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What is your educational background?
"I went to college for either musical theatre and music, and so I have a BFA in musical theatre performance, but I haven’t done a lot of musical theatre. I mainly went into, sort of, physical theatre, and then from there I went into dance. It would be, you can sort of put mime in there. The company I worked for, was La MaMa Experimental Theatre, which is a theater in New York that’s downtown, run by Ellen Stewart. She’s made this sort of community of artists that work from a non-verbal sort of standpoint. So, their thing was theatre of the world that could translate to any country you go to. It wasn’t about understanding the language. It was about how the show was more physical, visual, and could be, sort of, interpreted by anyone that could speak whatever language.
From physical theatre, how did you develop your career towards puppetry?
"So, from working at La MaMa and from physical theatre, someone had seen, a choreographer had seen me, and in a show, and inquired if I wanted to dance for her. And that got me into dance. From that company, I booked other work from other companies as a dancer. I ended up dancing for over a decade, which is a surprise for me. Because I trained in dance but not so specifically that it wasn’t necessarily the goal. From dance, that sort of background with puppets occurred. Again, I wouldn’t have ever said I would go into puppetry but then War Horse, when I booked that, it kind of took me in that direction. So, I was sort of open to the possibilities, and it always felt like it was a natural progression. If you would have asked me 15, 20 years ago if this is where I’d have ended up? I would have never said, “Oh, yah. I’m gonna obviously be a circus puppeteer for Cirque Du Soleil.”
What advice do you have for future puppeteers since it's obviously a very niche path?
"It is super niche. Even when I say it, 'I’m a circus puppeteer.' I am like, what? I think that there is a breath of knowledge that puppeteers have, because they come from a lot of different backgrounds. I think everyone falls into puppetry in specific ways. There are people that, they’ve been puppeteers, they’ve done it from the beginning. That’s what they do. A lot of puppeteers come from that, the world in various avenues. Like, I can through dance, some people through theater or mime or clowning. I think that that sort of wide breath of knowledge helps in what we do. As actors, puppeteers that come through it from acting, they’re able to observe the world in a certain way and look at something and go, okay, so how can I recreate that? That sort of observational sense is a strength. Learning that, especially as a puppeteer that specializes animals, for me, I see animals all the time. I’m always sort of observing how they move."
"My advice for any puppeteer that is wanting to do it is to be really be open and observe the entirety of the experience of the world. If you want to have a specialty, if your specialty is human puppets, then like watch.Watch, and just, you know, observe. Go out and watch. Go to the mall or whatever, and just observe how people move, and how people behave and react."
"When we’d go dancing before, there was always this game that I used to play with my friend, where, we would be next to someone and try to dance exactly like they’re dancing. It was a game, when I was younger. But, now, when I think about it, like oh, that’s exactly what the spark of art starts with, imitation. The skill of the art is that it’s not an imitation anymore. You’re actually embodying the spirit of the thing. So, puppetry to me is really about that. It’s embodying the spirit of the character."
Cirque du Soleil presents TORUK The First Flight. Production dates span from June 23, 2017 - July 2, 2017 and will be held at Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay City. Call (+63)470-2222 for ticket inquiries.
SCHEDULE OF SHOWS: June 23: 8pm, June 24: 4pm, 8pm, June 25: 1pm, 5pm, June 27: 8pm, June 28: 8pm, June 29: 4pm, 8pm, June 30: 4pm, 8pm, July 1: 4pm, 8pm, July 2: 1pm, 5pm
TICKET PRICES: PL 1 - P7,368, PL 2 - P5,990, PL 3 - P4,770, PL 4 - P3,498, PL 5 - P2,073
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Photos by: Jana Jimenez, and from Instagram.com/roblaqui