Photos: Behind-the-scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s touring ‘Toruk: The First Flight’

For five years, Brazilian MMA performer Kleber Berto starred in Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” at MGM Grand as the court jester and protector of the twins. Growing up in a poor family in Brazil with an identical twin brother, Kleber was so small that his mother encouraged him at age 8 to take up martial arts to develop his strength.

Day in and out after school, he practiced his athleticism with friends on the beach and street corners. “I was really skinny, very thin. I fell in love with Capoeira martial arts,” he explained. One spectator followed his feats for a while, then invited him to join a company there, Circo del Mundo, the circus of the world.

“Cirque du Soleil was really famous in Brazil and because I was in Circo del Mundo, I was invited to try for an audition with Cirque,” Kleber told me backstage at the touring “Toruk: The First Flight” at T-Mobile Arena last Wednesday. (“Toruk” played at T-Mobile last Wednesday through Sunday.)

“I passed the audition and went to Montreal to prepare for the ‘Ka’ show headed for Las Vegas. I loved the time I spent in Las Vegas, and it’s been very nice and enjoyable to see all my friends again while returning here for ‘Toruk.’ It came as a surprise because I didn’t know we were coming here. It’s changed since I was here last, and it’s nice to just walk around the streets to see how it’s grown up and changed.”

In “Toruk,” Kleber gets to fight in every show with his sticks. “Every night I have to beat up someone,” he declared. “In the story, we have two kids who need to find an amulet, and our amulet is a shield. I have to show him that it’s not that easy to get the shield.

“I enjoy so much working for Cirque. It’s where my artistic life started. I really enjoy being on tour and seeing different places, getting to a new arena and seeing old friends. Every time we are in a new city, we rehearse just to keep physically fit and test all of the equipment once it’s been unpacked and set up.

“We have our own gym that travels with us, so we can keep training in the little free time that we have. We have a chef and catering staff who travel with us, but sometimes after a show, I will go out to the restaurants.

“Everybody who comes to see ‘Toruk’ loves the show, and I do, too. It’s a beautiful story, and everybody who loved the movie loves the show.”

STORYTELLER RAYMOND O’NEILL

Shakespearean actor Raymond O’Neill, who plays the narrator of the Toruk’s Na’vi-language story, likens it to the current political differences between new President Donald Trump and his Democratic Party opponents.

“The story here is unless the various tribes unite and work together to solve a crisis, the world is going down,” Raymond told me backstage. “It really is an allegory for our situation on Earth. As you said, Robin, if we do not come together, we destroy ourselves. We move forward by working together, not by divisiveness. We accomplish the task at hand by cooperation.

“That’s the central, dramatic tension here. The messenger has to go out, get all the tribes together, and if he gets them together, are they going to cooperate and are they all going to show up and are we all going to throw water on the fire, save The Tree of Souls and live happily ever after?

“To a degree, it doesn’t happen in real life, although it does in the movies. Maybe it hasn’t happened in my lifetime or yours, but hopefully we do move forward. It might take a generation or two to see two steps backward was countered by three steps forward.”

Raymond threads the story together in English while the actors use Na’vi created by Paul Frommer, a university linguistics professor in Los Angeles. Raymond continued: “It’s not difficult to understand in our show, but it doesn’t make sense to English ears outside the show.

“It’s a bit like going to a Shakespeare play for the first time. There may be words you don’t understand, but they are being acted in a way that you understand from what the action is. I’m there as the translator. To a degree, I certainly know what’s being said when it is being said. But I’m not really translating directly what’s going on.

“When Cirque has performers from 95 countries in its shows, they use Cirque speak. We don’t have that in this show because Cirque has moved into a more narrative storytelling style. I’m a Shakespearean actor; I’m a storyteller, but this is a new kind of creature for Cirque.

“This show is very much pivotal around a storyteller whose position in the story itself is revealed as the story goes on. There’s a reason he’s telling the story because in a sense he lived it and was there at the time it was being told.

“We started creation exactly a year and a half ago July 20, on my 64th birthday. Here in Las Vegas, we will have been running for exactly a year and a half, and we’ve been on the road for about 14 to 15 months. I know Shakespeare started out traveling on the road, but I’ve just never toured week by week by week by week.

“It’s massive moving almost 30 trucks every week. Cirque takes good care of us. We’re in good hotels. They are organized like you would not believe. I’m gob smacked at their ability to get it done. It feels really smooth. They really spoil us because it’s daunting to go out for 12 weeks, eight to nine shows a week, a new arena, a new hotel, an airplane, a bus to a new city.

“It’s keeping me young. I’m a senior citizen. I’m onstage 100 percent of the show, and if I’m not onstage, there are one or two moments when I deliver a line from backstage, but my voice is still there. I’m onstage, and I go up and down the stairs into the audience, so I get a real workout on my legs. They’re working this old man, but, I tell you, it’s good for me.

“There’s not two of me. There’s one of me, but one of our acrobatic performers who has some acting experience has learned the part if I fail to go on. He is a Spanish-speaking man, and the show will feature him when it goes to Mexico next week after Las Vegas.”

As a Shakespearean actor, Raymond understands why the British playwright was so successful around the world. He says the secret of “Toruk’s” success is because the touring production is not a version of the movie but a prequel story.

Raymond commented: “It was once said that style in acting is to know what play you’re in. It starts from the feet up, and, as an actor, I understand the sensibility of that. I’ve been a professional actor for 45 years and worked all over the world in film and television.

“If you know your soap opera, if you know your Shakespeare play, if you’re doing a Noel Coward, you have to figure out the piece. This beast is very clearly defined. It’s well written. I have tricks up my sleeve, but I am not a magician. I am a character in the play. I know where I’m seated as an actor.

“It’s a solid theatrical convention, and I’m on the inside. But I can tell you by the time you get to the end of the story, there’s an emotional payoff. The success is the key to understand what the theatrical convention is and deliver the goods because the script is clear and well written and has some good language and cadence to the language. It’s modern English.”

Our thanks to contributing photographer Tom Donoghue for his behind-the-scenes backstage coverage with Raymond and Kleber. We wish the entire cast and crew a safe journey and bon voyage as they continue their tour around the world.

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