No Strings Needed

An inside look at Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk: First Flight,” and a puppeteer who brings the creatures to life

Wires coiled across the floor as though having slithered from place to place. A layer of dark cloth was pulled back just enough for me to walk through. This was the final passage. The literal pulling back of the curtains. I was now in the world of Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: First Flight at the Target Center.

The stage itself was grey, though the audience would never see it this way. It was naked. A blank canvas. The performers held the brushes, and with their graceful choreography they would see it given color and life. Already they were at work, jovial in spite of the undertaking they were a part of so many times a week. There was a family dynamic at work. One performer pulled herself up a lone rope, conversing with another who stood on the mat at the base. When she reached the right height, her hands let go and her body twisted in a rhythm without music. All around her other such actors went through their own ballet, cutting through the air with ease and practiced grace.

I was called back through the curtain, but this time we went down a different hall. Drums echoed from somewhere farther away. Chanting started up alongside it. I turned a corner and was face to face with the titular beast itself. Large enough to require all six puppeteers to control, Toruk was taken right from the film, but put into the physical realm, rather than that of CGI. It was in this area, tucked away behind it all, that I sat down with Rob Laqui, one of Toruk’s puppeteers.

Minnesota born and raised, Laqui attended St. Thomas Academy. Here he found a place to delve into his passion for singing. Choir, musical theater, dance, he did it all. It was during this period that Vista Productions became a large motivating factor in his life. He moved from St. Mary’s University in Winona, MN to NYU, enrolling in their Musical Theatre Program.

Laqui continued along the path of dance and theatre, joining La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club/the Great Jones Repertory Company and MOMIX. He worked ensembles, musicals, each more intense, more challenging, than the others. Each allowed him a chance to learn and grow and broaden his experiences. “I never thought of myself as a puppeteer,” says Laqui. It was not until the first national tour of War Horse that he would become a part of this whole other world.

From here Laqui became an associate producer, artistic associate, choreographer, and even puppet builder. Alongside the likes of Matt Acheson, he built puppets for Lincoln Center and Broadway productions. It’s no surprise that this sort of background, along with his extensive work history as a performer, caught the attention of Cirque du Soleil.

“I’d auditioned for a full day. It was intense,” he says. Laqui was placed on the company’s performer database and went about furthering his career. He always hoped to hear back, but he was going to be sure that if the call never came he would not have stopped pursuing and furthering his career.

It wasn’t until Fall 2014, a decade later, when he finally got the call. At this point his background was so full and, importantly, contained a set of impressive puppeteering entries. He was perfect for Toruk.

This show was the first of its kind for Cirque du Soleil to use puppets so heavily. Laqui and his team were required to learn the techniques for each puppet, each being a different creature that needed its own movement and personality. “It was so much fun. I got to meet all these crazy-talented, like-minded people,” says Laqui. “We’re all so multi-faceted.” His team’s diverse skillset spread as well to the whole of the performance cast. Circus, musical theatre, puppet-building, dance, acting, are just a few of the backgrounds these performers come from.

“We’re basically a travelling village,” says Laqui. “We’re artists and elite-level athletes, constantly pushing to be better. And that pushes the rest of the staff to keep striving too.” They’re a part of the wave moving forward. There’s nowhere else Laqui would want to be.