Daniel Crispin of Cirque du Soleil ‘Toruk’ on the crazy, fantastic circus life

On June 23 to July 2, Cirque du Soleil presents Toruk: The First Flight for the first time in Asia at the Mall of Asia Arena. The show, inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar, is the first Cirque du Soleil show to be based on a movie. The production worked closely with Cameron in recreating the Avatar universe, which includes Pandora, the Na’vi and all its creatures. Set 3,000 years before Avatar, the story revolves around the first rider of the Toruk (Na’vi name for the leonopteryx).

GIST sat down with Australian actor and all around acrobat Daniel Crispin, one of the principal characters in Toruk. He plays an Entu, one of the first inhabitants of Pandora. Originally from Gold Coast, he’s does everything — surfing, martial arts, figure skating, dance, and all things acrobatic. Apart from performing internationally, he is also studying Creative Writing for Stage and Screen while teaching and doing circus outreach in marginalized communities. He also coaches at circus schools around the world. Here’s what Daniel had to say about Toruk and his circus life.

GIST: Let’s start with the costume since you’re already wearing it! Tell us something about it. How long does it take to get into the costume and do the makeup?

Daniel Crispin of Cirque du Soleil “Toruk: The First Flight”

DANIEL CRISPIN: The longest part is definitely the makeup for the face. The face takes about 45 minutes to two hours, and we all do our own makeup, so at headquarters in Montreal, they taught every single person how to do their makeup. At first it would take four hours, and then you get better. On top of that, there are so many fine details: the dots that are on the costumes, the tail, which has synthetic hair, everything is handcrafted. The wig is handwoven and it clips on top of the costume. Being one of the principal characters of the show, I wear a battery pack inside my wig, and another under my loin cloth. All in all, if I was trying to be as fast as humanly possible, it would take one hour. And then you have to warm up.

What was the making of Toruk like?

It’s been coming up two years now. We did the creation in May 2015, it took three months. Generally, that’s a very short creation for Cirque du Soleil. It’s a joint intellectual property venture with James Cameron, so there was a lot more direction. We had a panel of creative directors. Then we immediately toured the show since. Also, the style of the show is an arena show. We normally do six days in one city, and then on to the next. But for Manila we have two weeks, so we’re lucky.

This is the first Cirque show that really revolves around a plot, apart from the acrobatics. As a principal character, you learned the Na’vi language. How difficult is it to get into character?

We wear a live microphone on the forehead, so you have to be conscious at all times not to say something in English, or interrupt someone. If you grunt or make a bad noise, the whole audience can hear. And it’s happened before. I was backstage and my microphone was on, and I was just talking rubbish and it was projected into the entire area. So it’s imperative that you are in the role, and it’s really a safe guard that you have the microphone. You have to stick to your character. Being acrobats, there are three principal characters and about 38 acrobats. It involves intuition and physical communication, because as soon as there’s a break down in that, some gets hurt. So it’s really important to listen to each other and have a wide peripheral. We’re performing about 200 degrees to the audience so that’s something to keep in mind.

Photo Credit: Jesse Faatz

I saw a photo of you as a kid on your Instagram, you were lifting weights. So you’ve always been into this physical, active way of life?

I’ve always been quite small. It’s kind of funny, I’m 30 this year, and I play a 15-year old boy in the show. Most of the characters in the show are six feet tall and I’m 5’7″ so there’s a big contrast. But my parents put me into martial arts at a very young age — taekwondo is very acrobatic and I fell in love with that and got into dancing, ballet classes taught me the leaps and the jumps. And that led into circus. I did my bachelor degree at a circus school. I’ve been so lucky to be doing it professionally for a decade now.

It’s funny that you say it so casually — went to circus school. In the past, if you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, there are four, five options. Now you can want to be an acrobat and actually become one. 

(Laughs) Yeah, we’re very lucky in the day and age that we live in because you can make a living doing just about anything. It’s successful now because of the Internet. I often ask kids who watch us, “What did you like?” “Dance.” Get involved in dance classes. Go with that. It’s amazing because I’ve had a lot of people come up to me from that age bracket and then I see that they’ve pursued that… it’s just great that we have that accessibility in the world.

Speaking of getting into it, how did you get into this business and what was the audition like for Toruk?

I auditioned for Cirque du Soleil in my last week of circus school. We had just done a full week of performances, I just finished my Bachelor’s Degree which was three years of physical training. I did a 12-hour audition. It was harrowing. Push ups, pull ups, tumbling, flexibility, trampoline skills, everything across the board. Then I had to perform a solo act, drama and dancing exercises, and then a face-to-face interview. After five years, someone reached out and asked if I wanted to audition for the Avatar show. And then I had to perform exercises on video, weapons training specialties. I filmed it, sent it and I didn’t hear from them. And I was like, ‘Yeah that’s it, didn’t get the job.’ And then one night while I was performing in Dubai, I got a phone call and everything went off at the same time, and they told me I got the job.

How do you do it night after night? How do you keep your strength and just avoid injury?

It’s hugely about recovery. Because the show is so intense and there’s so much running and it’s so exhausting, that takes care of a lot of the fitness for you. It’s what you do when you’re not performing, like stretching, warming up, eating properly, sleeping enough, taking epsom salt baths, getting massages — those are really important things, too. As for injuries, it’s a harsh reality. It happens. But Cirque du Soleil is amazing in a way that they take every precaution possible. Having worked in a multitude of companies, I can say that there’s really not much else that we can do to make it safer. There’s something great in knowing that.

What’s it like traveling with a hundred acrobats? What’s the vibe like? Are the selfies and Boomerangs that much more intense?

It’s amazing. There aren’t a lot of selfies, actually, but there are a lot of group photos! It’s like a big family and it’s a special life to be traveling with people you love and doing what you love. It’s exhausting and demanding because your body isn’t built to be bashed for 10 weeks at a time, but it’s worth it and there’s only a small window that you can do that. It’s a pretty special life.

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Tickets to Cirque du Soleil Toruk: The First Flight are available at SM Ticketnet. (Photo of Daniel Crispin by Mong Pintolo)