Inside Man: Fil-Am dancer Rob Laqui is touring the world as a Cirque du Soleil puppeteer

Don’t call them mascots. Puppeteers, especially in the Avatar-inspired Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk – The First Flight, are essential members of the cast. Characters in their own right, these puppets bring the stage to life with the slightest movements and sounds. But subtle as their work may seem, one puppeteer tells us it’s really all exaggerated from the inside. It’s a different kind of art that deserves a look. Here, Cirque puppeteer Rob Laqui tells us all about it.

Tell us about yourself, Rob. Your Filipino-American? 

ROB LAQUI: I was born in Minnesota, first generation Filipino-American. My mom lives in Quezon City. She lives in a mall. Which is perfect! [Laughs] She’s a Cirque du Soleil groupie.

Are you particularly excited about performing in the Philippines? I’ve been to the Philippines many times, but this is my first time performing. Every culture is different, but in Asia, the audience is so warm, because it’s not necessarily a market that everyone goes to, so there’s an appreciation for it. Also the popularity of the movie Avatar… if you love the movie and you love Cirque du Soleil, this is the perfect combination. Our show is another style of show for Cirque, so even if you are a fan and you’ve seen a lot of Cirque shows, you’ll see that this is a different approach to it. It’s unlike any sort of live event that exists currently because our projections are so amazing, it’s visually spectacular. Even for us, on stage, it reads as real. It’s just so visually accurate!

Do you ever find yourself pinching yourself on stage, amazed at it all? All the time! What we do is so unique and I feel so blessed to be able to get paid to do what I do. Daily, you work with such amazing people. Cirque du Soleil as a company is just a company of passionate people, and that’s across the board. There’s just full of passion to give the audience joy and leave them amazed.

Tell us about being a puppeteer. That’s a very specific job. It is very specific. When I say “I’m a circus puppeteer,” even I sometimes have to go, “Oh, hmm….” I did puppeteering sort of through dance. I was a dancer for a little over 10 years. I had worked with full-size, large scale puppets through that. I hadn’t called myself a puppeteer, until I was specifically hired as a puppeteer. So for the last 5 or 6 years, that’s been my major focus.

What makes your work different from say, a character? A lot of people, when they think of puppets, they think of Jim Henson, the Muppets. But in Sesame Street, you know, Big Bird, there’s someone inside of them. It’s more physically demanding than people know. Also it’s a very specific skill set, a different kind of artistry. To me, it’s very related to dance, so it felt like a natural progression to go into puppetry from dance. You have to be hyper aware of your body, the shapes that you’re making, where your focus is, where the puppet is looking…. I personally love it because it’s this object that you get to focus your intent for expression, so if you’re doing your job right, in a way, no one is looking at you. So it takes that pressure off of you and puts it on this thing. Just like any other performer, you never leave that stage and go, “That was perfect. Now I’m done.” You always have to get better.

This is the first time that Cirque has used puppeteers in this capacity. There’s six of us, specifically to do all the puppets. All the animals in the world of Pandora is all of us. So we’re in charge of that. This is the most puppeteers they’ve hard. For us, it’s great because we get to grow this kind of art inside the Cirque world. The other artists have such a high level of skill that everyone pushes everyone to be better. Which is amazing to be part of.

My background is dance, others have a theatre background. So it’s this combination of things, awareness of the body, and how it actually moves as a thing. We did a lot of research on how these puppets work, videos and drawings of animals in general, animals on which creatures of Pandora are based off of, and looked at how they move and how they make sounds. I enjoy this kind of puppetry more so, when I become an animal. It’s sort of become my niche, animal puppetry, because it’s easier to know what an animal is thinking or doing. Their intent is simpler than a human with more complex thoughts. And when you do it correctly, when you watch the audience, they can see that immediately. They go “Oh that’s scared now.” But there’s still a looseness in some way on stage in that when the characters respond a certain way, we can also respond in a certain way. It keeps it more alive. With puppetry, there’s something that makes sense to be able to express that.

What are the things you have to do while you’re in there? You have to know where the puppet is looking. You have to control the breathing of the puppet, know the difference between tensed breathing and relaxed breathing. Like if I’m doing a wolf, and I have to sniff, I do it with my mouth so that the sound of sniffing reads better. I think at first, they were going to do the animal sounds tracked, but I think they realized that there’s a quality to doing the sounds live.

What advice can you give those who want a shot at being a puppeteer or just performing in general? I’ve always been involved in musical theatre since I was 8 years old. It was singing first. Then I got my degree in musical theatre in college, and when I got to New York, I just followed the path. Then I got into dance, and then puppetry. I think the benefit of that track is I have a lot of experience, and when I teach classes, I always tell them to train broadly. Learn art history, learn to sing opera. It all feeds into the work. Even if your focus is specific, having a broad education is important. As a performer, all you’re doing to trying to encompass the human experience. So if you know a lot about the human experience, it’s all going to be in your benefit.

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TORUK – The First Flight will be presented at The Mall of Asia Arena from June 23. Public on-sale is now ongoing and tickets can be purchased at www.smtickets.com and https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/toruk.