MINNESOTA-born and raised Rob Laqui became a puppeteer by accident.
After moving to New York more than 10 years ago, the performer was working in physical theatre and dance when MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, called for him to work with puppets made by The Lion King designer Michael Curry.
“So I was puppeteering before I knew I was puppeteering for the most part,” Laqui said.
“And then I got into a production of War Horse that propelled me into puppetry as a more solid choice and I’ve been working as a puppeteer ever since. I would have never predicted this if you’d have asked me 10 years ago, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
One of Laqui’s first auditions when he moved to New York was for Cirque du Soleil, where he was put “on call” on the company’s database of potential performers.
“There was a part of me that thought ‘I’m going to work for Cirque tomorrow’ and it wasn’t until a decade later in 2014 that they called again to go in for another audition,” he said.
This time Laqui talked himself up as a puppeteer, which was a new venture for Cirque du Soleil, and before he knew it was being offered a role in the team of six puppeteers collaborating on Avatar-inspired Toruk – The First Flight.
“I was having dinner with a friend when I got the email and he just started laughing because we would always have these nerdy conversations about the science of Avatar,” Laqui said.
“One of the big arguments we had was over the fact a lot of the creatures on the planet have six legs. I was a proponent for arguing that it didn’t make any sense, he said it did and now the irony is that I operate a lot of these large-scale six-legged creatures.”
Toruk is touring Australia and will be at Perth Arena from November 24, with the season extended to December 3.
The show is a prequel to James Cameron’s Avatar and is set thousands of years before the events of the film, so there are no humans in the production, only Na’vi and the creatures of Pandora including viperwolves, direhorses, the toruk and two new creatures designed and approved by Cameron and his team at Lightstorm – the austrapedes and a turtapedes.
“I like to describe it to people that it’s like being in a 3D movie,” Laqui said.
“It has a very clear narrative and is basically an adventure story and movie right in front of your eyes. The puppeteers probably have the most experience in theatre telling stories so it’s been really cool to share that experience with the other artists in the aerialists and acrobats.”
The visual spectacle includes more than 40 intelligent projectors to transform the arena setting and the audience can download the Toruk – The First Flight app to participate further during moments in the show.
“You download it and there are certain times you’re cued to do things with your phone that add to the environment,” Laqui said.
“It’s an interesting survey to see which communities and countries participate and which don’t. The audiences in Australia have been incredible.”
What: TORUK – The First Flight
Where: Perth Arena
When: November 24 to December 3