Cirque du Soleil’s ‘TORUK’ aerialist Gabrielle Martin’s big dream pays off

Photo Credit: Cirque du Soleil
Photo credit: Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil present “TORUK – The First Flight” inspired by James Cameron’s AVATAR. This live experience envisions a world beyond imagination set thousands of years before the events depicted in the film. The word Toruk, in the Na’vi language, refers to the great leonopteryx, the mighty red and orange predator that rules the Pandoran sky. Central in Na’vi lore and culture, this fascinating creature is crucial to the Na’vi clan’s sense of destiny and interconnectedness — and is about to be ridden for the very first time by a Na’vi.

A featured acrobat in this ensemble is Gabrielle Martin of Vancouver. An aerialist, contemporary dancer, and emerging choreographer, her foray into contemporary circus and dance was nontraditional. She has a background in sports, competing in AAA women’s ice hockey.

In her late teens, Martin began movement training in contact improvisation, butoh, and somatic practices such as Authentic Movement, Release Technique and Body Mind Centering. Simultaneously, she dedicated herself to training and performing “street circus” with Nucleus, a collective of actors, musicians, and self-taught circus artists, and also trained in fire manipulation, stilt walking, and character animation.

Desiring more formal training, Martin attended Concordia University and earned a BFA in Contemporary Dance along with independent training in aerial arts at La Caserne. While at Concordia, she presented her own aerial choreographies at professional dance festivals through Floating Seed, an aerial-contemporary company she co-founded. Upon graduating in 2009, she continued to choreograph her own work, presenting in Montreal, Toronto, Geulph, and New York. In 2010, Gabrielle’s choreography, ‘Box,, was short-listed to top ten in the Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest. From 2010-11, she was selected, through a competitive process, as a choreographer in four different mentored creation residencies, including: the Regroupement Québécois de la Danse – Creation Workshop for Emerging Choreographers (Montreal), and Dance New Amsterdam’s RAW Material program (New York).

From 2011-2015, Gabrielle toured with “Cavalia,” an equestrian and nouveau-circus production, performing aerial rope/corde lisse, bungee trapeze, aerial hoop, dance, and harness dance numbers.

Gabrielle Martin (Photo Credit: Theirry Ballange)
Gabrielle Martin (Photo credit: Theirry Ballange)

She joined the creation of TORUK – The First Flight in July 2015. It’s her first production with Cirque du Soleil.

Read what she has to say about persevering and pursuing your dreams.

How did you get involved with this company, Cirque du Soleil? 
I think, as a circus artist, dancer, performer, Cirque du Soleil has always been a company that I admired. I was really moved by the work, the mix of the physicality, the storytelling and the fantasy of the circus world. It was on my radar for quite a while. I really went after it. I did a live audition about two years ago. I made it a point to knock on their door every few months, and submitted updated videos of my work, and continued to research what they were looking for in their shows. What kind of casting profile I fit and to really tailor performance material towards that and keep in good contact with the casting director. I was very proactive. They contacted me when they were casting for this creation, TORUK. I had to send them further dance, movement and acting video that was specific to the Na’vi character.

You’re originally from Vancouver?
I grew up in Vancouver. My father is from Zimbabwe and my mother is white Canadian, British, French mix.

As a writer being involved in the circus seems so abstract. As a child, I would have never thought it could be a career for someone. It just seemed like adults at play. But I completely understand how the art form attracted you? I love Cirque du Soleil
I started in sports as a teenager. I’m Canadian. I played ice hockey. I did martial arts. My parents knew to put me in sports. When I became a teenager, I was living in a neighborhood that was very artsy and eclectic. I was exposed to fire dancing. There was one organization that did a lot of public parades with puppets and stilt walking. I think that was my first introduction to a type of circus arts. I was drawn to the performance world. I was really passionate about sports because I love being physical but it was kind of missing something. It was a natural transition into dance and circus arts because I could still be as physically stimulated and disciplined but with artistic expression.

I was lucky to live in a neighborhood where I was exposed to those styles of art. I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show when I was 18. And, I had more of a frame of reference for something that I’d want to be a part of one day.

How fascinating is it to bring an Avatar-inspired production to this art form?
When the film Avatar came out, I loved it. I thought the message was really great. The Na’vi beings were very interesting to me. ‘Toruk’ takes place thousands of years before the movie. It’s its own story; that’s different from what you see in the movie.

What I love about performing the Na’vi character is that it’s a different type of physicality than I’ve been charged to perform in the past as a circus artist and a dancer. As female circus artists we’re often put in a generic, sexy, feminine role. I appreciate something that’s more complex than that and where the physicality is not just about being graceful in a way we’ve seen before. The Na’vi are very graceful but there’s more to them. They’re powerful, curious, agile. That’s fun for me to play.

In between shows and tours, how do you spend your free time?
I don’t necessarily turn off when I go home or am on break. I always want to improve my skills where I can. In the coming weeks we have a couple weeks off. I already have some coaching lined up to develop my skills further. There are some things that I just want to work on. I have time to go in and continue to be artistic but free in the sense that it’s not at work; it’s not specifically for the show but it’s skills related to the show.

To be at this level, with Cirque du Soleil, you have to really love what you do. It will be a break because I won’t be doing it 10 hours a day, just a few hours a day.

If you were addressing a group of pre-teen ballerina and gymnasts, what advice would you give them?
I would definitely say the generic ‘don’t give up.’ I have really had a lot of rejections and obstacles. You come to understand that anybody who has a certain level of success for the most part have had their share of obstacles and rejection along the way. I have had so many moments where I didn’t feel my career was going anywhere or in the past, not with Cirque du Soleil, but I have had injuries that I questioned whether or not I could keep going as an artist and I am just so happy that I didn’t give up in those moments. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.

Dream big. Cirque du Soleil for me in my field is one of the biggest dreams that you can have. It’s a great company to work with and had so many shows traveling the world. They reach such a wide audience. It was a pretty bold goal for me to have considering that I came to dance and circus arts late in my life. It’s possible. If you don’t dream big, it won’t happen.

Do your research. Look at all the steps required and really know what’s being produced by the company you wish to work with – what are they looking for in artists. Be aware of your weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to look at them so you can actually work on them.

Be very aware and disciplined as an artist.

There isn’t a clear cut path.

TORUK – The First Flight will be presented at the Infinite Energy Arena on June 15-19, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at range from $34.50 – $125

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