Minnesota native Rob Laqui is coming to Ottawa with Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk — The First Flight, taking place from June 29 to July 3, 2016.
Laqui tells us more about the lavish production, puppeteering and his thoughts on the Pulse Nightclub shooting in this edited interview.
Daily Xtra: You auditioned for Cirque du Soleil more than 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2014 that you were approached to be part of a show, is that right?
Rob Laqui: One of my first big auditions when I first moved to New York from Minnesota was for Cirque. They said I had potential but didn’t add me to their artist database until the following year after a second audition. It was very exciting and I thought yeah, they’re going to call me tomorrow. More than 10 years later I got a call to audition for [Toruk] and it led to a job and a long-time dream.
Toruk – The First Flight is inspired by James Cameron’s movie Avatar and premiered in December 2015. What else can you tell us about the show?
James Cameron and his company have been involved from the beginning and still are with the creation and the evolution of our show, which takes place thousands of years earlier than Avatar on the moon of Pandora. You get to meet different clans and all these animals and creatures and landscapes. It’s an amazing visual spectacle and a brand-new experience.
What first drew you to puppeteering?
When I moved to New York I worked as a dancer. One of the dance companies I worked with was MOMIX and they use a lot of Michael Curry puppets. Curry most famously designed puppets for The Lion King and he’s also designed a lot of puppets for Cirque. A few years later I was in a production of War Horse and that sort of propelled me towards the puppeteering road. The relationship between dancing and puppeteering is really close.
In Toruk we’re a team of six puppeteers and we get to embody all sorts of different animals, each with their own personality and physicality.
How do you identify in the LGBT community?
I identify as a gay man and for me that has always influenced how I am as an artist. It’s easy for people in the LGBT community to really gravitate towards the arts because it’s a safe haven that we don’t necessarily get in other fields.
In April 2016, Cirque cancelled its North Carolina performances and issued a statement saying, “The new HB2 legislation passed in North Carolina is an important regression to ensuring human rights for all.” What was your reaction to Cirque’s decision?
One of Cirque’s tenets is global social responsibility. I thought [the North Carolina statement] was reflective of the kind of community that Cirque tries to foster, not just in the arts but in the world. Leading by example showed [anti-LGBT legislation] isn’t acceptable and it made me really proud to be part of the company.
What was it like processing the news of the Pulse Nightclub shooting when you had to keep performing?
We were in Baltimore when it occurred and we dedicated our show to the victims of the shooting in Pulse. Even now it’s pretty emotional when I think about it. What I really appreciate about being an artist and my identity as a gay man is being a force for positivity. Growing up, you look for role models and communities to be part of. If someone can read this and identify with who I am, accept it and see that I’m realizing a dream, and living the life I want to live then that’s living positively in the art.
I still think the process of equality and the acceptance of LGBT people is moving forward and these terrible acts of violence and [anti-LGBT legislation] are the last vestiges of the whole [oppressive] way of thinking. I can only hope this is the threshold that we’re crossing, that we’re raising generations of people who think love is love.
What changes do you see in yourself now versus before you started touring with this production?
I’m a lot more muscular in my right arm [laughs]. I’m daily inspired by the people around me, the show I’m in and the company I work for. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and it’s a reminder every day that it’s my duty to be the best because this is the top of the heap.