Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean
'Toruk' puppeteer Rob Laqui operating a wolf-like puppet
Rob Laqui hovers over what looks like a wolf as big as a human. It’s slumped over. Eerily lifeless. Oh, and it's also a puppet. In a few hours, he’ll be running around an arena making it come to life, aggressively barking, growling, and snarling. He’ll also be a bird. And a horse. And even the great leonopteryx that flies in and leads people to victory.
That’s life as a puppeteer.
And we’re talking the kind of puppeteer that’s vastly more badass than Mr. Rogers.
Laqui, a Twin Cities native, is one of the six puppeteers in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Toruk: The First Flight. The show is inspired by Avatar and takes place 3,000 years before the film, in the land of Pandora. Like any typical Cirque performance, Toruk has all the bells and whistles—jaw-dropping acrobatic acts, vibrant visuals, and brilliant costumes. But it’s the high-tech, 3-D staging and the large-scale puppetry that really makes this performance unordinary.
Toruk hits Target Center Sept. 28-Oct. 2. We talk with Laqui (and his wolf puppet) before a performance in Chicago about operating the large-scale puppets, performing with Cirque, and coming back to perform in his home state.
How did you get your start in showbiz?
I was a step-toucher at Valleyfair. That was my first gig. It helped me become a better dancer. I also performed at places around town [like Minneapolis Musical Theatre and Comedy Sportz].
How does an Edina kid end up traveling the world with puppets for Cirque du Soleil?
When I moved to New York, I was doing musical theater, and what kept me there was a company called La MaMa. I got into more into physical theater, sort of more non-traditional theater. That transferred into dance, and I was touring dance for 10 years. From there, I worked with a company called MOMIX, which uses puppets designed by Michael Curry, who designed for Lion King and a lot of the Cirque shows. I never considered myself a puppeteer, per say; I was considered more of a dancer. I then got into the performance War Horse, and that experience propelled me into puppeteering.
Has running away with Cirque du Soleil been your lifelong dream?
I auditioned for them over 10 years ago. In their audition process, you make it to the end, you fill out paperwork, and you’re entered into their artist database. They’re like, ‘We can call you tomorrow, or we can call you never.’ I really thought they were going to call me the next day, and I was going to be like, ‘I did it!’ And then, literally, a career later, because of the puppetry, they called me in for another audition. About a month after that audition, I got a call and they offered it to me.
What’s the trick in bringing alive these creatures that are puppets?
The art of puppeteering really is that you have to be a good actor and you have to be pretty athletic. It’s the same for dance. When I started puppeteering in a serious way, I really thought of it as, ‘I’ve been puppeteering all along, just as a dancer. I’ve just been puppeteering myself.’ I’ve transferred that to the object. You have to learn what the object is capable of and its limitations. You can use those things just as a dancer would use their body. We’re just funneling our ability through this thing.
So, a puppeteer. Why not an acrobat?
[Laughs] I’m working on it. I get to cross train a lot, which is cool. All of the puppeteers here are incredibly physically gifted. One of the puppeteers put it best: ‘I can do a handstand. When you’re at Cirque and you’re working with these acrobats, that’s not handstand anymore.’ They’re doing a handstand with one hand and then checking their phone with the other. They’re crazy. The talent level is off the charts. It drives us to be better.
You’ve performed in Minnesota before, when Tony Award-winning War Horse opened at the Orpheum. What will it be like being back in your home state performing Toruk?
I’m excited. I’m absolutely so grateful to be from that place and to come back and share my experience. Minnesota has such a great scene.
What are three things you’re going to do when you’re back?
Oh gosh. I’m going to see all of my friends. I haven’t even researched what’s playing, but I would love to see a show anywhere, from Bryant Lake Bowl to the Guthrie, I don’t care. And I need to get a Jucy Lucy, because you know what? I’ve never had one.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’ve never had a Jucy? Where are you going to go?
I don’t know! Maybe I’m going to do both Matt’s Bar and 5-8 Club.