Arts and Culture

When the new Cirque du Soleil show “Toruk: The First Flight” opens at the KFC Yum! Center later this week, a Kentucky woman will be among the acrobats and puppeteers onstage.

Kristi Hughes is a native of Nicholasville, Kentucky, and a graduate of Centre College, where she studied theater and French. After college, she decided to attend the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France, to study physical theater, which includes disciplines like clowning and pantomime.

Kristi HughesOliver Betke

Kristi Hughes

Hughes said her parents were less than thrilled when she told them about her postgraduate plans.

“I was so excited and telling them, yes, we’ll be doing clown [work] and learning about pantomime and all these forms of physical theater, and my mom just looked at me and was like, ‘You want to be a mime?'” said Hughes.

“So in the beginning, they could not believe it and had no idea why I would want to do that after studying for so long.”

Hughes said her parents are supportive of her work now.

“I could not have done that, lived abroad for so long, and led the path that I’ve led without the support of them,” she said.

Hughes said her experience studying in France prepared her well for an unconventional career as an actor, puppeteer, clown and teacher. She’s been based in Berlin, Germany, for the last 10 years, and was a featured performer in the German-language premiere of “War Horse,” a Tony-Award-winning play that included life-sized puppet horses.

For “Toruk,” Hughes works with five other puppeteers to bring a giant dragon-like creature — the Toruk — to life. The show is based on the movie “Avatar” by James Cameron, although it has an original storyline.

“It’s the first time Cirque du Soleil has hired professional puppeteers to work with these very large-scale puppets,” Hughes said.

The Toruk puppet has a 40-foot wingspan and weighs 240 pounds. Hughes said it’s like an “upside-down marionette,” with the puppet in the air and the puppeteers on the ground.

She said she’s thrilled to perform in Louisville.

“I haven’t performed a major performance in Kentucky since I was Charlotte in ‘Charlotte’s Web’ at Centre College,” Hughes said. “So this is extremely exciting for me.”

“Toruk: The First Flight” runs April 28 to May 1 at the KFC Yum! Center.