In this world of paywalls, every so often you find an article that SCREAMS "diary me" that you can't link to because you subscribe to it on a gadget that doesn't give you access to the article on the net. This time, it's an absolutely fascinating article by Joan Acocella in the April 15 issue of the New Yorker , which I read on my Kindle, about an American puppeteer named Basil Swift who has taken puppetry FAR beyond anything that we normally think of when we think of puppets. Fortunately, there's enough video (and the trip to YouTube said, "Diary me, YOU IDIOT"!!!) to allow me to tell this story and, besides, things behind a paywall don't necessarily stay there.
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I'll tease you with the abstract of the article from the New Yorker website:
Basil Twist, one of this country’s premier puppeteers, has a broad definition of a puppet. To him, a puppet doesn’t have to look like a person or an animal. Anything inanimate that you animate is a puppet. In other words, puppets could be abstract, and Twist wondered why they so seldom were. His “Rite of Spring” will be nearly abstract, and perhaps even witty.Le Sacre du Printemps with puppets. Well, not in the usual way, but in abstract the way we use it when we talk about art.
So of course you know there are many kinds of puppets. Some you move with a rod fixed in its body:
The Muppets (except for the large ones, like Big Bird) work on a combination of the rod and the hand. That's how Miss Piggy gets to express rage the way she does.
And here is one of Basil Twist's two-rod puppets, from the New York charity event, The Night of 1000 Stevies, a tribute to Stevie Nicks.
THAT was my "Diary me, YOU IDIOT" moment. I HAD to do something with this article.
And, obligingly, The New Yorker put a video up to do what the abstract above did, which means I can start the rest of this with what he means by "puppet school" and then proceed. There's also a biography at Twist's website.
By "puppet school," Twist means the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, in northern France, and Twist is the only American who has graduated from it. After puppet school, Twist came back to the United States where the situation he found himself in was anticipated by Dancer from the Dance, only in this case real career opportunities presented themselves. Here is why I thought Dancer:
[Twist] began having a good time, with a crowd that [his boyfriend Bobby] Miller [a poet and photographer] introduced him to. Miller was a "drag nurse," a person who would come and fix your drag getup -- suggest a different lipstick, tell you to lose the bangs. Their downstairs neighbor was Lady Bunny, . . renowned for her mountainous blond wigs. With a few other men, Twist and Miller went out pretty much every night, to itinerant bars and clubs [which had occasional amateur performances]. Twist brought his puppets and joined the lineup. In one number, he presented a gorgeous miniature singer. "She looked like one of the Supremes. She flipped her hair and gave attitude and sang French songs."In 1995, Twist received a $1,000 grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, which he used to create his first formal abstract presentation, Symphonie Fantastique, which premiered, using a 500-gallon aquarium, in 1998. This was reviewed three times in the New York Times: Margo Jefferson, (the cultural critic), who said
The materials for Twist's shows were often scavenged. A rich hunting ground was Lady Bunny's trash can. Bunny was particular, and tossed out a lot of fine stuff. One day, Twist found some harem pants in her discard pile: "She had thrown them away because they had a stain or something. I made curtains -- these incredible super-pink pleated curtains -- for my theatre." The show started with a recording of Yma Sumac. "Pretty soon, the theatre would begin to sort of shake and shimmy. Then the curtains were pulled open, and the stage was filled with marabou and ostrich feathers, doing a kind of weird Fantasia dance."
Unseen by us, Mr. Twist and three other puppeteers turn Hector Berlioz's vehemently romantic music into a delicious abstract art spectacle. Images drift, float, zigzag and pounce; we see rhythmic arrangements of bubbles, feathers, moons and suns, cylinders of light, blocks of color, curved and geometric shapes . . . What an uncanny experience. You are free of human sights and sounds, but you feel flooded with human emotions.Ben Brantley (the theater critic), who said
As the symphony progresses through its five movements, and certain images recur with variations, it becomes apparent that Mr. Twist is conjuring a visual approximation of Berlioz's motifs and showing how themes evolve and mutate in the piece. There's wit here that goes beyond words, and it doesn't pall during the hour it takes to perform the piece. It is also to Mr. Twist's credit that his images don't get in the way of your appreciation of the symphony when you hear it afterward. His visual portrait, so startling and immediate in the performance, seems, in the memory of it, to have been reclaimed by Berlioz's music. The interpretation is that seamless. It's as if you had been listening with your eyes.and Bernard Holland (music).
There's a snippet at YouTube but it just isn't right. After Symphonie Fantastique, Lincoln Center asked Twist to do something for Great Performances with the caveat that it had to be accompanied by classical music. He chose Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka and stripped it down to the three puppets, here marionettes:
He's done other things too. When his friend Joey Arias returned to New York after spending a number of years as the ringmaster of the Cirque de Soleil show, Zumanity, in Las Vegas, they did a show together. Here Basil and Joey talk about it
and here's something from the show.
And now, in the centennial year of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, Basil Twist is working on a mostly abstract version of the ballet for the Carolina Performing Arts festival. The article went to press before the actual premiere, which was on April 12 and 13. Here is the exploratory workshop video posted by UNC Performing Arts.
Isn't all this wonderful?
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