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Of Puppets And Pirouettes

June 11, 2008

Dance and puppetry are kindred artforms. Dance captures the essence of human behavior and feeling. So does puppetry. Both art forms depend upon physical human dexterity. Given the close ties between the two, you'd imagine that there would be tons of renowned puppet danceworks out there. I guess there's Petrushka - a ballet with a puppet in the plot. Maybe the doll at the center of Coppelia counts too. But I can't think of any really well-known works created for puppets off the top of my head.

The innovative Bay Area-based choreographer Joe Goode's latest collaboration with puppet master Basil Twist could kick off a new trend for puppet ballets. The duo's new piece, Wonderboy, which received its world premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts over the weekend, mines deep inside a puppet's super-human soul.

The piece features just one puppet - a waif-like boy with skinny limbs, large eyes and a white, angular face. The story, if you can call it a story, for the piece doesn't feature a narrative in the traditional sense of the word, follows the obsessions of an introverted young boy facing the weirdness of the world for the first time.

The puppet sits more or less still for a lot of the time during the 45-minute work, propped up inside a window frame with gauzy, white silk curtains by a couple of dancers as he watches the world. The spectator sport gets a little tiring after a while, especially since the boy is rather dyspeptic and whiny (a fact exacerbated by the high-pitched electronically manipulated timbre of his speaking voice.)

The piece picks up radically when the puppet takes part in the scenes he has for so long observed - the most captivating moments occur when the puppet is completely integrated into the dancers' choreography. At one point, for instance, a female dancer slides along the floor on her back with her legs raised in the air making slow bicycle movements, while the puppet stands with his feet planted firmly on hers' moving forwards in time with the dancer's movements. In another magical moment, the puppet leaps precariously over the dancers' curled, stepping stone-like bodies, as if trying to negotiate the challenges of life.

Wonderboy had a strange effect on me. I'm not sure I understood it fully, though there is something wondrous about the way Goode, Twist and their collaborators have reunited the two brotherly artforms of dance and puppetry. I loved the interplay between the wood and string-made instruments of the musical score, the wood and string-made puppet, and the wood and string-made puppet soul at the heart of the piece.


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