Theater archives

Beyond Human


Horses have a long history as dancers. A Renaissance prince with gold in his coffers and a major celebration looming could always commission a horse ballet. Its mass patterns transformed the tournament into art, further ritualizing the maneuvers of war. Such spectacles did not empower horses; the prancing display revealed their riders’ mastery and God-given right to rule the animal kingdom.

Bartabas, the artistic director of Zingaro, takes a more romantic view: horses are both servants and masters, and emblems of a lost freedom. He discovers their aptitudes, polishes these into repeatable performance skills, and devises theatrical frameworks that translate tricks into art. Toward the end of the company’s latest production, Eclipse, he rides the magnificent Vinaigre without reins. While the white stallion canters and pirouettes, Bartabas wields huge wings of black fabric draped over curved rods à la Loie Fuller; together they’re part Pegasus, part perfume ad.

Eclipse is both starker and fancier than last season’s Chimère. It’s also less unified. Chimère pursued the origin of the Gypsies to the wild plains of Rajasthan in northern India. The connection between eclipse, horses, and Korea is less firm, although riders and mounts again perform marvels, and the guttural imprecations of Pansori singer Yoo Jin Chung seem to be ripped from the earth’s guts. The light-dark-light passage of an eclipse operates as a stirring design concept. A riderless white horse orbits a spinning, white-shrouded figure; the image is later reprised in black. A white acrobat and a black dancer show their skills, then spell each other in vaults on and off a cantering horse.

Some people take exception to Bartabas’s high-gloss poeticizing, but it fuels the imaginations of those for whom the very word “stallion” conjures up flaring nostrils, billowing mane, and flying hooves. He also sets off–wonderfully–what we’ve come to see: riders so at one with their steeds that they can stand calmly atop a canter, so skilled they can leap onto a moving animal or straddle two mounts; and beautiful, intrepid horses. Oh those horses! I love them all–from the steady, broad ones who offer their rumps as trampolines, to the magnificent stallions with complicated gaits, to the slender black pony Felix who coils around a human partner and then frisks before her. We may at first wonder at the odd finale in which all the humans paw the earth, shake themselves, fall, then sit up to stare about–until black Zingaro enters alone to eclipse them in what’s obviously his dance.

The International Festival of Puppet Theater raises beguiling issues of scale and control–issues magnified when puppeteers are visible or when puppets interact with humans. In Wayang Listrik/Electric Shadows, battling Balinese shadow puppets representing the god Indra and the demon Bali metamorphose into human shadows whose lacy headpieces give them the same sharp profiles the puppets have. With quivering fingers and rippling arms, the dancers create the intricate thrust and parry of a stylized fight, while the flat puppets express its heat–flipping through the air to whap an opponent, spinning into oblivion when struck. The puppeteers of the 360-year-old Japanese Youki-za Marionette Theater often stand fully visible and on the same level as their puppets. Enacting an encounter between Tarokaja, the archetypal rascally servant of Japanese drama, and a shockingly ugly wife he’s fished from the sea with a little supernatural help, the brothers Magosaburo Youki XII and Isshi Youki dance with their skirmishing little antagonists–their fingers, even their teeth, delicately working a formidable array of strings; their bodies charging and recoiling; their faces mirroring the drama. Their puppets animate them, even as they breathe the semblance of life into wood and cloth. In Ahab’s Wife, or The Whale, by the Boston-based company run by former Tharp dancers Richard Colton and Amy Spencer, a shadow Moby Dick–now small, now huge–chases a little shadow Pequod and her longboat across the backcloth and onto the two translucent diving bells that human performers climb on and plunge into.

Larry Reed of San Francisco’s Shadowlight Productions, Balinese “shadow master” I Wayan Wija, and gamelan leader I Dewa Put Berata collaborated on Electric Shadows. The story, drawn from Hindu mythology, tells of another more uneasy collaboration of gods and demons to churn the Elixir of Immortality from the Sea of Milk and revitalize the world. The flat puppets, their snaky arms manipulated by sticks, are more or less traditional, but the integration of human performers is not. Nor is the use of three light sources, shadow scenery, and many invisible puppeteers instead of one.

In this magical performance, a mountain quakes as gods and demons struggle to carry it; then the scene “dissolves” to show the army of little figures underneath. Suddenly the giant (human) fingers of Vishnu reach mercifully down from the sky to lift the now diminished mountain. Characters loom and shrink (depending on the performers’ distance from the screen that shows their shadows). Fantastic creatures abound: a fox-eared, sex-crazed demon; a sweet deer; the goddess Lakshmi churned glowing from the sea. The hurly-burly is terrific. Gods and demons are casual about the force of gravity. They also argue a lot in English, Indonesian, and even a la-di-dah bit of French. Saving the world is a beautiful, funny business, and nobody–that’s one message–is without flaw.

Youki-za brought to the Japan Society the more traditional items in its repertory–the same comic kyogen and Kabuki plays that live actors perform. As in Balinese theater (and Shakespeare), comedy enlivens the most heart-wrenching dramas. A cranky noodle vendor and a drunken customer hilariously belch out the background information for a tale of conspiracies and feudal power struggles, although the tragic core of Meiboku Sendai Hagi concerns Masaoka, nursemaid to a princeling. So loyal is she to her duty that she watches in silence while a conspirator kills her little son, mistaking him for the royal heir. During this palace scene, with many characters, the puppeteers are out of sight overhead, and the dolls truly seem miniature. But when the mother weeps in private over her son, her handler, Magosaburo, appears with her. Gidayu reciter Sokyo Takemoto (the 84-year-old mother of the clan) moans and shrieks the grieving words and the puppeteer writhes with his little heroine (even while black-clad prop men crawl in and affix a tiny knife to her hand so she can avenge her son). The puppet seems larger, more empowered, and the emotion, multiplied by three, immense.

Ahab’s Wife, based on an idea by its designer, Ellen Driscoll, is an imaginative gloss on Melville’s novel. In this dance-theater piece, puppets serve mainly to lend a hallucinatory surge and thrash to the wrecking of the Pequod. One of Driscoll’s structures, however, becomes almost animate. At moments it’s a giant hoopskirt, engulfing and disgorging the heroine and her younger self, but it billows like a silky gray sea; when wires suspend it on end, its waistband becomes a porthole, an eye.

The choreographed images and the words by poet Tom Sleigh range from stunningly mysterious to maddeningly enigmatic. In this seriously postmodern assault on Melville’s text, Ahab’s wife, excellently acted by Randy Danson, becomes central. Layers of past and present swim together. In addition to searching for her vanished lover (Ahab as a youth? It isn’t clear) and for the fan she received from him and lost overboard, she talks on the telephone, and, attired in oilskins with a pipe and mustache, does a Groucho Marx mirror number with a double. The Whale (the impressive Robert Langdon Lloyd) stalks about in a black overcoat (Ahab’s?) making grimly oracular utterances. The stage on which sailors labor and roister, the props they handle, become shifting and unstable. Like dreams. Like the sea.