Two decades ago, when puppeteer Basil Twist and his team made the first iteration of Symphonie Fantastique, large flat-screen televisions were only just becoming a common fixture in the American visual landscape. Twist, then 28, was experimenting in a 500-gallon aquarium with the notion of “abstract puppetry,” to a recording of Hector Berlioz’s florid 1830 composition, and with a smaller team of associates than he currently employs.
The San Francisco native, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2015, strikes me as a precursor to another winner, Taylor Mac. Mac, however, insists on involving other full-size humans on the stage, while Twist condenses similar aesthetic impulses into what has grown into a 1,000-gallon tank — here gussied up with steampunk-like projections of theatrical curtains and positioned above a grand Steinway at which a vicar-like Christopher O’Riley plays Franz Liszt’s piano arrangement of the dense Berlioz orchestral score. In 2018, Twist’s Symphonie (settling in at HERE for a multiple-month run) takes on a new challenge: to make viewers understand that we are not, as we might easily surmise, watching an animated film on a handsome large screen. The dazzling show is a 55-minute live performance, engineered by five wet-suited puppeteers who sprawl on a platform above the tank and dangle their arms into it to create a panoply of special effects, using feathers and silk and a variety of other materials. When it’s over, they invite you backstage to observe how it all works.
Basil Twist plays God in this universe, and has at his disposal almost too many choices. After what amounts to a stretch of visual throat-clearing with bits of plastic and architectural cut-outs and shiny substances, the primary notion that registers with this dance writer, who saw the original in 1998 but has few clear recollections, is the way the movement in the tank evokes the choreography of Isadora Duncan, the uncorseted founding mother of what became American modern dance, alongside her contemporary Loie Fuller, who perfected, life-size and on a dry stage, a similar fusion of fabric, music, motion, and light.
The 2018 Symphonie has protoplasmic shapes that resemble planaria, minnows, and other biological phenomena; it has a certain wispy Japonaiserie in its choices of design elements. It doesn’t quite illustrate the Berlioz music, but it rivets the eye while inviting the ear into an unusually intimate relationship with a solo pianist. A leading role is taken by eyelashes, usually much more recessive; here, sometimes as much as five feet high, they flutter, flirt, and hog the whole central space.
Mostly this Symphonie has a retro sensibility hovering somewhere between Peter Pan (think Tinker Bell, a simple white light bobbing across the tank) and the Cockettes, with an atmosphere redolent of late-Seventies San Francisco, when men from across the world were gathering to live, however briefly, a certain romantic dream. Purple and pink, glittery and arch, trailing enfolding shawls and feather boas, the creaturely inhabitants of Twist’s tank, all the product of his foraging and designing and careful manipulation, keep us enthralled for an hour.
If you have never seen Symphonie, find a way to go. Rush tickets are available, and free student rush seats can be had by the patient bearing ID. If you saw the original and your fortunes have improved over the subsequent decades, go back and hear Christopher O’Riley play the Berlioz score live on the huge Steinway grand beneath the 1,000-gallon tank. And consider yourself lucky to be sharing your walk on this planet with Twist and his fluent crew.