Tuesday night I went to a special talk and presentation by the puppeteer Basil Twist
at the Japan Society. He was interviewed by Cheryl Henson (daughter of Jim Henson), who now runs the Henson Foundation
which sponsors a lot of programs, grants, and festivals to advance the art of puppetry.
We also got to see video clips from all of his major works. I’m fortunate, living in NYC, that I’ve been able to see a good number of them: Symphonie Fantastique
, an abstract underwater
puppet show of movement and color, the ballet Petrushka
and opera La Bella Dormante Nel Bosco
(the latter with life-size
marionettes, at the work’s climax they dance
with the live singers!), and his latest work, Arias with a Twist
, an adult/queer/“downtown” work with drag chanteuse Joey Arias, which had everything from a touching incorporation of his grandfather’s puppets to graphic puppet fellatio.
Twist talked about his studying at a famous puppet school in France (he’s the first American to complete the three-year program) and his travels to Japan, where the art form of puppetry is venerated, with some theater companies’ history and traditions going back centuries
Later, he brought out “Stickman,”
one of the first string puppets he created and learned to operate, and it was amazing to see how effortlessly he made the puppet come to life, and the subtlety and range of motion he was able to give its movements, almost as an extension of his own – perhaps not surprising, since they have a 20-year relationship together.
Part of the reason for this lecture and demonstration was that the Japan Society is hosting the Awaji Puppet Theater
from Japan for a series of performances this weekend, whose work goes back to the 16th Century
! Puppeteer-musicians from that troupe performed a ritual ceremony, a form of invocation to the theater with puppets that often is performed before any audience members even enter the theater.
Then we got to see his puppeteers work his Petrushka puppet in an adapted style of Japanese bunraku
, where a single puppet is manipulated simultaneously by three puppeteers (usually in black ninja-style garb behind the puppet, here fully exposed so we could watch their work). Then a team of three from the Awaji Theater brought out one of their puppets (you can’t see the third man, who is working the legs) to “meet” Petrushka. What was most amazing about this was how completely lifelike and fluid the puppets’ movements, expressions, and even personality and emotions were, considering that each team of three puppeteers were working together improvisationally
as the puppets greeted each other and reacted to comments from Cheryl Henson and Basil Twist, comparing each other’s articulation, movement, and details. Totally awe-inspiring.