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Ball, Stick, Rope – Puppet?

Dorothy Max Prior on the animated object in contemporary circus, as witnessed at the London International Mime Festival 2006

Here’s your starter for ten: what is a puppet? I know that question could keep us all going for a long while! But moving swiftly on: if, for the sake of argument, we take the broadest possible answer – a puppet is an animated object – then what’s the difference between an object animated by a puppeteer and an object animated by a performer coming from a different starting point? Is there a totally different approach to the animated, or perhaps we should say manipulated, object taken by practitioners coming from other performance traditions (such as circus, theatre , dance, live art) to puppeteers, or is there common ground?

These questions have been running around in my head of late, sparked off by having seen numerous shows using circus skills in the London International Mime Festival (January 2006). How do circus performers approach the objects they are interacting with and manipulating in their shows? Is there any cross-over with puppetry, even if none of these people would necessarily describe themselves as ‘puppeteers’ or ‘animators’?

Objects play an important role in circus. They are manipulated, balanced on, climbed upon, and swung from. Juggling is the most obvious form of object manipulation used in circus - balls and clubs being the usual choices for objects to manipulate, but many other possibilities exist! There were a fair few shows at LIMF 2006 presented by contemporary juggling companies. The tag line for this year’s festival was ‘eye-popping visual theatre for the digital age’ and many of these nouvelle vague circus outfits included the use of computer technologies in shows that mixed ‘virtual’ with ‘real’ object manipulation, adding yet another question to ponder on the animation of, and relationship between, these ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ objects.

It is often said of the circus arts that they differ from theatre in being non-representational: throwing a ball in the air represents nothing other than itself; it’s not ‘about’ anything but is instead the real presentation of a real action in real time and space. In other words, there is no drama – no story, no metaphor, no magical transformation which is at the core of the theatrical experience. But the sort of contemporary circus artists presented at LIMF give a lie to this differentiation.
Take Compagnie Adrien M’s Convergence. On one level, we are presented with a ‘regular’ juggling scenario, albeit in a rather lyrical setting: as a young woman plays the cello, a young man (Adrien Mondot) plainly dressed in black juggles half-a-dozen white balls. Both are visible, but placed behind a thin gauze screen that covers the whole of the front of the stage. The game moves on to a new level as virtual balls start to fall from the top to the bottom of the screen, ‘landing’ with a disconcertingly realistic thud. Some start to move upwards or across the screen. Images start to suggest themselves to the viewer: they are enormous hailstones, cotton wool puffs, strings of beads, billiard balls. These virtual and real balls mingle and soon the young man is ‘juggling’ both - seemingly defying the laws of gravity, his juggling act transformed into a magic trick (ah yes, another form of object manipulation). The goalposts shift again as the virtual balls start to group themselves into obvious humanoid shapes. Ball people walk across the stage, disperse themselves then reform into other shapes. We are now in a new territory of animation; this shifts again as the stage becomes a giant computer screen and the juggler is now a pawn in a game of Pong – the human being transformed into a computerised game-part; a kind of mock electronic puppet.

Adrien Mondot is one of a group of French circus-trained practitioners who are pushing against the boundaries of circus. Leaders of the pack are Compagnie 111 who presented More or Less Infinity, the final part of their trilogy exploring spatial concepts, which has been produced in collaboration with director Phil Soltanoff. Like their previously presented IJK and Plan B, the new show merges manipulation skills with movement; optical illusion with digital sound and visual technology. The simplest summary is to say that it is a piece investigating the linear: lines and sticks and pathways. Long and short lines; fixed and bendy lines; rods and poles and stilts; tracks and runways. We see a dancing chorus of rods, some real some virtual. It is impossible to tell how they are being animated; where the ‘real stops and the ‘virtual’ begins – Busby Berkeley for the digital age. There are whole long sections in this piece where there is no obvious human presence on stage – what we see (rather as in ‘Black Theatre’ puppetry) is a framed square stage on which extraordinary visual images
are created with objects. Then human figures appear, bearing ridiculously long sticks; they create structures and patterns; geometric forms that emerge and dissolve from the choreography. People stilt-walk on stilts that have no foot-holds – they become strange cyborg creatures traversing the stage at very odd angles. Across the stage floor are a number of ‘tramlines’. A disembodied arm, then a disembodied head, then a headless body travel with machine-like smoothness across the stage. As with the Adrien Mondot show, there is a scene in which the humans become participants in a giant computer game. I am aware as I watch this extraordinary succession of images of the constant human drive to construct narrative; to make up stories – these are wooden poles or beams of light, but they become stars, temples, dancers, a city skyline. An interesting twist (played on very consciously within the piece) is that, just as the real and virtual animated objects seem live and become metaphorical representations of things that they are not, so the human performers are used within the show as cogs in the machine – components in the mechanics of the piece; a part of the theatrical engineering but no more or less ‘alive’ than the animated objects; uber-marionettes one might say, to mis-appropriate a term from Gordon Craig!

A very different sort of circus-theatre piece was Matilda Leyser’s Line, Point, Plane. This was also developed as a trilogy – but presented together as one whole show at LIMF 2006. Although I haven’t seen the full trilogy, I saw one part, Lifeline, at an earlier presentation (at Aurora Nova, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2005). We see in Lifeline an investigation of the trajectory of life from birth to maturity, played out on the stage, and on and with a single hanging rope. Here, in this short piece that charts the pleasures and pains of growing up, the rope is set, props and even characters. On many occasions throughout the piece, the rope is looped into a representation of a human head, be it best-friend, teenage crush or lover. Matilda and her rope interact to create a series of animated pictures that are clear-cut, convincing and often extremely moving. Matilda Leyser’s skills as an aerialist make the piece a very competent and exhilarating demonstration, but it is her interaction with the rope; her use of the rope to create characters, tell stories and explore theatrical metaphor that moves the piece into new territory.

It’s another example of how skills that we would associate with puppetry – the power of transformation so that things become that which they are not; the ability to give life to an inanimate object; the illusion that an object can be capable of action – can be used within circus to achieve a similar outcome: provoking the essential theatrical elements of telling stories and making pictures; evoking feelings and responses in those that bear witness.

So to go back to our starter for ten – what is a puppet? On the evidence of the excellent array of ‘new circus’ work seen at the London International Mime Festival, a puppet can be a ball, a stick, a rope, a beam of light – and ball, stick, rope, light can all be anything we fancy them to be.

For full details of all performances referenced, and to sign up to receive details of the 2007 festival as soon as they are released, see

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