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REVIEWS: Summer 2011...

/ Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company, In Retrospect
/ The Suitcase Royale, The Ballad of Backbone Joe
/ Sparkle and Dark, The Clock Master
/ Alina Ibragimova & The Quay Brothers, Bach, Berio, Biber & Bartók, Béla

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Alina Ibragimova & The Quay Brothers
Bach, Berio, Biber & Bartók, Béla

Wilton’s Music Hall, London
26 July 2011

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

I remember vividly my own first attempt to ‘visualise’ music with performing objects – at a lunch-time concert of my compositions at a Harvard College library circa 1985. Abstract figures designed by a classmate, meant to glide gracefully down a lead wire strung from the top of a book case to beneath a table, got stuck half-way, resulting in an unintentionally comic traffic jam. I emerged red-faced from beneath the table to lead the objects one-by-one to their destination. Nobody much listened to my music after this embarrassment.

My experience, I think, illustrates a constant danger of musical visualisations. While theatre (and particularly puppet theatre) possesses the robust ability to defuse and even celebrate errors and incidental happenstances, Western classical art music is a monad in performance. Its austere frame mandates virtuosic precision. Lapses and intrusions of the everyday cannot be ameliorated.

There are exceptions of course to this norm – John Cage’s aleatoric music springs immediately to mind. Another proved to be a concert of pieces for solo violin played by Alina Ibragimova, directed and designed by Stephen and Timothy Quay, and staged at Wilton’s Music Hall in London (for the Barbican’s BLAZE festival) and Cheltham’s Library in Manchester (as part of the Manchester International Festival).

This openness to the world was clear from the moment that Ibragimova walked down the steps from the gallery in an elegant evening gown, her steps echoing through the hall, her body casting a huge shadow on the distressed walls of the decrepit theatre. Her first piece, Lucianio Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976), was played with furious abandon, with strings of her bow popping loose at irregular intervals. She played at floor level, in the auditorium, making it hard to glimpse her face as she played, but pointing us to normally-overlooked incidentals –  the rumbling of a train, a gnat caught in the glare of a spotlight. Ibragimova’s next offering, a movement of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, was played on stage in a similarly romantic mood. A card in a sealed envelope invited us to explore the various rooms of the historic music hall during the interval, as music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber recorded by Ibragimova played from discretely-placed speakers.

The evening’s highlight was certainly the concert’s second half, which consisted of a film by Stephen and Timothy Quay titled I Looked Back When I Reached Halfway (a line from a Hungarian folksong sung by the audience at Bartók’s farewell concert) addressing Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin (1943). I say ‘addressing’, rather than ‘accompanied by’ or ‘illustrating’, for Ibragimova’s performance was, in a sense, a sort of conversation with the film. The violinist, dressed in a stunning red gown, faced the film as she played in half-light, sometimes assenting to its visual cues, sometimes adding complexity and interiority. Bartók  wrote his Sonata as he was dying of leukaemia and the black-and-white film evokes (but never represents) contemplation of the biographical past and expectation of death through its animation of objects and visual montage. We catch glimpses of a child (or is it a doll?) in a flower-lined coffin, windows that open and shut of their own accord, flashes of lightning on tiles, rustling trees, water poured from a carafe, optical and clock-like instruments, clouds and smoke, and, repeatedly, the face of a balding man whose glasses catch the light and who might be the same person writing and re-writing a musical score. The film ends with the sound of crickets and a tree-lined country house with an open window moved by the wind.

The concert was a remarkable collaboration, a rare instance of what Edward Gordon Craig called ‘the perishable theatre’, an ‘elegant and even exquisite’ art based on ‘the ugly little insects and the more beautiful insects, in fact the whole short-lived creation; and, perhaps, the passing phases of childhood; even the brittleness of toys’.

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Loco7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company
In Retrospect
Wilton’s Music Hall, London
15 July 2011

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

In Retrospect is experimental dance puppet theatre exploring relations to mothers, play, fantasy, identity and autonomy from New York City’s La MaMa, a memory play that regresses to the pre-verbal and narrativeless world of infancy in the hope of recovering a freedom of expression.

The entry to this primal world, of course, is through food – videos of cooking, preparing, eating projected onto the bodies of swaying dancers and the cracked back wall of the ancient music hall. Confusion sets in as the dancers struggle to escape. Balls drop from above with nostalgic images that spin and pirouette. A man struggles for visibility against two human-sized puppets animated by dancers. The threesome join together in a circular dance, an image of what French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls ‘being singular plural’. Athletic leaps and jumps as invisible forces push and pull upon the dancers, who react with mimed horror and hope. Two women strip away layer upon layer of white masks, each old mask carefully arrayed in a line, becoming part of a curated collection, each new mask forcing a new stereotyped attitude. The masks are gathered together, but fail to achieve a whole, becoming a simulacrum of the human face rather than a sign of identity. Another black and white video, the image of a sleeping woman, each part of her body named and described – she becomes atomised. The man dances a pas de deux with a strangely disarticulated human-size puppet, lifting the paddle-handed figure, whirling it athletically overhead, without love, devoid of emotion. A childhood dream: a girl is stripped of her robe by playful sea creatures and swims about in goggles and a yellow wet suit. The creatures grow aggressive and try to eat her and she slips back into actuality and her robe. A video dance of a woman waiting for a phone call becomes a stage dance with an oversized telephone and electrical plug. A Petrushka-like dancer emerges from an over-size music box to dance in synchrony with the male dancer. A video of making a house of cards… likened in a voiceover to the illusions we embrace that save us pain. The music stops. Three dancers propel themselves around the stage by the force of breath, assuming highly stylised poses, as a rack of three string puppets is pushed carelessly onto stage. Each of the dancers picks up a puppet, which is dressed identically, and dances with it. The puppets twirl but cling to the body, eternally dependent, shaking spastically. On video, a woman cradles a puppet affectionately, in a manner that suggests it is more than a doll, a true surrogate for a child. A voiceover intones that a mother’s love is unconditional, proof that all men are created equal as all are children of women. And finally a massive pair of feet descends from on high. The male dancer walks with the feet, dances with them, achieving smallness, becoming a child. Yet the transformation is an illusion, a voiceover tells us, for one might fill a gap, but still one is changed forever.

Loco7’s dance with puppets offers not only new possibilities for extending the dancing body. It offers new perspectives on the human through its kaleidoscope of images which are both intensely personal and also relevant to us all.

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The Suitcase Royale
The Ballad of Backbone Joe
Soho Theatre, London
12 July 2011

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Australian company The Suitcase Royale, in residence at London’s Battersea Arts Centre in July to develop a new piece titled Zombatland to be presented in ‘scratch’ at BAC and premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, have also brought with them their much-travelled tour-de-force piece of music theatre The Ballad of Backbone Joe for a short run at the Soho Theatre in a cabaret setting.

The Ballad is a noire-ish tale of the murder of the wife of a washed-up boxer, the local favourite at a boxing ring in an outback town managed by the owner of the local abattoir. (The boxer tenderises meat as a day job.) A seedy private detective from ‘the mean streets of Sandringham’ poses as a boxer to investigate, and is roped into a match enacted as a cartoonish human shadow sequence. The acting style is broadly comic and stylised, with outsize props, pantomimic gestures, sound effects that are intentionally out of synch with action. The actors all double as musicians in a foot-stomping ‘rag ‘n bones’ band made up of guitar, string bass and drums.

It’s commonplace in today’s theatre to see performers multitasking – a bit of music and singing, some acting, with maybe a puppet or two or a circus or magic trick thrown in for good measure. All too often one or more of the elements in the mix is amateurish – presented with stylish aplomb, a hint of the ta-da!, but lacking in technical accuracy or emotional authenticity.

The Suitcase Royale’s a different kettle of fish. Neither musical band nor theatre company, they are a tight-knit threesome which shifts easily between different modes of presentation without pretence. ‘That’s where I play the drums,’ the boxer tells another character. A puppet – an articulated animal skull representing a skeleton in a closet – accidentally breaks while in use, spitting bits of bones into the audience. Its jaw is repaired on stage by the actor playing Backbone Joe. The puppeteer-actor ad-libs that while Backbone Joe’s name suggests he’s a chiropractor, he missed his calling as a dentist. The audience is in stitches.

Set nominally in 1937, the references are ferociously contemporary. His slaughterhouse business facing bankruptcy due to an increase in vegetarianism, the abattoir owner hawks ‘Dan’s famous meat fruit’. The show revels in the handmade, found objects, low-tech imagery. A journey is suggested by a human silhouette and moving OHP images. A suitcase pops open to become the front of a car. A town is suggested by a couple of lit-up cardboard models. Though all grown up and wearing beards, I cannot help but think of the performers as three boys playing at film noire. Their sense of fun is contagious.

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Sparkle and Dark
The Clock Master
Marlborough Theatre | Brighton Fringe
30 May 2011

Reviewed by Darren East

The Clock Master exemplifies the effectiveness of drawing on steampunk genre trappings – a Victorian-flavoured blend of the mechanical and the fantastical – for puppet theatre, which has become a well-trodden path these days. These industrial fairytales sit well with the mechanics of puppetry as well as naturally – and usefully – blurring the boundaries that puppetry so often throws up between work for children and adults, so that a show like this that is ostensibly for those aged five and over will be happily attended by plenty of unaccompanied grown-ups.

The craftsmanship of this show makes it a cut above, in its richly detailed physical production values and in its witty script, full of unforced rhyming, which sets itself a grand early challenge of investigating unreliable storytellers before plunging into a trio of dark tales. And the cast are excellent as well, pulling off some bold physical theatre with a host of colourful characters, as well as rich music and skilled puppetry. And it’s pleasing to see a show for children that unequivocally takes us to some dark and disturbing places, both in its content – such as the story of Little Mo faced with a choice between blindness and saving his father’s life – and in form – with those radically unreliable narrators, and stories that blur into their framing realities.

There is a great variety of puppetry, from tabletop-style figures to charmingly animated origami birds, from a giant two-headed witch to Little Mo, who is represented just by a pair of gloves and a mask. All are skilfully and precisely worked. The direction, moment by moment, is a delight – there are high-voltage fight scenes, witty verbal confrontations, and moments of profound decision-making that are all judged perfectly, and the focus of the complex storytelling is always clearly maintained.

It’s on the larger, structural scale that some problems emerge – some of the stories feel a little filled out with pleasing tropes rather than rigorously worked storylines, making some important narrative moments feel unearned. The third story, in particular, has some repetitive longueurs, just at the point where some urgency feels essential, and the ending, though witty, feels rather snatched, especially in the light of the elegant and thoughtful opening.

But The Clock Master, this year in its third outing for Sparkle and Dark (with a partially new cast and new guest directors) both warms the heart and tickles the head.

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Royal de Luxe
El Xolo  
Nantes City Centre
May 2011

Reviewed by Edward Taylor

El Xolo is the latest show from Royal de Luxe featuring giant puppets, originating from a performance last year to mark the bicentenary of the Mexican revolution.

To begin with the public discover a huge mural that has fallen from the sky and smashed into the pavement. The mural, painted in the style of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera features figures from Nantes’ past intermingled with the giants familiar to everyone from eighteen years of such shows in the city. There’s the construction of a popular mythology at work here.

The following day a large block of ice is discovered in front of the cathedral. As it melts the body of a black dog the size of a horse becomes visible. The dog is a Xoloscuintle – the Mexican hairless hound.

Two days later the block of ice has gone bar a few shards lying on the ground and we see a big dog puppet asleep on a regal red velvet dais. Behind the puppet is a tractor laden with all the gear necessary to bring the creature to life. The team of twenty puppeteers enter the space, take their positions, and a Mariachi band serenades the dog – who then wakes up, gets up and hares around the space.

François Delarozière (who made all the previous giants) leaving the company in 2006 posed a (ahem) giant  problem for Royal de Luxe if they wished to continue creating shows in this vein, but Xolo demonstrates that they have found someone (Jean-Michel Caillebotte) to fill those large shoes.  The puppet is splendidly dog-like with the most expressive ears I’ve probably ever seen and he does a good slaver to boot.

The Mariachi band music is replaced by loud rock/rave/world music played by a band on a lorry and we’re off. This is the fourth of these shows I’ve seen and I’m used to being close to the puppets for most of the time. This isn’t possible in Nantes due to the sheer volume of people (800,000 were estimated) and the narrowness of some of the streets, which caused log-jams from time to time. So the show became more like a parade which passes you by rather than something you kept up with, grew attached to and became rather obsessed by.

The dog wakes up La Petite Geante (familiar from The Sultan’s Elephant) who is lying on the road  after a Frida Kahlo-style accident on a bus. At the end of a feverish day they parade to a large car-park where she goes to bed. There is a chandelier which hovers over the bed as it is pushed along by the dog standing on two legs. A dream-like image straight from a children’s picture book further emphasised by a magnificent cloud of smoke created by an extraordinary machine mounted on a flat-bed truck.

The next day a huge container arrives containing the giant Campesino. He is craned out of the upright container and joins the parade. He is basically the first giant the company created in 1993 but has undergone a massive structural overhaul in order to make him a more expressive puppet. Dressed in a straw hat and poncho he is genuinely awesome and the efforts of the puppeteers to keep him animated are at their most physically theatrical.

All three go to sleep, and as they do so you can marvel at the skill of the company in turning complex technical actions into compelling theatre. The dog acts as a speedy counterpoint to the more stately movements of the big puppets.

The final day is a big parade where the three puppets are joined by a giant cymbal-clashing machine and a huge pistol which fires thousands of Mexican revolutionary poems/sayings printed on card into the air. The three are put back in their containers, seen off by tumultuous applause and yet more billowing clouds of smoke (which at one point block out the baking hot sun).

So a superb show but for this old lag the company has become too popular, which makes it difficult to enjoy the shows in the way I used to be able to. If anyone tells you theatre means nothing anymore point them in the direction of Royal de Luxe. I saw thousands of people running down the streets in order to get a glimpse of the giants. It was a sort of mania.

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Postscript
After the madness of the crowds we spent time in the quiet surrounds of Nantes park. On leaving we saw a solitary figure stumbling down one of the back streets. It was Jean-Luc Courcoult the company director and this was barely one hour after the show had finished. It was perhaps the most poignant image of a long weekend full of memorable images.


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