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Moving Parts

Caroline Astell-Burt of the London School of Puppetry explains why contemporary dance pioneer Laban’s analysis of movement is useful to the puppeteer

Someone wrote to me recently saying that they were fascinated by the artistic fusion between the puppeteer and puppet, reflecting that the movements the puppeteer makes are part of a much bigger picture – one which can be described by means of the theories of Rudolf von Laban.

Laban Movement Analysis is a way of interpreting, describing, visualising and notating human movement, and is usually applied to dance. Yet when Laban wrote Mastery of Movement on the Stage (1950; later published as The Mastery of Movement) he intended for it to be applied to all performers. Over the past half-century his work has been applied to a diversity of disciplines, including theatre arts, architecture, computer game design, music technology, and the ergonomics of working postures. The breadth of his vision, inspiring work in others, is impressive. It can also be noted that Laban was a visual artist and that visual art necessarily underpinned his dance work and his theatricality.

So it would seem pertinent to apply his theories on movement to puppetry, too. The movements of the puppeteer are also a physical language; albeit one which has its own unique historical and cultural origins…

I have been preoccupied recently by some research I am doing into the body of the puppeteer, and have found some interesting links between dance and puppetry. I had the idea of writing about this using Laban Movement Analysis to develop my knowledge of the puppeteer.

So my question is: can an application of Laban Movement Analysis make the ontologically invisible body of the puppeteer visible? By this I mean that the puppeteer is invisible in ‘meaning’ because some traditional views of puppetry make the puppeteer irrelevant. For example, puppeteers at one time were paid as technicians and not as artists. On television, actors on a commercial would get repeat fees, but puppeteers working on the same project would not. The answer to this question, therefore, depends on our understanding of the nature of the work of the puppeteer.

Laban Movement Analysis is a practical means of opening up those traditional performance modes and practices of puppetry which could be said to absent the puppeteer. By questioning these modes in terms of time, space, and energy, they attribute ownership of the action to the puppeteer. Laban does not provide dance steps or choreography but rather a framework for looking at all movement, both that of the object and that of the operator. 

Whereas the traditional view of puppetry favours the puppet over the puppeteer, a corporeal attitude to the puppeteer allows an inclusive empathetic relationship between audience and puppeteers to develop. Not only does this immediately connect puppetry to a larger sphere of culture in the performing arts as a whole, where theoretical and critical thinking are more established, but it also permits the development of artistic process and artistic visibility for the puppeteer. Crucially for this argument the adoption of Laban Movement Analysis defines for the puppeteer an immanent kinaesthetic praxis of movement memorised and embodied – the crucial point being that all puppet action originates in the body of the puppeteer. By this I mean an internal change in attitude by the puppeteer, a mental process of feeling and being present in the memory of movement which is expressed through the puppet. In a recent lecture, the puppeteers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring (reported on in the last edition of Animations Online, here) emphasised the non-verbal language of the puppeteer, with movement coming from the reflective and thinking body, serving and giving energy to the puppet.

At the centre of my current research is studio-based work exploring the body of the puppeteer as active and practising, like the body described by Marcel Mauss ‘as a body of ideas’. The issue stimulating this enquiry is invisibility of the puppeteer.  Roland Barthes, in his essay ‘Lesson in Writing’, recognises that traditional invisibility fetishises the puppet at the expense of the puppeteer with a pretence that the puppet comes to life all by itself. Barthes instead chooses to admire the unsentimental visible bodily presence of the Bunraku puppeteer as part of a disunited whole. This whole breaks down into the semiotic: the visible puppeteers, puppets, storyteller and musician on an open stage. 

Choreologist Susan Leigh Foster looks at the same essay with dancers in mind and comments rather on the fragmentation caused by the semiotic, looking instead for a more internalised experiential view of the performer.  We can deduce from what she says about the dancer that the body of the puppeteer is teachable and ontologically present  (though not always visible) and the subject of cultural inheritance. ‘Teachable’ is important because, as all puppeteers know, an openness to new ideas and knowledge is crucial for the making of new work and adding to the shared artistic culture.

Put at its simplest: is Laban Movement Analysis of any practical or artistic use to the puppeteer? Why this emphasis on Laban and movement? This research is about the puppeteer's encounter with Rudolph Laban in terms of his legacy to performers of all kinds. Helen Binyon the puppeteer says, ‘the typical attribute of life is movement, and more than anything else, the way that has been devised to make a puppet appear to move of its own accord gives it its particular character and range of expression’. Movement is sometimes referred to as ‘bringing the puppet to life’ or giving it ‘energy’. The animator Barry Purves asks us to recognise that ‘the idea of the puppeteer is perhaps… quite distinctive, not performer, but having the sensibilities, of such.’

Puppeteer Michael Meschke admits a fascination, for the dance but “the idea more than the dancing itself’.  These analogies between movement, dance and the puppeteer have drawn me towards a process of movement analysis to explore deeper into the potential of the body of the puppeteer as the subject for research. However, we are reminded that the puppeteer is (usually) not a dancer, nor even a performer in the normal visible sense of the word. We have to ask when watching a show such as War Horse: whose performance are we seeing, that of the puppet or that of the puppeteer? How do we therefore 'see' the puppeteer?

Jan Bussell said about the puppeteer that  ‘the Puppet Master is a god’. The puppet master is described as putting his own personality into blocks of wood, controlling destiny with strings, a benevolence that enriched both artist and craftsman. Bussell on another occasion refers to Georges Sand the writer and puppeteer as recognising ‘that the puppet is incomplete without its creator-manipulator.’

Incidentally, the term ‘puppeteer’ only seems to have come into being in the early twentieth century coined by an American amateur who saw the job as muleteer (someone who works with mules) as analogous with someone who works with puppets (or other puppeteers). The term has come into permanent and universal usage. Puppeteers are sometimes referred to as puppet actors, puppet players, animators, operators, manipulators, puppet assistants, puppet masters and puppet showmen. Ancient references call them thauma (magicians) neoroplasta (string twitchers) and more recently – in the experience of the writer – dolly wagglers (a comically derogatory term from the TV studio). What is clear from what is written is that the puppeteer has lived throughout history as a named worker in a particular form of identifiable creative endeavour.

In 1931, Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer referred to dancers or artists who carry and manipulate his figures. Working outside folk puppetry and influenced by Heinrich von Kleist, who wrote the essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’, (text of the essay in English here). Schlemmer's puppeteers do not have to dance but have the dancer's understanding of movement effectively to construct the puppet's performance. Schlemmer, in a period extending back to 1923, was looking specifically at new juxtapositions of the body and the object (puppets) in performance and became associated with Rudolph Laban who was, at this time, working experimentally in dance from the perspective of a visual artist (his first career). It is interesting to note that Laban made a solo hand ballet at this time, which he performed at the Dada Cabaret in Zurich – a puppetry of sorts! His approach to making work always included a great deal of drawing and visualisation. Of course, he is known now predominantly as dance and movement theorist whose aim was to challenge and awaken the dance sensibility within us all.

To conclude, the puppeteer is an artist who demonstrates a sense of movement and ‘dancerliness’ as the way of making a performance. But the ability to create movement is stored in the body of the puppeteer. It might be suggested that the wider the experience of movement, the more resources there will be for the puppeteer to draw on for puppet operating. The experience of movement works in two ways. The puppeteer requires active experience of dance and movement to store as a memorial resource, but this movement is to be channelled into the puppet – from a point of reflective stillness in the puppeteer to the point of action in the puppet.

Caroline Astell-Burt is director of the London School of Puppetry, who offer a selection of courses and trainings for puppeteers:

The Diploma in Professional Puppetry facilitates entry into professional life as a puppeteer.

The Teacher Training Extension provides students with the vital skills needed to teach puppetry.

Open Courses allow students to experience different aspects of puppetry, without interview, through: Workshops; an innovative introduction to specialised aspects of puppetry training; Summer Schools, learning holidays that focus on one particular puppetry discipline; and Playtimes, a relaxed and informal way to explore different puppet types.


All images are from work created at the London School of Puppetry, courtesy of Caroline Astell-Burt. These pieces of work started as LSP student pieces and were put together by means of Laban Movement Analysis as part of the process. Work by: Celia Constantinesco; Kat Schumacher; Kate James-Moore.


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