Dance and Puppetry
Nigel Luck and Janet Lee reflect on a showing of work that in various intriguing ways looked at the relationship between dance and puppetry
| Dancing puppetry or puppet dancing? |
The phrase ‘Dancing Puppetry’ may conjure up images of Kermit and Miss Piggy waltzing arm-in-arm while a chorus of puppets bop in time to the closing music of the Muppets (or maybe that’s just us). And certainly these puppets are dancing in one sense – but the question is: is it dancing puppetry or puppet dancing? The former implicates a cross-disciplinary focus whilst the latter focuses on puppetry as a singular discipline.
In December 2008, a number of artists exploring dance and puppetry collaboration showed the beginnings of findings at an event produced by the Puppet Centre Trust and held at BAC. It’s not a particularly radical experiment in some ways, or at least it wouldn’t be in some countries, but it’s still not a common practice of cross fertilisation in this country.
It’s been happening overseas for ages of course and we can cite people like Mummenschanz, Julie Taymor and Philippe Genty as prominent exponents of its practice. But the question in Britain right now is how can puppetry expand its practice, especially through engaging other performing art forms? It seems to have made some inroads into theatre: War Horse, Blind Summit’s collaborations with Complicite on Shun Kin, and the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a few recent examples. However, there has yet to be the same kind of large-scale impact of forays into the UK dance world.
| First Steps |
The mission then was to attempt to find a more equal balance between dance and puppetry. Under the auspices of a project initiated by The Puppet Centre Trust, three artists (Steve Tiplady of Indefinite Articles, Sarah Wright, and Beccy Smith of Touched Theatre) spent a couple of weeks of research and development time exploring the possibilities of combining both dance and puppetry before being joined for the showing by three additional groups (Idolrich, Ivan Thorley and ourselves – Nigel Luck and Janet Lee) also creating work within this field of interest.
In essence, this writing is not a review of the outcomes of the showings, but rather a look at the different approaches used.
Steve Tiplady with Indefinite Articles explored shifting umbra and penumbras to distort and play with the movement of light shaped by a dancer’s body and motion. As part of the exploration a non-articulate object (a glass bottle) was used and the play of shifting light caused the hard and otherwise solid form to bend, yield, and undulate its shape.
Idolrich cited traditional contact puppetry whereby the puppeteer manipulated a pale, bandaged bodied form to mirror the movements of a live Butoh dancer. Sometimes it appeared as if the dancer lead the motion and the two entities (puppet and dancer) moved in canon or in unison with this initiation, at other times the puppet seemed to lead. The two started within discrete spaces until eventually reaching a ‘contact’ situation whereby the dancer and puppet shifted into shared space. The puppeteer remained the puppeteer, however, as her movement focussed on the act of puppeteering.
Sarah Wright and her performers used contemporary dance structures informed by pedestrian/everyday movement that, for this showing, appeared to be informed by a site-specific location. One of the long drawn-out corridors at BAC lent itself well to a particular pedestrian and physical act of the body walking. The performers travelled the length and sides of the corridor, and in doing so we saw the body in distal and proximal locations, with the distal in particular lending itself to perspective interplay between the size of the little wooden figures at the foreground and the back-grounded diminished forms of the performers (right at the far end of the corridor).
Ivan Thorley’s piece manifested a concoction of automata, dismembered dolls, plastic bags, a disused television screen and a fluffy tail. A strange, roughly structured device was housed on the back of a male performer who slowly crawled across the length of the floor amidst the buoyant chirpings of a doll-woman. The aesthetics would not have been out of place in an Yvonne Rainer piece, referencing live art practices perhaps a little more than new dance practice.
Beccy Smith’s company Touched Theatre (guest artists taking part in the R&D were Butoh dance and physical theatre performer Selina Papoutseli from Petra’s Pulse, and physical theatre actor and puppeteer Gilbert Taylor) engaged a number of what appeared to be ‘chance’ fluxus-styled strategies to direct the performers’ actions and engagements with a range of objects. This engagement allowed the objects to be referenced as ‘things’, but whilst remaining ‘things’ they were ‘used’ in ways that were functional and eschewed the prescribed function attributed to the object. For example a brass, pouring device was used to scatter sand rather than pour liquid. This begs the question of whether there was a deliberate resistance to ‘manipulate’ the objects and to simply allow their intrinsic form to perform.
Writing about our own company, Strange Arrangements, we’re in a position to expound our exploration of puppetry and dance that has been a specific feature of our work for many years. And of course as the writers of this article we can’t be quite so objective about what we see!
In our exploration we’ve come across a few different approaches, some seeming to work better than others. In particular this has implicated puppetry/performer relationships whereby a puppet performs out their relationship with the puppeteer, drawing emphasis to the puppeteers presence in complicity with the puppet. This has worked well to a certain point, although what we found interesting was that the puppet always remained separate to the human end of the partnership.
We wanted to try and explore ways of using the dancers’ physicality that incorporated elements of puppetry. To this end, we began using a collection of human bones that would be held to the performers body, usually by grasping it with their hands, but always with their faces hidden. In other words by presenting their backs, curling into a ball etc. This act would produce a composite image creating a new creature that enabled the human form, the dancer’s body, to be part of the reference, but the loss of their face removed their ‘human’ identity, encouraging ‘creature-ness’ to be read. It is somewhat similar to costume puppetry but one that allowed the dancers’ bodies to still be viewed. The difficulty in terms of puppetry arose when the dancer/puppeteer could not see the image they were creating and had to rely heavily on their proprioception (which dancers have a heightened sense of) – to ‘feel’ the puppetry.
In this sense we found we had to make some sacrifices in order to combine the two – we had to let go of our desire to focus on the style of puppetry that privileges the puppet or object, and simultaneously we had to let go of the dancer producing ‘steps’ and ‘dance phrases’ that were virtuosic and technically complex. In fact the configurations produced by the hybridity of the dancer and the bones were technically complex enough. Whether this was successful or not is of course debatable and we don’t by any means propose to have found an answer.
And in this context we’re not sure that there has to be one. The aim of the PCT event and the subsequent work shown at BAC is to explore cross fertilisation which, in itself, is important for puppetry and can only serve to assist the artform to broaden itself toward new audiences and disciplines.
| Definitions, forms, and practices |
It is difficult to discern from the descriptions given of the pieces above what it is that constitutes collaboration between dance and puppetry. It’s not a clear point of departure. The nature of puppetry has changed radically in recent years – as has that of dance – and often there are difficulties in clarifying the boundaries of each of these disciplines. When we’ve reached a point where anything can be a puppet and contemporary dance embraces the pedestrian movement vocabulary (the everyday gesture) then someone walking around carrying a box could be considered ‘Dancing Puppetry’. It’s a hazy area and it can be argued that puppeteering itself is an act of dance, as it requires a focus on movement and the puppeteer’s job is akin to dancing with a partner, it just happens to be that the partner is a puppet.
There’s also a good deal of misconstrued generalisation that creates further haziness and brings to mind a number of interesting provocations. For instance, if contemporary puppetry acknowledges that anything can be a puppet and therefore working with object animation comes under the rubric of puppetry, then it is not hard to imagine that this could conceivably include dancers working with objects. Or, do we say: no, ‘real’ puppetry can only occur if the conventions and techniques appropriate to focus, clarity of motion and an object’s animation to produce ‘life’ are evident in the performance?. If this is so, is there a danger that the puppetry end wants to control the balance of technical accuracy over and above the potential virtuosity of the dancer’s specific practice.
Is it okay for puppeteers to have no dance technique and to play the pedestrian card in terms of a choreography that references the pedestrian ‘untrained’ body if it is not okay for the dancer to play the ‘pedestrian’ everyday puppeteer? In other words, are we okay at playing into ‘pedestrian dance’ whilst combining it with puppetry but critical of dancers engaging in a form of ‘extra daily puppetry’? This draws our attention to the very act of manipulation as a central tenet in the puppeteer’s art.
We have to be careful when beginning to look at a possible interdisciplinary approach for puppetry and dance. So here’s a thought: if we are going to be pedantic about the quality of puppetry execution then we must also allow the dance specialists to have the same bias when looking at movement. And if this is the case then one of two things is going to have to happen for the bridge to be successfully navigated. Either we find a way of training people to be skilled in both areas or we allow a little bit of a shift and flexibility in the parameters of by which we define what puppetry, and therefore what ‘dance and puppetry’, might be.