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Flash Review, 4-11: "Little Joan": Big Work
Taking the Trans-Siberian Puppet-Dancer Express at La MaMa

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

"The train throbs at the heart of leaden horizons." The poet Blaise Cendrars wrote those words in 1913, one year before the start of the World War in which he would fight and be wounded and in which his friend Guillaume Appolinaire would be killed. The greatest horrors of the 20th century were still in the distance, but Cendrars had felt the beginnings of upheaval already in 1905, when he traveled across Siberia and Manchuria on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War. His "Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Joan of France" is an impressionistic poem about what he saw and experienced on his journey through that chaotic, blood-soaked, breathtaking landscape. Could he ever have imagined that, in the year 2001, something so beautiful would be made of it by something called the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, at a performance space called La MaMa on East 4th Street in Manhattan?

It was a more natural evolution than it sounds. CAMT's director, Vit Horejs, grew up in Prague in the midst of upheavals no less terrifying than the ones Russia witnessed in 1905. With his company of expert puppeteers (last seen in New York in 1999's critically acclaimed "Rusalka, The Little Rivermaid"), artists from Prague's Minor Theatre, and dancers from Contemporary Dance Wyoming, Horejs has crafted a quietly devastating landscape of his own based on Cendrars's poem. This piece is not quite a drama, not quite a dance, but a sort of evocation in movement -- equally impressionistic -- of the world the poet lived in during his journey. Collaborating with Horejs are choreographer Babs Case (director of the Wyoming troupe), Czech puppet designers Jakub Krejci and Milos Kasal, and Jemeel Moondoc, whose music for Stephanie Stone on piano, John Voigt on bass, and himself on saxophone have the feel of a dingy, raucous, beloved Parisian bar. The stunning production design by Manuel Lutgenhorst creates a stage-world that looks like a surrealist lithograph; Federico Restrepo lights the space with shadows and shades of yellowed paper.

Horejs recites Cendrars's poem (a little of it in French, but most in English) from the side of the stage. A few dancers in pale corsets and bloomers push suitcases (some small, some almost coffin-shaped) onto the stage, out of which wriggle simple, exquisite wooden marionettes. You see dancers carrying crutches, climbing quietly over the suitcases, with the puppets climbing too. Cendrars is at the train station; its foggy hustle-bustle appears perfectly in this opening scene. Throughout the piece, the poet's powerful words -- something about the "wings of the Holy Spirit," the different sounds clocks make in Paris and New York and St. Petersburg, and the railroad's "new geometry" -- are brought forward in the images and rushing patterns the dancers make.

"The whole of Europe seen through the window of the train going at express speed," Cendrars writes, "is as poor as my life." (I'm paraphrasing; it would have been wonderful to have the text printed with the program.) Little Joan, a prostitute with whom he travels from France, appears as a small blonde woman straight out of a Jean-Luc Godard film; she dances a sweet duet with a puppet with only half a head. Seven dancers linked by crutches careen through space and bring to mind the train careening through Siberia. Joan says, again and again, "Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?" and the poet responds with frustration, then with tenderness. Yes, they are very far from Montmartre indeed, in this world of uncontrollable violence.

In an astonishing passage, dozens upon dozens of eight-inch-tall marionettes march in to a solemn beat: the Russian and Japanese armies, terrifying in their monomania. As they retreat to the edges of the stage, Stefano Zazzera, portraying Cendrars, performs a heartbreaking dance with a seamstress's model clothed in bits of faded lace, then another with a cracked wooden sphere that we cannot help but recognize as the world the poet loves so dearly and cries for so painfully. (Throughout, inanimate objects -- puppets, crutches, sphere -- are touched with life through the grace of the artists.) Horejs recites the poet's words: "And I saw.... And I saw...." -- a list of unspeakable horrors. Zazzera, a dark-eyed and powerful dancer, was gentle and electric here.

Cendrars finally returns to Paris, to comfortable cafes and beloved old streets, remembering the women he has met, but especially Joan, whom he loved. The tallest woman in the group does a wrenching duet with the tallest suitcase; it swallows her into it at the end. The final montage is a slow procession, with different dancers carrying their burdens in different ways in golden light across the stage. A ragged angel embraces the poet as the scene goes dark.

I once spent 24 hours on a train from Tours to Poland, living for a while the same cacophony of time and space, the same inscrutable night, and the same weight of history that Horejs and his colleagues evoke in this piece. Throughout this extraordinary work, the irony, heartbreak, and tenderness of that beautiful, devastated part of the planet came through so strongly. It's a lover's ode to a broken world.

The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre can be seen in "Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Joan of France" through April 22 at La MaMa. Please visit the La MaMa web site for more info.

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