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Flash Review, 4-11: "Little Joan":
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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