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Flash Review 3, 6-3: Puppet People
A propos Marionettes, Dancers, Doubles, and Karine Saporta

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- On paper, Karine Saporta's "A propos Andrei Roublev" sounds a dream: a "Spectacle Danse Marionnettes" riffing on a Russian theme at the Cabaret Sauvage, an enclosed theater in the round under a circus tent-style roof on the banks of the Basin la Villette. The horse-riding academy you pass just before reaching the grounds of the cabaret, the apertif you sip overlooking the water before the show, and the subdued velvet lighting that greets you as you sit at your table near the lip of the stage put you in the mood to be immersed in a grand spectacle. But try as Saporta and her five dancers and five 'acteurs de marionnettes' do, the ideas the choreographer's head is apparently full of never quite emerge into a cohesive narrative.

It's possible that one of Saporta's themes is too creepy for me to receive. Doubles abound. Dancers appear dressed, wigged, and masked to look like marionettes we've already seen. Life-sized marionette replicants appear, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"-like, to shadow the dancers they exactly resemble.

Notwithstanding an effectively disturbing passage where a dancer is tossed about by her life-sized marionette double, what lacks is what is done with these doubles. To more exactly match their doubles, the dancers maintain the same facial expressions as the replicants. And marionette conventions are disregarded, without clear justification. The live dancers handle the normal-sized marionettes not like marionettes but like dolls, artlessly swinging them around. The marionette actor/manipulators disregard their hoods so that we can see the replicants they are manipulating are spitting images of themselves. Ominous men with over-sized baby-heads become less ominous when the women dancers they seem to threaten don the baby-heads themselves.

The endeavor has the aspect of an experiment in its beginning stages, with the choreographer trying beaucoup ideas, but none fully developed. For example, my companion liked when the marionettists inserted sticks into the sleeves of the dancers and manipulated their arms. But the manipulations were unimaginative and didn't go anywhere.

Contrast this with Jane Comfort's 1996 "Three Bagatelles for the Righteous," a riff on the 1996 presidential elections. Here -- without sticks, but with much more invention -- teams of dancers manipulate, Bunraku-style (as the New York Times put it) other dancers portraying Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, from their legs on up to their mouths. The manipulators are of course the special interests. And in Comfort's 1998 "Underground River," the four performers collectively portraying the conscience of a woman in a coma create (in Basil Twist's conception) a paper puppet that could be said to embody the sleeping patient. (Click here to see a photograph.) In both cases, the device was necessitated by the drama, not the other way around. From remarks she made to me after the performance, Saporta seems to have some concepts -- involving Byzantine icons, doubles, and the way Russians typically wear their emotions on their sleeves -- but they didn't cohere into one overall vision.

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