If dance, operating as a codified technique different from everyday gestures (even when these gestures are transferred to the stage), is defined as an art which “remakes” a body into something other than the “actual body”, then the puppet, a key figure of an unnatural materiality and mechanical nature, may then be considered as a model of expression.
Puppetry arts drew from dance some of its inspiration and aesthetic form starting from Romanticism. In particular, it was Heinrich von Kleist who, in his essay “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810), affirmed the superiority of the unlimited movements of the articulated doll to those of the live dancer subject to the laws of nature. Kleist’s artificial dancer not only has the advantage of not being subject to the laws of gravity and is freed of weight and fatigue, but is also, paradoxically, the model of an artist closer to nature, closer to an animal unconditioned by the inhibitions of conscience, of rationality. The puppet is thus master of a unitary “organic” body; the puppet is emblematic in that it is driven from a single centre, with a single impulse from which all other movements depend. The goal for the puppet is to regain some sort of animal nature in its natural movement freed from the codes imposed on everyday actions by social conventions and habits.
If the repertoire of glove puppetry (of the guignol type) often comprises folk dances such as the mazurka or polka, ballet – in the larger 19th century sense – is more precisely and definably present in the art of puppetry up to our current day. In 1824, Stendhal described a Roman puppet show (the fantoccini at the Palazzo Fiano see [lier]Teatro Fiano[/lier]) which included a ballet from the Thousand and One Nights. The puppets’ lower limbs were moved by strings that passed through the inside of the figures. Stendhal observed that even the arm strings could be hidden thanks to the bent back position in relation to the stage opening, emphasizing the illusion thus produced on the spectator and the imitation of natural movements. This tradition was perpetuated until today by the Austrian Salzburger Marionettentheater (Salzburg Marionette Theatre, created by Manfred Eicher in 1913), from The Dying Swan, to Cinderella, to Coppelia. Similarly, the Italian Colla family repertoire presented a number of ballets including one of the most famous, Il ballo Excelsior (The Excelsior Ball). Even a writer like Alfred Jarry, who was not a professional puppeteer, had gained such a reputation as a manipulator among his friends at the Théâtre des Pantins, that he was asked to have his string puppets perform a grand ballet of “six dancers in tutus”, ensuring the success of Vive la France! (1898) by Franc-Nohain.
Dance and the Artificial Figure
Conversely, dolls, fantoccini, mannequins, puppets, marionettes, mechanical doubles are present in dance and ballet themes, in works often inspired by characters from the Tales of Hoffmann. The passion for these figures began in 1870 with the performance of Coppelia by Arthur Saint-Léon at the Paris Opera and in 1892 with The Nutcracker by Marius Petipa, though angelic figurines similar to Kleist’s puppet can be found in many romantic ballet librettos.
But it was with the creation of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 that artificial creatures became more and more present. One could feel the same desire to exalt elements specific to minor entertainment genres, an “atmosphere” that one could sense in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century: acrobats, circus performers of all kinds, puppets, fair booths were often part of spoken or danced scenes. These themes appear, for example, in Petrushka (ballet set to music by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky) and La Boutique fantasque (The Fantastic Toyshop or The Magic Toyshop, a ballet in one act conceived by Léonide Massine, who devised the choreography for a libretto written with the artist André Derain, a pioneer of Fauvism). More directly immersed in the avant-garde environment of the 1910s and 1920s, the Paris-based Ballets Suédois of Rolf de Maré also explored themes related to puppets in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower, 1921, a ballet to a libretto by Jean Cocteau) and Relâche (Respite or Cancelled, 1924, a ballet by Francis Picabia with music composed by Erik Satie). During this same atmosphere in Paris, Darius Milhaud and Jean Cocteau staged Le Bœuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof, 1920), a surrealist ballet in which the Fratellini clowns appeared carrying a large cardboard body. In 1925, George Balanchine produced Stravinsky’s ballet Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) for the Ballet Russe where the bodies of costumed dancers composed an absolutely depersonalized overall frame with a body that was a fragment of a visual whole which transcended it. Subsequently, automata and mechanical works, which often took the appearance of dancers, also offered another meeting ground.
In the early 20th century, with the birth of modern dance, the “free” movement of the puppet guided dance. Indeed, if in academic ballet the body appeared fragmented, segmented and refined by the execution of specific movements (“the soul in the elbow”, as Kleist stated), modern dance claimed a single movement, in harmony with an entire section of theatrical culture which aspired to regain an original scale, prior to the separation of body and spirit. Based on these premises, observers like Austrian librettist and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) and German writer and theatre director Georg Fuchs (1868-1949) praised in Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968, modern dance pioneer) and Madeleine G. (the “dream dancer”) a movement originating directly from the depths of the being whose harmony was not hampered by thought that cools rhythm and freezes poses. This trend was brought to a climax by the Ausdruckstanz (expressive dance), a dance in accord with Expressionism which made the body a vehicle of deep urges/drive, with roots in a “universal feeling”, going beyond the barriers and the limits of individuality. Behind many ideas and choreographic creations of the early 20th century, we can thus find this implicit “divine” puppet bequeathed by Kleist.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, European culture was strongly affected by Asian theatre, especially the Javanese shadow plays presented during the Paris World Fairs (see Wayang). Dances and puppets from Bali influenced the thinking of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), in The Theatre and Its Double (1938). The early 20th century brought another constant element in the aesthetics of dance: the rejection of psychology. Even if this rejection is differently emphasized with Edward Gordon Craig and with Antonin Artaud, in Futurist dance or in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics, the model of the artificial being serves to deny identification in favour of a pure expression without mediation: a modality of which puppetry is the emblem, given the lack of distance between interiority and exteriority.
In Futurism, the “de-psychologization” of the actor leads to an extreme result: in Scenografia e coreografía futurista (Futurist Scenography and Choreography, 1915), Enrico Prampolini proposed a stage free of human presence (“gas actors” coloured by light). This led to creations like Feu d’artifice (Fireworks, 1917) by Giacomo Balla, an abstract “ballet” of light, shape and sound (with music by Stravinsky), while Fortunato Depero in his Balli Plastici (Plastic Ballets, 1918) directly assimilated dance to puppetry. His collaboration with the Ballets Russes led to projects like Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) in which organic and artificial forms were combined. Still for the Ballets Russes, Picasso created the costumes for their 1917 production of Parade, dressing the actors portraying the characters of the Managers in Cubist figures that inhibited their movement, the actors only able to move their lower joints. These costumes constituted what would later be called costume puppets.
The case of German painter, designer and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) is different. His most famous “ballet”, the Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet, 1922), explicitly showed on stage what had been developed over several years on a theoretical level; and it was no coincidence that the German artist preceded his first 1922 production in Stuttgart by a lecture on Kleist’s essay. (See also Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, Bauhaus). Rejecting both the psychological actor and the dancers “of the soul” (Expressionist dance), Schlemmer distanced himself from anything that was not within the framework of a purely mechanical body. He placed the human being at the centre of the abstract “prismatic” space of the stage with which he was to be measured. Man and space have their own laws: if man prevails, space measures itself to him, this creates a naturalistic theatre; in the opposite case, if natural man adapts to the space, abstract theatre is created. It is within this framework and perspective that Schlemmer addressed the question of the use of puppetry and automata in theatre. For him, the “plastic-spacial” costume is related to the Kunstfigur (art figure) because it unites artifice and art, artificial and artistic. The dancers’ bodies are transformed by their relationship to their costumes and the space.
During his activity at the Bauhaus, Schlemmer (with Xanti Schawinsky and other artists) experimented on this theme of the relationship between man and the various elements of space, objects (dance forms), situations (dance gestures), materials (metal dance, glass dance) and the transformations of the human body (stick dance, but also hoop dance, curtain dance and dance in the wings). It was not the human form which thus emerged but the laws that imply structure and action.
The avant-garde dance variation of Dada is singular. At the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich (birthplace and meeting space of the 1916 Dada movement), if you believe Hugo Ball, “superhuman” masks by Marcel Janco led to the creation of strange figures, using unlikely objects put into motion in a “tragic-absurd dance”. The techniques of deformation of the actor’s body were not only related to the Dadaist attitude of denouncing an alienating world, but also – in the depersonalization of the actor and the dissolution of the “self” – to the influence of abstraction and expressionism. Hugo Ball’s costume enclosed the legs in a blue cardboard cylinder similar to an obelisk, while the upper body was wrapped in a huge papier-mâché collar attached to the neck so that the arm movements produced the effect of wings. The head was crowned by a blue-striped “shaman” top hat.
The regulars at the Cabaret Voltaire included the choreographer Rudolf von Laban. His student, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in 1918 created puppets for The King Stag by Carlo Gozzi, and also (with Otto Morach) for La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box) by André Hellé and Claude Debussy, which was performed at the Schweizerische Marionettentheater (Swiss Puppet Theatre). If Hellé saw in the stylized art of puppets a way to reach the essence of the Dada movement, Debussy himself considered them to be the sole performers able to “understand” both the text and music. The art of puppetry and choreography came together in the dancer-doll, the central figure of this ballet, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s creatures are difficult to separate from the context of the times and the influences that permeated them (from Laban’s theories to the Cabaret Voltaire dances). Their geometrical forms remind of later Bauhaus research on abstraction.
The Heirs of the Avant-Garde
Schlemmer had many emulators in 20th century dance. For Alvin Nikolais (who actually entered the entertainment world using puppetry), the theatre of motion was opposed to emotion and expressed itself in the metamorphosis of forms in space. In Tensile Involvement (1955) long elastics attached to the hands and feet of dancers evoked on one side the strings of the puppet, and on the other the intersection of lines in space and those of the body. According to Nikolais, the dancer should work on body shapes as a sculptor, and invent new ones using costumes, objects and lights, all means of transfiguring the purely physical. In Masks, Props and Mobiles (1953), fantastical costumes acted as intersecting elements between dancer and space. From the creation of choreography in the strict sense to the definition of partitions placing forms into motion (where the body was often an instrument partially or completely invisible), this dance evoked the puppeteer who moves his figures, and slides towards the limit where different genres converge. The kinetic and visual element is given priority. This is the way that Philippe Genty works, using simple materials to stage dancing character-objects and making use of light and movement effects. The troupes Iso, Momix in the United States and Mummenschanz in Europe also operate in the same manner. These companies, influenced by the experience of Pilobolus established in the United States in the early 1970s, are reaping the benefits of the avant-garde presenting them in a playful and fantastical way.
Contemporary Dance and Puppetry
In late 20th century dance, certain aesthetic requirements tend to merge with the theme of puppetry. A significant example can be seen in the productions by French dancer and choreographer Maguy Marin (b.1951). In Fatland/Groosland (1989), the bodies of dancers in costumes stuffed (with polyurethane) weave erotic relationships. In Hymen (1984) and also in May B. (1981), dedicated to Samuel Beckett, the dance of decrepit bodies expresses the decay of the fragile border between inner and exterior which composes the body’s surface. In Cendrillon (Cinderella, 1985), Maguy Marin reinterprets the famous ballet by Prokofiev, performing it with masked doll-dancers in padded bodies dressed in candy-coloured costumes. Even the proportions of the set design, similar to those of a dollhouse, are a nod to puppet theatre, while the doll-dancer reveals the mechanical characteristics of a being dehumanized, an automaton.
Themes at once fascinating and disturbing, partly drawn from the world of puppets, are explored by Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonté. In Twin Houses (1994), the theme of the double is in harmony with the chosen technique: the “manipulation” of an artificial double. The costume becomes a scenic object, in dialectical relation with the dancer’s movement, which is simultaneously affected by and modifies it. The dancer “manoeuvres” her own body, “manipulates” herself.
The “contamination” of the dancer’s body by objects characterizes the work of Philippe Decouflé, an artist who espouses an “aesthetic of ugliness,” refusing a model of a stereotyped body. The dancer works on the idea of fictitious organism, “imaginary real body,” that opens up new possibilities creating a dimension more real than reality, by means of costumes that bind movement, suspended bodies and the utilization of vertical space.
Finally, new possibilities of “contamination” by the “artificial” can be seen with new technologies. Since the early 1990s, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) – best known for his technique in which the back becomes the crux of the motion – attempted with the Life Forms software to record the “memory” of choreography, resulting in dematerialized bodies in the lines of movement. In 1999, he created Biped, in which the signs indicating the dancers’ bodies became the support points (the hinges) of virtual figures electronically reproduced, light projections dematerializing the carnal body, acting on stage at the same time as the live dancers.
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- “Objet-danse” [Dance-Object]. Alternatives théâtrales. No. 80: Objet-danse. Bruxelles: Alternatives théâtrales/Institut international de la marionnette, 2003.
- Vaccarino, Elisa, and Brunella Eruli, eds. Automi, marionette, ballerine nel teatro d’avanguardia [Automata, Puppets, Dancers in the Avant-garde Theatre]. Milano: Skira/Mart, 2000.