German puppeteer living in France. Born in Darmstadt, Ilka Schönbein studied eurhythmic dance in Paris, learning the Rudolf Steiner technique for connecting the spirit and the body. In the 1980s, she went on to study puppetry with Albrecht Roser. After some years spent working with ensembles, she founded her own theatre, Meschugge (Yiddish for “Fool”), travelling widely by mini-bus to perform for street audiences.

As a solo player Schönbein uses and transforms her whole body to give breath to a character using puppets or a mask, through which she lets herself be led through a story. She manipulates puppets with her hand, her feet, her head or her buttocks. Live music and singing inspire and accompany her, for example as a pregnant woman in the Winterreise (Winter Journey) by Franz Schubert with libretto by Wilhem Müller; as an adolescent in the ghetto in Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses, created in 2003); as both mother and daughter in a circus, in the fairy tale-like meeting with a donkey and death in Die Alte und das Biest (The Old Woman and the Beast). Her settings are frugal, filigree, designed for street performance. This leanest of dancers is a virtuoso of the body.

Her art is profoundly influenced by memories of the holocaust. Her face, with its chalk-white, blood-red make-up and its wide eyes, expresses deep pain, ugliness, the loneliness of ageing and death, and the amazement of birth. In addition, her hands help her to create a morbid, grotesque but nevertheless entertaining universe for a wide audience.  

In 1994, the jury of the Périgueux mime festival, Mimos, because of the enthusiasm of the crowds, awarded her the Critics’ Grand Prize in spite of being entered only in the “off” or “fringe” festival. In 1998, she created a show for children, Le Roi grenouille (The Frog King), based on the “The Frog Prince” by the Brothers Grimm, which she further developed and presented in 2005.

Today, Ilka Schönbein travels with her troupe in coaches between French, German and European dance and theatre festivals. Beyond all ideas of conventional propriety, every creation by Ilka Schönbein is a rendez-vous with the violence of our human existence, unveiled by her body, its clothing, and her masks and puppets.

(See France, Germany.)