Puppeteers of the World: Duda Paiva



Pierwodruk: Marek Waszkiel, Lalkarze świata / Puppeteers of the World: Duda Paiva, TEATR LALEK 2021, nr 1 (143), ss. 7-12.



During the most recent decades the path followed by numerous puppeteers in pursuit of their profession involves puppetry courses at universities, albeit this is only one of the available opportunities. In Central Europe this course remained basically fundamental from the time when 70 years ago – in response to the increasingly dense network of professional permanent theatres – pertinent schooling began to develop together with distinctly profiled specialities: acting, directing-playwriting, stage design, and technology. Across the world numerous artists still continue to discover puppets in different ways – by practising other disciplines of the arts, participating in various workshops, meeting masters of puppetry, and slowly building a world of their own by taking into account diverse aspects of the functioning of the art in question and then one day deciding that the art of puppetry corresponds to their anticipations best of all. To be a puppeteer entails a choice and not chance.

This was the path traversed by Duda Paiva (real name: Eduardo de Paiva Souza), born during the early 1970s. The Brazilian performer, dancer, and, today, predominantly, puppeteer, choreographer, and director started dancing as a 14-year old in his hometown of Goiânia, i.a. at Quasar Cia de Dança, where he embarked upon stage praxis and become acquainted with behind the scenes aspects of theatrical life. As a young artist Paiva set off around the world, i.a. to India and Japan. In Tokyo he studied Butoh dance under the supervision of the celebrated Kazuo Ohno. Paiva hoped to achieve more, to become familiar with new techniques and new partners, and to expand his reflections. Nonetheless, already then he cherished a certain thought, which he once shared in a private conversation. He grew tired of lifting female partners in the course of dance spectacles and instead took a closer look at the props appearing in productions (a table or a chair) and longed to perform with them on stage. In 1996 Paiva arrived in Amsterdam, where he continues to reside and work, and from 2004 conducts his Dutch Duda Paiva Company. Here he not only made the acquaintance of the attractive dance theatre but also discovered puppetry.

In 1997 working with the dancer and choreographer Itzik Galili and the Gertrude Theatre Company on a dance-puppet spectacle, that never premiered, inaugurated Paiva’s passion for puppetry. This was the time of the origin of the Porshia la Belle puppet, which took over the artist’s imagination and up to this very day is present in his programmes. Paiva insisted that his dance with Porshia should be perfect. Soon, he created a puppet show of his own – Loot (1998), and then, together with Mischa van Dullemen, a successive spectacle – Marvin (2000), followed by Dead Orange Walk, staged together with Ulrike Quade (subsequently, author of the Angel puppet), and set off on a path spanning from dancer to independent theatrical artist.

“In this period” – as he mentions his beginnings on the website – “I learned the basics of crafts, which I later personalized and called The Object Score. But still… I didn’t understand why working with the puppet touched me so much. Because it really touched me. (…) I felt at ease using my body to express myself. Now working with a puppet meant I had to give my life to another being. This intrigued me, although I didn’t know why. Until one day, when I put my hand in Porshia’s neck, it struck me that I suddenly recognized a feeling from years ago. Touching the neck brought me back to my youth as I struggled with severe eye infections causing temporary blindness. It was at this time that I held my brother by the back of his neck, letting him guide me through the streets of our hometown. Inserting my hand in Porshia’s neck took me back to this feeling of trust, of being guided and connected to someone else. From that moment on I started to realize that by connecting myself with a puppet I could bring a separate energy alive. When I was young I had let my brother become my eyes to the world, now I started to see the world through the eyes of a puppet. Thus, I entered a whole new, magical world. It is exactly this world that I want to open up for my audience and that I want to teach my students to create too.

The revelation of giving life to another entity became the thriving source of inspiration in my work with puppets. From that moment on, I started to address the puppet as a separate entity that I could use to extend my own body. Overtime I developed and perfected my artistic signature. In various shows I worked with different kinds of puppets. Puppets like Porshia, whom I lend a part of my body, I call Siamese puppets or Hybrids. Besides them, I work with full-size puppets on different scales. I work with puppets that are fairly illustrative and real and I work with puppets that are more abstract in their complexion. Small puppets, big puppets. Full body puppets and puppet-parts, consisting of only a head or a hand. Mostly, I work with hybrid puppets though, sharing my body (one arm and/or both legs) with the puppet. Their appearance may differ, but all puppets share one thing; the highly flexible material they are made of: foam”.

The first Paiva solo spectacle was Angel (2004), which brought immense international acclaim. The puppet depicting the Angel (just like Porshia) is made of white foam the size of a child, and has something of a cupid and, simultaneously, of a fallen angel (a tombstone figure missing a right hand) about it. The author of the text and the director of Angel (as well as of several successive Paiva spectacles) was Paul Selwyn Norton, dancer, choreographer, and director, whom Duda Paiva met earlier upon numerous occasions in assorted dance spectacles. Paiva was the initiator of the entire undertaking and its brilliant executor. In Angel, it was probably the first time that a dancer has met a puppeteer in such a dimension. At any rate, the sheer power of the contemporary dance, the physical theatre, the art of animation, brilliant dialogues delivered by the characters, and direct relations between the actor, the puppet, and the audience had never before been expressed in such an attractive manner.

In the course of the dance and the animation a wandering vagabond (Paiva) comes across a fallen angel (a puppet) – together, they create a world of their own, based on love and hatred, generating interchangeably some sort of an imaginary cosmos together with elements of reality, in which the protagonists are both independent and fused. Sometimes we cannot surmise who is actually steering whom on stage. This is a case of a virtuoso acting-dancing-animating venture! Fundamental impact on Paiva’s acting skills was probably exerted by Neville Tranter, under whose experienced gaze he learned animation and who acted as his puppetry master (and even director) also in consecutive solo spectacles: Morningstar (2006) and Malediction (2008).

The second spectacle often turns out to be the more difficult one. After initial success everyone would like to maintain its level and even attain a higher one. “In Morningstar, just like in Angel, there are only two characters: the animator and the puppet” – Halina Waszkiel wrote – “but their relationship is even closer than in Angel. A strange creature with horns (a devil?), a pig’s snout and droopy ears possesses a single hand, a pot belly, and emphasized details of male anatomy, but no legs. In the course of becoming mutually acquainted it becomes one with the animator – the resultant dual creature has a single pair of legs. It grows, until it finally becomes a head taller than the animator. The originally inarticulate squeaks become resolute orders issued in a low masculine voice. A mutual trial of strength is interrupted by moments of accord, if only the sharing of a cigarette”[1].

Angel was a spectacle about the specific mysteries of love, at time difficult but, nonetheless, victorious. Morningstar entered the sphere of demonism, emerging evil, which becomes necessary to tackle. The initially likeable small form of the foam puppet portraying the devil changed into a monstrous figure. Next, Paiva entered it by pulling this form onto his legs and as if becoming one with the animant, while at the same time demonstrating an enormous and totally new spectre of animation skills. And although Morningstar was not on par with Angel it indicated the puppetry personality of Duda Paiva, who from that time became recognisable via his puppets and the manner of coexisting with them on stage.

In 2007 Duda Paiva directed his first spectacle: Façade, at Białostocki Teatr Lalek. This was an exceptional undertaking both owing to his earlier experience, the character of the production, and the enormous group of performers whom he wished to have in his ensemble. At the time Paiva employed 14 puppeteers, actors, dancers, musicians, and even an opera singer, all originating from various countries. True, he had already devoted several years to working in the puppet theatre as well as to his own shows, but up to then he appeared in solo spectacles and benefited from assistance rendered by invited directors. Façade was Paiva’s debut as director (he cooperated with Paul Selwyn Norton). More, he appeared in it. The rehearsals focused on extraordinary work with the puppet, at the time still almost unknown and made of flexible, strong, and lightweight foam. The actors entered into a process which they had never encountered previously. No literary text or reading rehearsals – everything came into being by concentrating on work with the puppets and slowly created stage situations based on music, songs, and improvised text.

The spectacle was a curious and grotesque impression tinted with black humour and inspired by Venetian townhomes featuring gargoyles (puppets) guarding the entrances. One such house is inhabited by an old woman (a puppet) with a complicated past, who rents rooms. In the end scene “the tenderness, which despite initial animosity the hideous crone and the drunkard-vagabond, banished by everyone, managed to demonstrate to each other touches a tender chord. The actor plays his part while simultaneously animating the puppet portraying the old hag – in this manner the scene is transferred from the domain of literalness to a metaphorical level. Animation signifies bringing to life. The old woman lives as long as she is enlivened by the compassion and empathy shown by the tramp. Her physical ugliness vanishes once emotions come to the fore. On the other hand, only a puppet is capable of showing the social outcast a modicum of sympathy and support…”[2].

An extraordinary impression was made by all the puppets appearing in this spectacle: such as the Boy, invisibly passed by his parents-actors from one to the other, and, in particular, by virtuoso scenes involving the Fat Lady puppet. Her very appearance “first produces laughter followed by admiration for the expression opportunities resulting from animation, and then profound emotional impact once her presence on stage comes to an end. The glance cast by the puppet at the audience while she resists the actor’s exit from her stout spongy body because she does not want to return to her motionless non-existence, causes shivers”[3].

Façade drew attention to the young director, already enjoying the deserved renown of an excellent dancer and, simultaneously, puppeteer. Invitations from other countries rained down. Without resigning from his spectacles, which he continued to prepare regularly, in 2009 Paiva realised, often in co-production with his own company: Clouds (Iran), Hamlet Cannot Sleep (The Netherlands), and Love Dolls (Ljubljana, Slovenia); in 2010: Screaming Object (São Paulo, Brazil), and Detox the Dummy (Tallinn, Estonia); in 2012: Holly (Sofia, Bulgaria); in 2014: Marvin (Ostrava, Czech Republic), The Garden (Saarbrücken, Germany), and The Greeks (Rotterdam, The Netherlands); in 2016: Opowieści z niepamięci (Stories from the Oblivion, Poznań); and in 2017: Golden Horse (Riga, Latvia)[4]. Recent years witnessed successive realisations directed by Paiva mainly as co-productions with Dutch theatres: Monsters, The Fairy Queen, Sail – The Storm Called Life, and DingDong.

By means of his spectacles, to which he invited outside directors, and productions realised together with other companies Duda Paiva established his specific style, built a unique language, and captivated young puppeteers from all over the world. In time he began to devote growing attention to the latter, and increasingly conducted workshops and training sessions upon the occasion of assorted puppetry festivals or puppetry courses held in theatre academies. Meetings with Paiva left a profound trace upon young artists, inspiring them to pursue their quests. I shall not veer from the truth when I write that quite a few young artists started to believe in the sense of dealing with puppetry precisely under the impact of contact with Duda Paiva or even brief periods of working with him.

In each successive spectacle Duda Paiva expanded his search associated with the actor-puppet relation. In the case of Malediction, directed by Neville Tranter, he invited a dance partner to cooperate. This function was fulfilled interchangeably by Ederson R. Xavier, Javier Murugarren or Ilija Surla. The presence of two performers multiplied the staging possibilities. Even though Paiva himself interpreted Malediction as “the fight of two men against the green monster of envy, hate and competition that stands between them. They create a world of fairy tales and nightmares in the hope that they can find a true connection”[5], critics – representing an extremely divided assessment of the spectacle – indicated many other possible interpretations: from a sombre reflection about the contemporary world of medical experiments and genetic manipulations resulting in degeneration and confusion of orders, to intriguing analyses of the murky image of anti-feminist deviations[6].

Regardless of the spectators’ reaction to interpretations of the spectacle, its theatrical form gave rise to enormous interest. Young critics attending the festival held in Bielsko-Biała (2010) awarded the production in question “for the distinctness of theatrical language”. True, no one before had used such language in global puppetry. On the stage we watch a puppet depicting a large green, naked female monster with the face of a witch, subjected to ingenious animations, numerous exchanges of particular parts of her body and fragmentations, and even to giving birth. This form collides with assorted motifs borrowed from fairy tales and making an unexpected appearance, such as a frog’s head magically emerging from a foam ball, or a gigantic hand attacking the dancer who, at the same time, animates it. Outright bewildering dance-animation virtuosity.

It was probably in Malediction that Paiva introduced elements of puppetry magic into his spectacles. This is also the effect of a perfect identification of the material out of which he builds his stage protagonists. Flexible foam used for creating the puppets, devoid of any sort of seams or binders (here the process of sculpting takes place entirely within a single solid of material), can be rolled into small bundle (even the monstrously Fat Lady from Façade can be transported in a plastic shopping bag). A properly rolled up puppet, suitably held on stage, is the reason why air penetrating the interior pushes the foam out and reveals the form’s original sculpted shape. Thus in Malediction the head of a frog materialises from a small foam solid, in Bastard! the same happens in the case of a sought cat, and in Opowieści z niepamięci (Stories from the Oblivion)– of Baby puppet, to mention just a few examples. In the manner of the former masters of the puppet theatre Duda Paiva does not neglect to cast a spell on his spectators. And accomplishes this feat brilliantly.

The aforementioned Bastard! (2010) is one of Paiva’s best productions – a successive solo spectacle and a free adaptation of L’Arrache-coeur (Heartsnatcher), the satirical and surrealistic novel by Boris Vian. This is a story about a confused artist attempting to discover a way out of the rubble of existence portrayed as a gigantic refuse dump ruled by a grotesque and legless hag (a puppet) and her heart-breaking emaciated puppet partner clad only in his underpants. The already legendary scene of the dance performed by Paiva and the crone, with whom the actor shares his legs, is equalled by many other episodes, in particular the improbable simultaneous animation of both puppets, which, together with the animator, perform a truly masterly dance on the metal construction of a cuboid, involving the diverse motion of three characters. From the time of Bastard! Paiva’s spectacles feature yet another prominent partner – the playwright. Originally, this function was fulfilled by the Slovenian director Jaka Ivanc in Bestiaires (2011/2012) – a virtuoso show based on motifs from the Greek myths and realised with two casts: Dutch and Norwegian, or in Break a Legend – a spectacle commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Duda Paiva Company and featuring Paiva puppets from different productions. Bestiaires was a consecutive féerie of made-up puppets, including ones impossible to ignore, such as the head of Zeus, the three-headed Cerberus guarding the Underworld, or the stunning Medusa. The playwright of the most recent Paiva productions and projects is Kim Kooijman, author of excellent photographs of the spectacles.

An exceptionally personal Duda Paiva solo spectacle was Blind (2015), a sui generis metaphorical transposition of reminiscences from the artist’s childhood, when he battled numerous illnesses, an ulcerated body, and temporary blindness. Just as in Screaming Object, puppet forms – initially invisible and concealed underneath the costume – in the shape of assorted gradually revealed growths on the body, interact with the animator and the audience. Blind was performed interchangeably by Paiva and the dancer Ilija Surla, with whom the former cooperated upon numerous occasions.

From the time of the 2019 premiere of his last solo work: Joe 5 – Duets about Humanity and Its Absence, which Duda Paiva prepared and presented at the Charleville-Mézières festival, he made way for younger dancers. Today, Joe 5 is enacted by Ilija Surla or Josse Vessies. In this story a dystopian world designed by an extraterrestrial Martian system is reached by successive versions of neo-human explorers of the Cosmos. From the opening scene we recognise the Duda Paiva style, but once again his puppets differ from those appearing in Bastard!, Opowieści z niepamięci, or Golden Horse, to evoke examples familiar to the Polish audience. They are just as fascinating and futuristic as the stage space and lights designed by STMSND Theatre Collective from Amersfoort, the latter location being also the seat of the Duda Paiva Company.

For years Duda Paiva, who is today concentrating much more on cooperation with young artists or companies, and dedicated mainly to conceiving spectacles, directing, and puppet construction, has been engaged in popularising his work method, which some time ago he called The Object Score. As he himself puts it:“The choreography of two (or more) bodies driven by one brain”. The method in question allows the dancer/actor to explore the dialogue involving the artist and the puppet by creating a dual dance style engaging man and object. “My work starts with a fascination for movement. Animating space and time. I believe our body is more than a combination of cells and atoms; they are filled with memories. We are full of stories” – Paiva declared in 2020. – “(…) Some of those stories are unconsciously anchored in us. They only come out when the body starts to move. (…) How do you get access to the memories that lie within us? That intrigues me. The body as a source of unlimited knowledge and history. In my work I ask myself how, with the help of moving bodies, I can make clear what it means to be human. Who are we in the depths of our being? My sculptures play an important role in this. Their flexible forms show the external characteristics of the human body and transcend them at the same time. They are naturally neutral beings that I fill with stories of humanity. As soon as a pop enters the stage, she immediately catches the attention of the audience. And: she can make anything. After all, nobody condemns a doll when it deviates from the norm. A puppet has no ego. She is. We watch her and hear her story. Without prejudices. A puppet is gender / culture / religion / sexual preference-neutral. A quality that makes it possible to discuss taboos in a light-hearted way”. And to conduct a dialogue with the audience. “As a modern dancer I missed the connection with the audience. That was in the dark looking at the story I told with my body. But no dialogue started. Until I entered the stage with Porshia. The wall that separated me and the audience naturally fell away”.

“Puppetry gave me an important lesson” – Paiva stated in the only interview published in Poland. – “It taught me humility. A puppet is a kind of a ‘memory box’ that we build, create. It is most interesting and most revolutionary that one is able to create a different kind of body, to build a creature and dialogue with it, ask questions, observe, go with it step by step, ‘read’ it as a book. And finally he summed up: I am a servant of a puppet. It is me that serves puppets, not the other way round”[7].



[1] Halina Waszkiel, Tańczący z lalkami, “Teatr” 2012, no. 4. [2] Ibidem. [3] Ibidem. [4] Review from this spectacle in: “Teatr Lalek” 2018, no. 1. [5] Duda Paiva Company: Malediction, [online], [acessed: 17.12.2020], available on: https://dudapaiva.com/en/project/malediction/. [6] See: i.a. Halina Waszkiel, Ropuchowata kobiecość, czyli „Przekleństwo” Dudy Paivy, “Teatr” 2010, no. 10. [7] Służę lalkom. Duda Paiva Talks with Halina Waszkiel, “Teatr” 2017, no. 3.

Photos by Sjoerd Derine, Jaka Ivanc, Bogumił Gudalewski, Jakub Witchen

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