PUPPETEERS OF THE WORLD: YNGVILD ASPELI

 

Pierwodruk: Lalkarze świata / Puppeteers of the World: Yngvild Aspeli, TEATR LALEK 2022, nr 1 (147), ss. 7-12 (wersja polska), ss. 13-18 (English version)

 

 

           In recent seasons Yngvild Aspeli, Norwegian actress, director and puppeteer, appearing on theatre stages for merely a decade, has found herself among the international elite. Her spectacles draw attention, are widely discussed in the media, and she has become a global brand. Such success was enjoyed at the turn of the century by few puppeteers, amongst whom the sole woman has been up to now Ilka Schönbein.

Yngvild Aspeli boldly enters the domain of assorted disciplines. She makes puppets,  performs on stage as a puppeteer, prepares her solo spectacles and, predominantly, directs from the time when she established in France the Plexus Polaire international company and became its artistic director (2011). Plexus Polaire is a loose creative association blending the skills of numerous artists: actors and puppeteers, video artists, light and sound directors, composers and musicians, puppet constructors and costume makers, stage designers, playwrights… True, they originate from various countries and even continents, and, as a rule, pursue their own artistic activity or cooperate with numerous existing theatres or institutions, but they share with Yngvild Aspeli an ideological and artistic identity consisting of several features.

First of all, regardless of the country of their origin they all possess extensive international formation and artistic experience.

Secondly, they come from three educational centres which also shaped Aspeli’s artistic personality. Aspeli made friends earliest in Norway, while studying music, dance, and theatre at Stange Videregående Skole; here, she specialised in the theatre, and subsequently attended a year-long course in costume making at Skiringssal Folkehøgskole. At the age of twenty she embarked upon an intense two-year acting course at École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq (Paris), which placed emphasis on the body, motion, and space as a point of departure for the creation of a theatre spectacle and prepared for joint work. Upon graduation in 2005 Ingvild Aspeli continued her education at the three-year École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières. She encountered numerous future partners either while studying in France or among artists undergoing similar training.

The third element of shared experience was cooperation with the great French artist – Philippe Genty. Yngvild Aspeli joined Compagnie Philippe Genty in 2012, when Genty returned to one of his most celebrated spectacles: Ne m’oublie pas and staged it as a diploma spectacle shown by students of Nord-Trøndelag University College de Verdal. After the Norwegian premiere Genty included Ne m’oublie pas into the repertoire of his theatre company and for several years featured it all over the world. Consequently, Yngvild Aspeli, his Norwegian assistant, enjoyed an opportunity to become acquainted with assorted means of expression: acting and dance, puppets and visual arts, music and visual effects. This was also a practical lesson of shaping her personal taste and testing assorted theatrical means which do not succumb to linear narration but rather to a convention of loose associations, the poetics of dreams and all sorts of connotations, with the theatrical image, its inner composition, and dramaturgy being their most prominent element.

In 2012 the not quite 30 years old Ingvild Aspeli had already taken part in school  realisations, i.a. as animator and puppet builder for The Street of Crocodiles, directed by  Frank Soehnle (2007), and acted in her first solo spectacle: Allume! Eteins!, based on a text by  Philippe Dorin, a diploma spectacle: Signaux, which was her auteur proposal and inaugurated professional work, and, finally, a whole series of theatre workshops dealing with defining puppets, the art of animation, and the shadow theatre. Asepli was the author of puppets and masks, puppeteer and co-director of assorted independent theatre projects, which she showed at numerous international festivals, but, first and foremost, she slowly created the image of her theatre company.

The name: Plexus Polaire refers to the space from which the author originates, but also to a coincidence of assorted phenomena, both inter-personal and artistic. Hence such a diversity of artists from different cultures and traditions, rarely encountered in a theatre group and spanning from Canada to South Korea and from Romania to Norway. Thus also incessant fascination with the variety of means of theatrical expression.

The use of life-sized puppets – Yngvild Aspeli writes in her sui generis artistic manifesto – is at the center of my work, but the play of the actor, the presence of the music, the use of light and video, are all equal elements in communicating the story. I´m interested in the expanded language that is formed in the meeting point of these different expressions, and how it creates a multisensorial narration. […] To create an expanded reality, where the story is told on several parallel levels. Somehow create a vertical dramaturgy composed by superposed layers, rather than a horizontal line.[1]

These auteur reflections expand our view of the artist’s oeuvre. Without impacting the ultimate reception of the theatrical work they make it possible to locate it within a wider context and to understand the author’s intentions. In addition – and this is equally important – they allow to follow the methods of her work. The blurry space between fact and fiction fascinates me. It allows the story to be anchored in reality, but still leave space for the public to be co-creator, to see and understand their own version of the story. […] It is this space between the stage and the public that carries the fragile force of the performing arts. She find most interesting the play between the actor and the puppet, and this dual presence of the actor-puppeteer allows a communication on several levels simultaneously. By the means of the puppet being a stylized human representation, we can make an attempt of looking at ourselves with a bit of distance. And by using the confusion that appears when the roles are reversed, the center is replaced, and we no longer know who controls who, we can visualize complex themes. A work that tries to make you feel rather than explain. That opens up for larger questions instead of giving fixed answers. Searching for an expression for those things that we cannot necessarily see, or explain, but that we still can feel, and understand.

In 2011 an expanded and reworked version of the solo diploma spectacle: Signaux initiated the activity of Plexus Polaire. The production featured, apart from the director, also Laura Sillanpää and Pierre Tual. A great impression was made by the puppets (different scales and techniques) created by Aspeli, Polina Borisova, and Sillanpää. Nevertheless, emphasis was placed on powerful animation as well as the fact that the puppets were more alive than the animators. The puppet depicting the lead protagonist was humanoid and life-sized. Signaux is a story about a man who lost his hand in an accident. Subsequently, he closets himself and entrusts single words to a dictaphone; nonetheless, they evoke recollections. A misty window shows drawings made on the spot, images from the past return, reality becomes mixed up with hypnotic poetics, but emptiness, absence, and deficiency always remain. In a poignant scene the puppet depicting the male character uses its left, living hand (that of the actor) to pull out of the right-hand sleeve a small blue female puppet, just as brilliantly animated.

Signaux predicted the appearance of an actress whose creative path is worth watching. Two years later Plexus Polaire showed a premiere of Opera opaque, directed by Aspeli, once more with the participation of Borisova and Tual together with the composer and singer Guro Skumsnes Moe. This time the yet again gloomy ambiance of the story was arranged so as to create a cabaret structure, whose protagonist was Madame Silva (an almost life-sized puppet, excellently constructed and animated) and her macabre visions. Nonetheless, the spectacle possessed the dimension of rather frivolous, slightly exaggerated scenes straight out of a student presentation, with their forced laughter and excessively pretended fright.

Cendres/Ashes, staged in 2014, proved to be a spectacle that decidedly drew attention both to Yngvild Aspeli and her Plexus Polaire. Based on Before I Burn (a novel by the Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll), it referred to authentic events that took place in a small town where a house was set afire on a certain day in 1978. This episode was immediately followed by a series of strange cases of arson, which produced dread and horror among the entire local community, and the growing drama of the soon identified pyromaniac, struggling with his personality and setting into motion the demons that lurk within all of us.

Cendres does not resemble a linear narration. This is a confrontation of two tales: that of the arsonist and the author, who several decades later made use of the event as literary material. Two tormented intimacies (Mathieu Dochtermann). Casual phrases, produced on the keyboard of a writer telling the story, are screened on transparent tulle. The essence of the spectacle consists of images created on multiple levels. In the background, video projections shown on the horizon consist of scattered small houses, sheds, and barns, in which fire flares up time and again. This appears to be a backdrop of sorts, totally nonaggressive and rather outlining the sites and character of the occurrences. The space-path along which the Arsonist (a table puppet) moves is closer to the spectator. The pyromaniac remains in constant motion, walking, running, swimming, and flying whenever he succumbs to the euphoria of his mania; watching the incredibly precise and virtuoso animation of the puppet is truly a tour de force. The animators remain in the shadows and we see only the one-and-a half-meter tall puppet.   

The most occurs in the foreground. Here all the protagonists: Mother, Father-chief of the local fire brigade, and the Arsonist meet. At this stage the puppets are life-sized, almost realistic, and still animated by concealed puppeteers sometimes wearing the costumes of the stage characters, which makes it impossible to distinguish man from puppet. The dramatis personae re-live assorted reminiscences and recall images from the past; the latter do not create a logical whole or permit each spectator to pursue individual associations and reflections but draw attention and concentrate on every activity. Amidst those images there emerges, in the manner of a demon, a ghastly hound of supernatural size, an embodiment of all fears and obsessions. Achieving such an effect in the theatre is quite a difficult feat! And yet!!! The spectacle contains many more magnificent images and animations, to mention the fire which in the finale devours the lead character from within.

The music, or rather the sonorous sphere of the spectacle is outright incredible, the direction of the light effects is masterly, but the greatest surprise is probably produced by the appearance of the animators on stage. There are three of them, although at times it could seem that numerous actors had been engaged. At certain moments seven to nine man-sized puppet (and probably human) characters perform on stage. 

This multiplication of stage beings is the secret of Philippe Genty, who together with Mary Underwood played in the spectacle the part of an outside observer. Cooperation with Genty undoubtedly left an imprint on the ultimate form of Cendres although the spectacle, the manner of conducing stage activities, their inner composition, the use made of assorted multimedia projections, the construction of images, the differentiation of plot levels, the  multi-dimensional puppets and, in particular, their construction and perfect animation are already the outcome of the accomplishments of Yngvild Aspeli and her collaborators.

 

In 2017 Yngvild Aspeli prepared another spectacle: Chambre noir. This time she remained alone on stage, accompanied by Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen, singer and music performer. The music was not composed explicitly for the spectacle – it creates the latter and together with the vocal parts produces the dramaturgy and outlines the plot. The compositions performed solo and, at other times, in a duet with the animator, dissociate the plot and upon occasions outright create the impression of a concert. The world of Sørlien Holen is intimate and, simultaneously, hallucinogenic.

Naturally, Yngvild Aspeli remains in the forefront. Fascinated with dance, the visual arts, music and sound, sensitive to the play of light, she combines all those genres in a story about Valerie Jean Solanas, radical American feminist (died in 1988), writer, author of the SCUM Manifesto, which argued about the necessity of creating a world without men, and celebrated for shooting Andy Warhol when he refused to produce her play and did not return its manuscript. This time the foundation of the spectacle was The Faculty of Dreams, a novel by the Swedish author Sara Stridsberg, a poetic and, at the same time, absurd story about Solanas, indubitably serving only as inspiration for stage quests and improvisations. The emergent theatre spectacle is truly fascinating.  

The stage window is covered by transparent, barely visible curtains featuring video projections referring chiefly to the world of advertisements and show business, but also to geometrical compositions. To the left stands Solanas’ bed, since the whole story is told from the perspective of the last hours of her life in a hotel or psychiatric institution room with drifting images and events from the past: obsession with the idea of the SCUM manifesto, the meeting with Warhol, scenes from frivolous youth and, finally, unhappy childhood. Solanas – a life-sized extremely realistic puppet – appears also in duplicates from the past. Its animator assumes different shapes: that of Dorothy- a friend, a nurse, a female partner, mother, and even narrator. While doing so she swaps costumes and, sometimes, also masks. Many such brilliant changes are carried out at an incredible speed and are utterly imperceptible to the audience. Every moment there appears a new character who enters into relations with the protagonist or her partners. Upon certain occasions Yngvild Aspeli is the animator of a totally complete puppet character, or else lends it a part of her body (e.g. in a frivolous and piquant erotic scene) but is also capable of performing exclusively with the head of a protagonist (Andy Warhol) or other body parts (multiplied legs in a magnificent frenzied dance scene).  

It appears that Aspeli is inclined towards creating her spectacles by borrowing from  literarily remastered but, nonetheless, actual or possible events. This was the case in Cendres and Chambre noir, and we encounter the same approach in Moby Dick and Dracula. Her imagination is set into motion by authentic figures and events. All characters and stage design elements are exceptionally real and outright naturalistic; confronted by live actors the puppets are almost unrecognisable. Nevertheless, they are not copies of actual characters but always the products of visual arts fantasy. In Chambre noir the puppets were made by the animator together with Pascale Blaison and Polina Borisova. As animants they turn into something more than mere dramatis personae to which they refer – they assume universal features and render problems universal. Valerie Solanas becomes a representative of a whole array of strong, pugnacious women, sometime careless, fighting for their rights, subjected to the endless pressure of society, and as a consequence becoming lonely, abandoned losers tackling exclusively phobias and hallucinations.   

 

Chambre noir is a beautiful but sad spectacle, cleverly conceived and with a great contribution made by the co-director (Paola Rizza, who worked also on Signaux and Cendres), since even the best actor needs a director. On the one hand, the spectacle still resounds extremely powerfully, while on the other hand it offers an opportunity to meet two young artists of the contemporary theatre: Yngvild Aspeli and Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen. It is a great pleasure to watch them on stage and to delight in the perfection of their undertakings: animation, acting, vocal, and musical.

Without doubt the chef-d’œuvre of Plexus Polaire and personally of Yngvild Aspeli is Moby Dick, based on the famous mid-nineteenth century novel by Herman Melville; this is Aspeli’s fifth première and, together with the most recent spectacle: Dracula, it crowns the first decade of the activity of Plexus Polaire. An encounter with Yngvild Aspeli’s version of Moby Dick proves that an artist’s imagination may transcend the boldest expectations of the spectator. It simply pulverises them into dust and creates a stage cosmos, which in almost every scene becomes a fascinating expedition into unknown, enchanting regions of beauty and art. “Moby Dick” is the tale of a whaling expedition, but also the story of an obsession or an investigation into the unexplained mysteries of life. Seven actors, 50 puppets, a live orchestra, and a monstrous 20-meters long whale.  

 

The space in which the spectacle takes place is enormous: over ten metres wide and high. This is the first shock. We have grown accustomed to chamber puppet productions with a small cast, concentrated on the art of animation and the creation of sophisticated relations between the actor and the puppet. In this case, a 25-strong cast produces a show that we essentially do not associate with the puppet theatre. At the same time, however, it demonstrates that puppetry can possess a universal dimension.  

Musicians play on both sides of the stage –they are simultaneously composers  of the sound sphere and singers. In the centre of the stage, amidst vapours of steam, several pairs of transverse hull fastenings – the ribbing of the ship – recede into the background. Gigantic, several-metres long cambered beams constitute the axis of the stage design. The visual art conception also encompasses a wooden platform supported on several posts, filling the stage window, and dividing space into two storeys, which initially we do not notice. The crew emerges as if from the hull: some twenty persons in dark rainproof and floor length coats and fisherman wide brim hats protecting their faces against the rain. This crowd is composed of several actors and life-sized puppets held in both hands. It is difficult to distinguish people from puppets. The throng moves back and forth, and in a moment the entire stage window features projections of the whirling sea, possibly streaks of rain and lightning, graphic patches depicting an unreal but, at the same time, real and mysterious space. A magical scene introducing us to the ambiance of the spectacle.   

The most important and, at the same time, the most absorbing figure is Ahab. The puppet portraying the Captain is enormous, at least 2,5 metres high. This dramatis persona with an expressive face is made of wood and wears a loosely tied neckerchief. A brown unbuttoned overcoat reveals thick grey trousers secured with a wide black belt and a navy-blue old jumper; the old cripple with unruly grey hair and an unkempt beard is animated by five actors. The animators, dressed in black coats, wear turbans and face masks resembling depictions of death or vivid, black-and-white make-up reflecting suffering, pain, and some sort of inevitable sadness leading to oblivion. The animation of this enormous puppet is extraordinarily illusive, impeccable, and overwhelmingly skilful. Ahab’s sonorous voice and motions forbid all resistance; the Captain’s immense frame is the reason why the human proportions of the animators are almost invisible. Only their glimmerings death faces are those of servants willing to support their master without any reservation, all the way to the very end.  

 

There are more puppet copies and human dimensions of Ahab – in such cases he is guided by two animators. Upon occasion figures of the Captain are multiplied and appear in assorted spaces simultaneously. This unusual staging operation proposed by Yngvild Aspeli makes it possible to observe the acts performed by Ahab both at the same moment as well as in different perspectives and various proportions. We are dealing with sui generis magical realism, in which everything is real and, at the same time, unreal. One of the most enchanting scenes in the spectacle is the attachment of the Ahab puppet to over ten ship cables and the remote animation of the figure, soaring in space and towering over the entire created world – a world of his fantasies, dreams, and encroaching decline.  

An important element of the spectacle involves the director juggling proportions, as observed in numerous scenes. At the bottom of the stage space, as if below the deck, members the crew rest in hammocks extracted from blackness by spotlights, while above the platform the white tail fin of the enormous whale majestically moves in brilliant projections amongst visible fountains of water droplets. Or suddenly, as if from afar, we watch Moby Dick swimming by and a whaling ship, twice as small, clinging to its back. Time and again we leap from the deck of The Pequod into the open space of the ocean. Diverse images become intermingled and superimposed. An enormous impression is made by the majestically moving whales. Sometimes we see only their parts, a head or a tail. A visual feast.   

Ahab loses his battle. In the finale the gigantic puppet portraying Moby Dick – certainly more than 20 metres long –  passes across the entire length of the stage window. The enormous eye of the whale moves, as does the side fin. Nature wins. Human ambitions are mortal.

But it is people who are capable of rendering permanent the beauty of the reality around us, and of transferring it into the sphere of meta-language and generalisation and placing it beyond concrete time and space. This is the great accomplishment of lighting designers and video artists, who conjure up in front of the audience unforgettable images, subsequently arranged in sequences or scattered and left behind in the shadows. The magical realism of this spectacle resembles the greatest work of Ibero-American literature. Time becomes obliterated as does the border between truth and illusion. Ship ropes, maritime maps, past emotions – all sink in the frenzied whirlpool of Captain Ahab’s thoughts. Moby Dick by Yngvild Aspeli is an unusual spectacle – brilliant, luminous with visuality and amazing  puppetry craft.

The most recent Plexus Polaire production (or actually co-production with the German Puppentheater Halle) is Dracula – Powers of Darkness, inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published at the end of the nineteenth century and still regarded as the Biblical version of the story about the Transylvanian monster. The Aspeli adaptation differs from heretofore productions. It makes extremely modest use of the word, and thus concentrates on capturing  traits of the dramatis personae and creating relations between them; by basing itself on the familiar intrigue it focuses on the activity, action, visual quality and, first and foremost, beauty of the co-existence of the actor and the puppet as well as the latter’s intricate animation. By referring to universally known tales, Yngvild Aspeli once again spins her story about the powers of darkness, but as always continues to be fascinated by the performance given by the actor and the puppet, and the mutual permeation of both subjects.

The spectacle begins and ends with a scene of flying birds emerging from darkness – a foretaste of entering the world of fantasy and magic. A moment later a huge dog materializes from the blackness, making an impression more due to its size than to animation, albeit the effect of illusion remains sufficiently powerful. Finally, there appears on the proscenium an actress playing the lead part, wearing a pink dress/dressing gown and with a shock of copper-coloured hair. Diagonally we see her mirror reflection of sorts against the backdrop of woodland projections – an illusion of multiplication. An identical third actress is present in successive scenes – all three will become a mere multiplication of a twin puppet once the woman becomes bitten by Dracula. It is Dracula himself or rather his head, that also reveals itself from profound obscurity so as to commit the bloody act.

The plot now shifts from the space between the bed-coffin of the female protagonist, on which four actors-servants arrange the victim in an attempt at bringing her relief and offering medical aid or, at the very least, support, to the gloomy forest – the site of Dracula’s residence. These scenes are expanded, mute, albeit full of meanings and significance and, predominantly, brimming with perfect acting. Already the first replacement of the actress by a natural-size puppet lying on the bed is sheer mastery. And when in consecutive images one of the actors-servants, now a physician, decides to conduct a blood transfusion we enter a sphere of exceptionally striking metaphors. The actor draws forth, seemingly from his forearm, a scarlet thread that slowly crosses space before it reaches the hand of the reclining puppet which it ultimately penetrates. When the girl begins to hallucinate, other actors, wearing costumes identical to hers, surround the bed. The spectacle includes many more such multiplications, although it is always the puppet that experiences hallucinations subsequently realised by the actors.

The same is true of Dracula, whose life-sized puppet can be subjected to destruction and transformations. It can also become multiplied – then the remaining actors put on   Dracula masks-heads and fill the space. The faces of the puppets are exquisitely styled, with skin and hair strikingly recalling natural features, and their wrists are perfectly constructed wrists. At certain moments we recognise the puppets only because they are dismembered.

In mid-2022 Yngvild Aspeli will, without resigning from directing Plexus Polaire, become for the next four years the artistic director of Nordland Visual Theatre – currently the most famous Norwegian puppetry and visual theatre landmark in Europe, site of numerous artist residencies, and partner of many international puppetry projects. Exciting things are bound to happen – after all, Yngvild Aspeli is still not quite forty years old….

 

[1] All statements used in the text come from: www.plexuspolaire.com (accessed: 18.12.2021). 

Photos by Benoit Schupp („Ashes”), Stas Levshin („Chambre noir”), Christophe Raynaud de Lage („Moby Dick”, „Dracula”) and www.plexuspolaire.com.

 

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