Art of Puppetry – Perspectives

Reprinted from: TEATR LALEK 2024, No 2-3, pp. 80-84.


Today we make regular use of  the term “nova puppet”, popularised by two conferences organised by the National Academy of Theatre Arts in Kraków. Branch in Wrocław. The conference initiators argued:

The time of changes and creation incessantly accompanying us in the contemporary puppet theatre initiated within us a need for further quests and tackling that which is new and still not named. Diversity within the world of the theatre and the visual arts, most recent scientific accomplishments, the original nature of technological solutions, the art of perception broadening its range – all provoked the birth of the NOVA PUPPET”. 

We have already become familiar with the notion of the “new puppet”;  upon several occasions I undertook an attempt at interpreting this category, drawing particular attention to the fundamental element distinguishing it, i.e. partnership involving the performer and the animant. Such partnership is totally different from relations between the actor and the puppet, which we recall even in the best twentieth-century spectacles. At that time (this is often the case also at present) the actor played the part of a character appearing in a staged play. This persona was represented by the puppet, which granted shape and defined character. In the best performances the actor embodied such a dramatis persona, one could say – identified himself with it and thus with the puppet – the image of the given stage character. While browsing through casts of assorted spectacles we come across names of actors ascribed to concrete dramatis personae. This is the practice of academic drama theatres, in which the character was comparable to the actor. In the second half of the twentieth century this approach was adapted (together with many other practices) by puppet theatres together with the entire imported inventory of actor theatres. In the case of puppets this procedure sometimes appeared to be amusing, and quite possibly was one of the causes of the puppetry complex of the time. The answer to the question: “what parts have you played” was: “I played the part of a broom, an egg, and a fork”. This sounded infantile but was the outcome of a mechanical equalisation of the tasks of actors and puppeteers (the part!!!), an incessant striving of the puppetteers to elevate their prestige and to win acceptance for belonging to the actors’ milieu. And yet, those tasks differ, both in the past and today, although puppetteers for long did not want to recognize this as reality and – at times – still do not wish to do so.

An excellent example is Golden Horse by Duda Paiva, staged at the   Latvia Puppet Theatre in Riga several years ago. Naturally, the theatre programme contained the cast, the names of the actors, and the parts played by them, but the lead protagonist – the Princess – lacked an ascribed actor. Why? The reason lay in the fact that the puppet playing the part of the Princess, a character created for the purposes of this particular spectacle, was animated by assorted actors. The person who in a given scene indirectly interacted with the Princess was her animator, who brought her to life and introduced her to the world of active characters.   

Contemporary partnership of the actor and the puppet is based precisely on comprehending a fundamental truth, namely, that the puppet, or perhaps it would be more apt to say: the animant, is a character in itself. It requires an actor/animator who helps it to set free its energy, emotions, manner of moving and breathing, and life. After all, those skills are not granted to the puppet by the actor standing next to it. They are immanently inherent for the construction of the animant, its inner structure or, one would like to say, its personality. A personality imprisoned in matter but demanding to be set free.                     

Since for some time we have been experiencing the decline of the Anthropocene and man’s triumph over the natural environment the obvious consequence of those processes – perceived also in contemporary puppetry – is allowing non-personal forms to speak. The forms in question have been associated with the art of puppetry for centuries, but the second half of the twentieth century has shifted the gravity point from the puppet to the actor. Theatres started to universally assume the name of the actor and puppet theatre. During the last decades of the twentieth century it was the actor who became the subject of puppet spectacles, while the puppet as such was a mere sign of this subjectivity.

 The new reality of the last decades counterbalanced both elements. It empowered the puppet and became the reason why we accept its right to exist, in terms of stage and partnership existence. Actor and animant. Actor/performer – an artist assuming the part of the animator, but also that of a concrete character in the spectacle, and animant – an inanimate visual arts form created specially to be the subject in the spectacle.

Twenty-first century puppetry spectacles abound in such partnership relations involving the actor and the animant, and define contemporary puppetry. Obviously, such a dominating tendency does not fulfil the image of the discipline. After all, we still deal with numerous and attractive examples of spectacles using the “old  puppet”, which ruled for centuries; the twenty- century “old nova puppet”[1] and its manner of functioning in stage productions still dominates in institutional theatres. Nonetheless, today “the nova puppet” and the associated partnership of the actor and the animant constitute indubitably the most creative and attractive trend. Performers-puppeteers associated with that constellation attract greatest attention and are certainly theatre artists.

Here an excellent example might be Natalia Sakowicz and her latest spectacle: Romans (Romance), about which much has been already written, or Książę (The Prince), the new spectacle by Karol Smaczny. However, in Polish conditions this current makes slow progress due to the scarcity of directors, who still dominate in theatres (not to mention the total lack of stage designers-visionaries), capable of transcending the structure of the dramatic text and its staged interpretation (always simpler when use is made of actors’ measures rather than puppet ones). In turn, actor-puppeteers, even those from independent companies, are much too concentrated on their group duties to be tempted to realise their own artistic ideas. Things look altogether different from the perspective of a world in which the repertoire theatre remains a rarity. Even rather vivid trends of new puppetry interests are taking shape.

The most widely represented appears to a genre which I tentatively call ”animance”, a mélange of puppet form and dance (animation+dance), animated dance, and a combination of the art of puppetry and stage motion, often based on striking choreography. A quarter of a century ago this trend was delineated by Duda Paiva, a professional dancer who decided to link his workshop with a new, just discovered profession of a puppeteer. In doing so he conceived sponge puppet forms, across the years extraordinarily expanded, in order to express oneself via animants. Paiva staged many of his spectacles also in Poland, but those from more recent years, particularly the outcome of co-productions with other companies, remain unknown to the Polish audience.

Suffice to recollect Sonatinas 4 Feet, performed in 2021 by the Duda Paiva Company (DPC) and Fractal Collective in Amsterdam, inspired by photographs taken by Alair Gomes, a Brazilian artist from the second half of the twentieth century, author of hundreds of photographs of boys playing and working on the Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, taken from his flat located vis à vis the beach. In the spectacle photographs were translated into the language of dance performed by two dancers and animants, occasionally accompanied by an off-screen voice citing Gomes’s notes. In the culmination scene the dancers extract from one of the cubes a phenomenal sponge figure, half-human and half-phantom. It has the height of an adult male but appears to be exclusively a coating. Together they perform a striking dance. From time to time the coating absorbs, permeates, and embraces the bodies of the dancers. All this takes place on a centrally placed podium and produces the impression of watching a series of improbable sculptures in motion, a combination of human and non-human elements. Leaving intellectual reflections aside it is difficult not to succumb to such a sublimation of beauty: a blend of the human body in assorted poses and entwined with the non-human shapes of forms-outcomes of animation involving the dancers and the puppet. Just as in the course of a visit to a museum we see an exposition of sculptures brought to life. This animation of a puppet linked with the living body of the animator(s) creates some sort of a surreal and, at the same time, exceptional illusion unattainable even for the most perfect artist. A miracle of puppetry existence! At the same, homage paid to youth and the beauty of the human body, as well as negation of homophobia.   

 The culmination of Duda Paiva’s choreographer-director-puppeteer career appears to be Avatāra, a spectacle realized together with the choreographer Shailesh Bahoran and his Illusionary Rockaz Company (winner of The Most Impressive Dance Production in The Netherlands 2023). A successive combination of the art of dance and the art of animation. I emphasise the word “art” since the spectacle in question is an unusual example of artistry, beauty, perception, and emotion, transferring us into a sphere of emotional experiences and inducing to reflect predominantly on the way in which the theatre still remains astonishing as well as on the unlimited potential offered by the perfection of motion, gesture, animation, sound, light, and image.   

Avatāra is a spectacle involving five dancers vibrating with energy, although perhaps the most important are the forms of animants brought to life. Next to a fully dimensional puppet character animated by a team of dancers there appear two avatars of the dancer, with which she performs striking feats. The puppets are composed of legless trunks outfitted with heads and hands, demanding different animation and specific motion, as in Paiva’s Bastard! Heads attached to assorted parts of the dancers’ bodies – legs, shoulders, arms, knees, or feet – recall scenes from Paiva’s Screaming Object, less well-known in Europe. There are masks and, finally, parts of the human body, such as an enormous arm, enlarged to gigantic dimensions and fused with the dancer’s shoulder. Thus joined it becomes an independent form of existence, similar to the gigantic human hand in Malediction, and its partnership – union or refusal – with the actor appears to be a staging gem. It is precisely animants that construe a totally new dimension of the contemporary dance and puppet theatre. The merge of those two arts leads to the creation of an entirely new aesthetic category, utterly different from the puppet drama theatre.  

“Animance” spectacles are by no means a Paiva speciality or that of Dutch theatre companies. Many of us enjoyed the opportunity to see Eh man hé, a story about Nolan, a wooden puppet that comes to life, staged by the Spanish Zero en Conducta company, and one of the masterpieces of the genre (not only in my opinion). Several weeks ago Jose Antonio Puchades (Putxa) and Julieta Gascón presented La Phazz, the most recent Zero en Conducta première. This artistic statement deals with dysfunctions affecting almost each one of us, the concealed fears which we all confront. Or perhaps it is about an incessant conviction that we still depend on somebody, remain suspended between contrary emotions, and flounder amidst different personalities.

The lead protagonist of La Phazz is Elliot, sometimes a classical puppet and upon other occasions – as it grows up – an actor with a masked face or perhaps even more often a masked head acting on its own. As if Elliot was turning into a component of numerous characters present on stage. His mask, a head passed from hands to hands, becomes the central point. Elliot (the mask) loses his personality and belongs to a group composed of numerous characters, each becoming someone else. His head tackles the multiplicity of the bodies, reactions, and behaviour of the actors/dancers/animators. The compositions created by five actors and Elliot’s head circulating amidst them are extraordinary. At times, he succeeds to rid himself of those multiplying images, phobias, and nightmares, with his head whirling among the dancers. Upon other occasions he regains his persona (each of the participating actors can become Elliot), but immediately new fears emerge.  

In La Phazz the authors managed to build an improbable world of metaphors. The latter are startlingly presented by performers constantly present on stage and by their unusual motion – a combination of the elements of pantomime, acrobatics, break dance, and modern dance. Naturally, just as in scenes involving Elliot-the puppet such performance with/in a mask remains exceptional. By linking the shadow theatre with that of puppets, and performances in/with masks with assorted variants of dance, Zero en Conducta obtained a mélange of the puppet form and brilliant choreography.

The La Phazz actors appear not to touch the stage floor. They swim, glide, move around silently, similarly to elements of the stage design. Their physical dexterity is simply astonishing. The created. combinations and motion arrangements are breath-taking. After all, we see them incessantly, we look at their faces which do not reflect emotions or meanings. This is one of the elements of Decroux’s corporeal mime technique. I am incapable of describing the impression made by the Zero en Conducta stage motion. It was enrapturing already in Eh man hé; here it appears to be even more perfect although it is certainly different. Such an awareness of the body is truly a rarity encountered among the most outstanding theatre companies. In addition, the dancers/actors are puppetteers well aware of what they can extract from the animants.  

In the “animance” genre the word is not an indispensable element albeit it appears upon occasions. This is why it is by no means easy to create the spectacle‘s storyline and then to discuss it. Productions of this sort are rather associations and, first and foremost, images brought to life thanks to the joint undertakings of the performers and the animants, setting into motion an extraordinary scale of emotions since we almost always deal with workshop mastery: puppetry and motion. And every mastery arouses admiration.

Nonetheless, there are more variants of contemporary actor/performer and puppet/animant partnership although “animance” appears to dominate. An immense role has been played by representatives of the dance milieus who decided to transcend earlier accepted positions by opening at path towards quests and experiments. In Poland this movement has not yet emerged. In recent years the dance milieu has grown stronger and in the meantime concerned itself chiefly with its infrastructure. At least this is what it looks like from my viewpoint.

Indubitably, a new genre of contemporary puppetry is – to use a definition launched by Agnieszka Błaszczak – digittry, i.e. digital  puppetry[2]; we are still slowly becoming acquainted with its potential thanks to the Animatus competition recently devised by Robert Drobniuch, the interests pursued by the Wrocław Puppetry Department and its initiatives upon the occasion of the LALKA NOVA conference, as well as performances given by Puppentheater Zwickau (Germany), in which Monika Gerboc has been experimenting for several years with VR 360. Numerous artists representing the new media are pursuing this current also within the puppetry context; take the example of Zaven Paré (France) or Meinhardt & Krauss from Stuttgart. Their productions are highly promising but there still remains the question of the future, although digital puppetry has already made its way extensively into opera spectacles and, in particular, film music.

      Now, several remarks on Emanuel Geibel’s Die Goldgräber, a successive Monika Gerboc production in the wake of Goethe’s Der Erlkönig, part of the “German ballades” series shown in Zwickau. I have mind VR 360, a spectacle that does not require a stage and is saved to disk, but different from Der Erlkönig. The spectators benefit from the same elements: stereo headphones, VR goggles, and swivel chairs allowing them to watch events taking place around them. The ballade theme provided a pretext for creating a spectacle dealing with human nature more profoundly and widely. The employed puppetry acting measures enabled a visualisation of the emotional states of the protagonists, their concealed thoughts, and the entire inner drama that, as a rule, develops in the imagination and thoughts, invisible and, as a rule, intertwined. The art of puppetry makes it possible to see them. An added value that cannot be overlooked.  

Spectators encountering this convention for the first time will certainly find assorted scenes highly attractive, starting with a boat in which we sail together with gold prospectors (actors wearing masks); here everything takes place in our vicinity. We have to turn around, bend down or lift our heads (while wearing goggles) in order to follow the plot. The most interesting element of the spectacle is its second part. Dazed by the discovered treasure the protagonists readily come to the conclusion that they could become owners of its larger part as long as they do not have to share. Envy, vanity, selfishness, and avarice sprout in each one of them. And all assume a theatrical shape! The ego of one of characters presses against his muscular torso to such an extent that it literally devours it from the inside, thus forcing the protagonist to excise a fragment of the stomach, revealing the growing intruder devouring the body and blood of its owner. The aggressive thoughts of yet another lucky prospector, unable to find space in his head, explode, thus enabling a tiny character to leave through a small window in the occiput and take possession of his evil wishes. Finally, the third gold digger “gives birth” to his demon-child, rocks it in his hand, and then allows it to grow and dominate. All these creatures are animants. Children’s heads either grow on the body of a serpent or merge with six tiny hands. They are human and, at the same time, inhuman. Brilliantly skilled in action they create a magical-visible world of the metaphor. At times one can see the hands of animators dressed in black costumes – just as well: after all, we are watching a theatre spectacle and not the outcome of computer-technological tricks.    

Digital animants are always ready to attack, although it is highly unlikely that they could replace analogue spectacles. At best they will be one of multiple contemporary options of the art of puppetry. I have the impression that today the world of puppet spectacles contains at least three other variants of the actor/performer and puppet/animant partnership:

  1. the animant as the actor’s alter ego (e.g. Romans by Natalia Sakowicz or Dis order, staged by Cat Smits Company)
  2. the animant (Übermarionette) as the ideal actor (e.g. spectacles by Yngvild Aspeli: Chambre noir, Dracula, Moby Dick, and in particular A Doll’s House by Ibsen)
  3. the butoh dance theatre, initiated by Hoichi Okamoto and today brilliantly represented by the American puppeteer Kevin Augustine.

[1] More on categories of the old puppet and the new puppet in:

[2] See: Aga Błaszczak, Digittry: romansujące rzeczywistości, ”Teatr Lalek” 2020, no. 4.


Photos by: Sjoerd Derine, Sylwia Krassowska, Maurice van der Meijs, Toni Galitó, Puppentheater Zwickau

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