Light of Hand, Heavy of Mind: A Review of “Puppets”

Photo by Daniel Steven Trinidad.


Choreographed by Paula Rosolen
Black Box, Damansara Performing Arts Centre
12-13 July 2017


Review by Bilqis Hijjas

The word ‘legerdemain’, from the French ‘light of hand’, refers to fast-fingered trickery – like cheating at cards, or the familiar cups and balls act. In English, it echoes the earlier ‘sleight of hand’, a phrase which emphasized the slyness, the con. But what makes these tricks eternally fascinating is not the speed of the hands performing the trick, but the exertion of the watching mind as it struggles to catch up.

Choreographer Paula Rosolen’s work Puppets, performed in Selangor and Penang this week by a cast of international and local dancers and musicians, asks us to examine the workings of the mind by making the sleight of hand more evident. The central concept of this very conceptual work focuses on the movements of puppeteers from various traditions of puppetry around the world – including Japanese bunraku, Teochew finger puppets, and Chinese and Japanese lion dances – through the simple expedient of removing the puppets. From her field research, Rosolen transcribed the puppeteers’ movements, stylized and recombined them into movement phrases, and taught them to her dancers.

Once you know the concept of the work, the most difficult thing to do while watching Puppets is to see the dancers move without imagining them manipulating puppets. Something about the dancers’ visual point of focus – on an object between their hands which is not really there – causes the perceptional bias of the audience to constantly lean towards seeing them as puppeteers, rather than as dancers enacting pure movement. It is a struggle, for example, just to see Lee Ren Xin holding her arms out before her, elbows bent, with hands slightly above her head, twitching her index and middle fingers. You cannot help seeing her holding an imaginary head of the lion in the lion dance, her fingers manipulating the levers that make the lion blink.

You will recognize the mental effort required if you have ever seen that trick picture of the old woman with her chin wresting on her chest, who, with a wrench of perspective, transforms into a young woman looking over her shoulder. [Interestingly, a little Googling on this wife/mother-in-law illusion, and its close cousin, the duck-rabbit, indicates that both originated in Germany in the late 19th century. What is it about Germans and a fondness for games of perceptual reversal?]

As Puppets dancer Emilia Giudicelli said, when asked whether she imagined the puppets while she was dancing, “To me, the puppets are always there. But sometimes there are moments when you break free.” Fascinating! Sometimes there are moments when YOU break free. We usually think of puppets as being controlled by the puppeteer, but perhaps we should think of the puppeteer as being constrained by the presence of the puppet – even when this presence is only a conceptual one.

Puppets abounds with such visual illusions and mental legerdemain. The dancers wear black lycra unitards marked with asymmetrical silver stripes. It looks like each dancer has a silver ribbon that winds up their legs and around their torsos, but in fact the silver lines are just patched-on circles that don’t connect. The mind wants to see continuity, but the strings are actually cut. I wondered vaguely if the lines coalesce into a particular pattern if the dancers stand in some precise arrangement – like those pictures on couple-shirts, or this rainbow that spans across a whole group of t-shirts – but they don’t, it’s just the mind’s wishful thinking.

Lee Ren Xin in Paula Rosolen's "Puppets". Photo by Daniel Steven Trinidad.

How strong these mental constructs can be! Sometimes three dancers come together to enact the workings of a bunraku puppet in its traditional form: one person kneeling and manipulating the feet, another person moving the left arm, and the most senior puppeteer in charge of the puppet’s head and right arm. You can almost see the puppet materialize in their midst: nodding, gesturing, stamping. Then the dancers break apart, taking their movements with them, and it’s like having your thoughts ripped apart. It reminded me of the illusion created by the hip hop dance groups who wear LED light suits on a totally dark stage: you see the lit-up head, arms, torso and legs dancing, and then suddenly the different body parts go skipping off to opposite corners of the stage and you realize, a-hah, each part is being performed by a different dancer! The drama subsists in having your first impressions violently pulled to pieces.

Your patience with Puppets will depend on how much you enjoy this kind of cerebral play. If you don’t, the deliberate minimalism of Puppets can feel monotonous. To a Malaysian audience, accustomed to the technicolour sugar highs of melodrama, Puppets seems grey and unrewarding, failing to fire our synapses in a way we recognize as enjoyable.

Appreciating Puppets might also hinge on how much sleep you’ve had. I watched Rosolen’s previous piece, the self-evidently titled Aerobics, from the depths of a crushing ocean of jetlag. Each time I managed to struggle awake and register the work on stage, it seemed to look the same. I felt trapped in a nightmarish limbo of high-cut leotards and bouncing sneakers: a trio, solo, whole group, trio again, changing floor patterns, but otherwise essentially changeless. In Puppets, a similarly somnolent effect is accentuated by the dim lighting – an appropriately shadowy atmosphere for puppeteers – and the music, dominated by the continuous droning of a hurdy gurdy (a medieval European instrument which historically accompanied puppetry performances) punctuated by little fillips of percussion.

Rosolen suggests that the work can also be interpreted symbolically, as commentary on the political nature of puppetry, but, while watching the work, my mind could not encompass this. Although in Malaysia we have lots of practice in dividing our political figures into puppets and puppeteers – the term Si Dalang makes frequent appearances on our more conspiratorial politics blogs – these distinctions in Puppets were too ambiguous. Were the dancers the puppets of the choreographer? Of each other? Of their own imaginary puppets? Who controls who? Where does the original point of agency exist? When you start imagining dancers imitating puppets imitating dancers imitating puppets, it quickly boggles the mind.

So, depending on your perspective, the legerdemain in Puppets might subsist in taking your hard-earned RM65 and replacing it with an hour-long nap in a darkened theatre. Or it might be about taking our expectations of dramatic structure, physical virtuosity, characterization, or narrative, and prompting us to examine our own responses when these things are taken away. Either way, as any good magician will tell you, when you find out how the trick works, it’s normal to feel a little disappointed.

Paula Rosolen's "Puppets". Photo by Daniel Steven Trinidad.

All photos by Daniel Steven Trinidad, courtesy of Damansara Performing Arts Centre.

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