Friday, November 2, 2012

Teaching Artist Conversation: Is Mojo Puppetry or Dance?

Theatre-Rites, the company that created Mojo, takes a deeply collaborative approach to creating new work for young audiences. For this production, the performers worked with a puppet designer, choreographer and composers to craft the final product. The result is an innovative mixture of puppetry and dance in which the line between the two art forms is blurred and playfully explored.

I reached out to two New Vic Teaching Artists—Retta Leaphart and Anne Zuerner, a puppeteer and dancer, respectively—to get their insight on these two art forms and the ways Mojo capitalizes on the strengths of each.


Blake: Thank you both so much for agreeing to be a part of our blog. To begin, I want to know: what drew each of you to your respective art form?


Retta: I fell in love with puppets when I first saw a production of Pinocchio. I was about four years old and my sister was in the show—she played the Music Box Ballerina. I longed to play a Donkey Boy and would practice around the house just in case one of them got sick. They never got sick, but I did start collecting puppets and marionettes.

During graduate school, I saw a production called Koolau that used puppets and animation, and I remember gasping when the little boy puppet chased an animated bird around the stage. The simplicity of the moment was so touching because there were three or four puppeteers working together to make it happen. Luckily, the director of the piece, Tom Lee, was a professor of mine at the time, and became a wonderful mentor to me as I began to explore storytelling through puppets.

Anne: As a kid I was very impressed by the devotion that dancers have to their craft. I loved being in a room of people so quiet and focused, going through the ritual of moving together and communicating non-verbally. I think that humans have very important things to say with their bodies that can't be said in any other way. I've always loved dancing at parties because it feels like this communal, spiritual exercise that is so important for our emotional health and happiness. It always makes me think of Merce Cunningham's words: "Dance is a spiritual exercise in physical form."


B: As a dancer, what do you appreciate about puppetry?


A: From my point of view, a puppeteer is using the same tools to bring a puppet to life that a dancer uses to move their body. They are moving their own body with an immense sense of skill, focus, technique and energy, but they are transferring the movement of dance onto an object. As a result, although I am not trained in puppetry, the way puppetry uses movement feels very familiar to me. As an audience member, puppetry helps me to see movement in a new way. Small details come into huge focus. When I watch puppeteers I am amazed at how much strength and isolation it must take to hold your body in a certain posture and move your body in such small ways over a long period of time. I'm not sure I could do it! I would need to put the puppet down and do some cartwheels or shake it out.


B: What about you Retta, what do you appreciate about dance?

I have an immense respect for dancers, both as a puppeteer and as a person who has always wanted to better understand and employ movement. Dancers have this entirely different form of intelligence that comes from following the impulses of their bodies, and I admire their physical confidence and the scope of their imagination. I'm a fidgety person, so puppetry is great for me because I can focus all that energy into something else. Mostly, I'm jealous of dancers and the joy they find in expressing with their full body, whereas I throw all my attention into the tiny gestures of a puppet's limbs.

B: What do you see as the similarities between puppetry and dance?


R: Dance and puppetry both demand a lot of control and skill, but at the same time, both art forms require the performer to infuse movement with meaning. Puppeteers and dancers deconstruct movement, then reproduce it for the purposes of a story or meaning. In both art forms, every motion is perceived as deliberate. If a puppet's arm moves, the audience thinks it means something, which is the same for dance. We have to be aware of where all our body parts are and when they're moving.

A: I agree, and I think that making a puppet move is similar to the way a choreographer transfers movement from their imagination or body onto another dancer. Communicating through movement is a very dancerly skill, even if it involves an inanimate object. But a puppeteer is transferring their ability to communicate entirely to an object. It is as if they need to shrink everything their body knows down to these tiny actions that get amplified in the puppet. In this way, the puppet becomes the dancer, which is a very different feeling than dancing itself. The puppeteer is trying to be invisible, which is the opposite of what a dancer wants.

R: The biggest difference, I guess, is just how and where energy is channeled. Dancers are utilizing their bodies to express something across a space, projecting outwards, while puppeteers are focusing more closely to infuse another object with intention and emotion.


B: How do each of you see your art form represented in Mojo?


A: Dance and choreography are artfully woven throughout Mojo. Although it often feels like the puppet is the main focus, the way the performers create patterns in space, interact with the puppets, and move the puppets is all heavily choreographed. The way the objects come together to make the large puppet (Mr. Mojo), is a beautiful moment of choreography with objects. I love the way each character has a short dance solo at the beginning of the show because it gives you a chance see each performers personality through movement. There is also a lot of variety of movement—from sliding across the floor, to tap dance, to body percussion, to the high energy modern dance sequence at the end. You begin to see the lines between movement, dance, puppetry and dance styles get blurry and merge together in wonderful ways. You feel transported to another world full of color, rhythm, magic and movement of all kinds. 


R: Mojo uses a sort of zoom in/zoom out effect with dance and puppetry. The creators find moments to focus on a plot point with a puppet character, and then pull back to explore the themes of that moment through dance. For me, I felt that the puppets told a more literal narrative than the dance, but the puppets themselves are abstract. These puppets are just simple shapes that come together to create recognizable forms, which is a fun trick for the audience. It's transparent, but still completely magical.

B: Have you ever collaborated with a dancer? What was that like?

R: A lot of the puppeteers I've worked with come from a dance background. That's one of the coolest things about puppetry—you meet dancers, poets, designers and engineers, all working together to figure out how to make and move puppets! It's really helpful to have dancers in the room when you're building puppet movement, because it is choreography you're creating. In pieces like Mojo, where there are multiple puppeteers working together to operate one puppet, it's especially important for everyone to know exactly where everyone else is at all times, and to be able to share the space and move together. Dancers bring a lot of intuition and creativity to the process.


B: What about you, Anne?


A: To be honest, I have not collaborated directly with a puppeteer. But I am about to start a residency with Retta, so who knows what the future holds!


Retta Leaphart is a theater and puppet artist based in Brooklyn, NY and originally from Helena, MT.  She loves making things with her hands, and helping bring new ideas and shows to life!  Currently, Retta is working with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company on the development of a new show for 2-5 year olds based on the New York subway system, and doing some animation on the side.  Her first full length puppet show, Black Acre, premiered last year at Theater for the New City as part of the Voice4Vision festival.  Retta couldn't be more proud to be a member of the Teaching Artist Ensemble at the New Victory Theater.    

Anne Zuerner is a dancer, choreographer and teaching artist. Her work has been produced by venues such as Danspace Project, Movement Research at the Judson Church, Dance New Amsterdam, and Triskelion Arts. Zuerner’s work has received funding from the Brooklyn Arts Council and a fellowship from Summer Stages Dance. She is currently creating a new evening length work to premiere in 2013, with a preview excerpt being produced in Dance New Amsterdam's RAW Directions series. Anne works as a teaching artist for Lincoln Center Institute, the New Victory Theater and Cynthia King Dance Studio.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post! Agree with your views that Dance is a exercise in physical form.Thanks for sharing
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