Visions Festival of International Visual Performance

Feature in Issue 17-1 | Spring 2005

‘In the beginning was a conviction – if one's eye is seduced it will open one's ears and mind.’ This quote from Théâtre de l'Oeil could serve as the mission statement for Visions. Théâtre de l'Oeil's The Star Keeper (Gardner Arts Centre) was the Visions launch show, one of a number of UK premieres. Aimed at a young audience, Star Keeper is a wordless puppet theatre piece with all the visual charm and top quality manipulation skills you'd expect of this Montreal company with 30 years experience. Into their large black box set come puppets of all sorts – marionette, bunraku, hand, shadow – charming little creatures of all shapes and sizes. We move from sky to earth to sea, meeting a wiggly worm, a dancing Spider and a slinky mermaid. Enticing images, but I left wanting more. There was, for me anyway, no sense of the eye opening the mind. In contrast, German company Erfreuliches Theater Erfurts’ Queen of Colours (Sallis Benney Theatre) was simply perfect – live cartoon created by an onstage illustrator with OHP, a pianist, a video screen and an out-of-sight manipulator who transforms the images into simple animations. Another success, Adios Nonino from Majorca's A Cel Obert, starts conventionally enough, with the classic physical theatre scenario of four performers with suitcases criss-crossing the stage. Railway station, gateway to heaven, immigration control – who knows? As they wait, each in turn nods off and from their suitcases, clothes, bodies, emerge a succession of phantasms. Such is the interconnection between performer and manipulated object that each puppet is a glorious cyborg of sorts – puppet heads with human hands, a potato head with human legs, or humanette scooting along on a child's buggy. In turn grotesque, pathetic, clownish or melancholic these night creatures comfort, torment and entertain – acting out the fantasies and fears of their human counterparts. Adios Nonino is a perfect hour of physically precise performance, superb animation, striking lighting and energised live music. This set a high standard for the remaining week – matched by Portugal's Marionetas do Porto who presented Nada ou O Silencio de Beckett at Komedia, an almost wordless homage to the best playwright of the 20th Century. The piece is both a tribute to and subversion of Beckett's intentions: we encounter the visual motifs from the plays (bins, disembodied heads, buried bodies, the Godot tree) emerging as symbolist icons that take on a life beyond the plays. Sound is a vital element – the ticking of clocks and metronomes, ear splitting whistles, the clattering of heavy-footed puppets on a conveyor-belt walkway. The three performers have the loose-limbed ease of dancers, the comic physicality of clowns and manipulation skills of experienced animators. Precisely timed, absurd and hopelessly funny, this peon to the silence of Beckett is a fitting homage. Australian company Black Hole's Caravan has been previously reviewed Total Theatre 16-3/4) but a word of praise here for Visions director Linda Lewis in her programming decision to present this extraordinary adult puppetry piece at the 50 seat Nightingale Theatre, the perfect venue for such an intricate and intimate show.

The UK was well represented in the festival by young company Ding Foundation and by old-timers Horse + Bamboo. Ding brought the visually charming and quirky Being a Bird to Visions 2002, but Unexploded Bomb is a different, deeper and broodier kettle of fish. The set is solid construction of weathered woods – floorboords, doors and walls. This beautiful, concrete set frames a melancholy story (circling around the defusing of a basement bomb) that examines presence and absence, love and loss through the skilful animation of objects imbued with the spirits of their human users: a clothes line full of dancing baby clothes; big and little chairs grouped and re-grouped in a poignant choreography, a woman's dress wafting across the stage. The show wasn't seen to its best advantage at the Sallis Benney Theatre, which lacks the total blackout crucial to many of the scenes, thus spoiling the magical effect of the objects moving seemingly by themselves Nevertheless, the charm and integrity of the show saw it through. Horse + Bamboo have been plying their trade for 30 years. A Strange (& Unexpected) Event explores the life and art of 19th Century Mexican printmaker JG Posada. It features a host of colourful characters in whole-head mask, representations of Posada's exquisite Calveras woodcuts, and sumptuous sets and costumes in the rich yellow, reds, turquoises of Mexican folk art and Day of the Dead iconography. Set on the eve of this feast of All Souls, Posada enters the action as a spirit emerging from the altars to the dead. The story of his struggle as a political activist and earthy man-of-the-people is told through evocations of his own imagery, which references the popular culture of his land – giant snails, red devils, dancing skeletons in carnival clothes and galloping ghost horses. It’s a feel-good show: a feast for the eyes and food for the soul. My only gripe was with the choice to have performers moving in and out of character in order to become strolling musicians playing rather pale imitations of Mexican folk tunes. The emergence of the whole cast out-of-mask for a musical finale was an anticlimax to an otherwise excellent show

The Visions Launchpad was developed this year into a fully fledged fringe for emerging UK companies, giving another valuable strand to the festival, Nitty Gritty's Inside Out was puppet theatre with live jazz, exploring a popular Visions theme of migrancy and asylum. The beautifully crafted, large and luscious figures had an earthy organic feel reminiscent of the sculpture of Ana Maria Pacheco. At the other end of the spectrum, Woodenhead Works' Invertigo used projected images on movable screens, spoken text and object animation to explore the visual nature of memory. With startling images – multi-coloured cityscapes, falling bodies, a puppet of disembodied body parts moving through space – Invertigo was successful in its visual evocation of blurred memories and confused identity, but marred by some pretty awful acting and leaden narrative.

Stepping out of the theatres, Visions offered a number of alternative settings. Theatre du Risorius presented Volpino, an engaging and energetic ‘there's more than one way to skin a rabbit’ parable on interspecies tolerance, delivered by Thierry Dupre who animated a selection of wacky animals with the ease of a seasoned performer, accompanying himself in not-French not-English grommeltage. It was staged in their own lovely red caravan, which seemed to be furnished with jumble sale finds: occasional tables, framed portraits and puppets that looked like discarded soft toys. Aie Aie Aie's My Eye shared the bric-o-brac aesthetic, this time set in a woolly tent full of tactile textiles. A tailor sits at his sewing machine, surrounded by a clattering jumble of tools. An anglepoise lamp swivels to observe the audience. The tailor goes about his business with laconic ease and socks and bags turn into cloth creatures with ogling eyes. A meticulous surgical operation on a lump of cloth reveals a Russian-doll effect of Cyclopic woolly eyes within bodies. Drawers open to reveal jumping scissors. The cool and restrained stage persona of French maker-performer Julien Mellano adds frisson to the surreal logic of the environment. The manipulation of familiar objects always lends itself to exciting possibilities. In this case, it makes for a delightful fifteen-minute show that is highly original, beautifully staged and performed with skilled precision. Another winner was foyer-show Professor Olaf Stevenson's Chest of Drawers, presented by Chemins de Terre from Belgium. There are 40 drawers in the chest, and the content of each show is determined by which drawers the Professor chooses to open in his cod lecture on the origins of the universe, evolution and the nature of love (amongst other scientific and philosophical conundrums). Forks, tin cans, balloons, marzipan, bananas, drawing pins... all are transformed in the hands of this skilled puppeteer-clown. All of the little sketches are extremely funny – many with a pleasantly nasty edge. I was particularly taken with a detailed surgical operation on cans of baked beans and creamed rice which became – and once the professor had planted the idea this is what they were – guts and brains. I also enjoyed (drawing pin) Naughty George Bush destroying the (blown up yellow rubber glove) sun and thus ending life on earth.

Visions is one of a kind: there is nowhere else in the UK where this range of puppetry, animation and visual performance from all corners of the world can be seen within one festival. Long may it continue to thrive.