Basi Twist: Dogugaeshi

Basil Twist: Dogugaeshi

On the Barbican Pit stage, a screen, and within it another screen, and within it another, and another, and another… and so (almost) to infinity. We start with what appears to be an animated film – flickering images of tiny travelling people crossing a mountain, a boat tossing on the sea. These animations are actually created live, silhouette cut-outs moved manually; unseen operators flickering lights to give the impression of film. Then, a kind of toy theatre (minus the human figures) takes over, screens sliding in and out and flipping up and over as a palace of gold is constructed then destroyed, little gold columns becoming characters as they scuttle around pursued by a white fox who pops up and down cheekily like a Pokemon. It is interesting that almost no human figures feature in the show, yet it feels full of characters. But this is not surprising coming from Basil Twist, whose definition of puppetry goes far beyond the creation or animation of figurines (he has received an odd recent recognition in the UK as the designer of the dancing silks and other puppet-esque effects for Kate Bush).

Dogugaeshi is the name of the show, but also of the tradition it honours and explores. Its history is intrinsically linked to that of Japanese puppetry; the word ‘dogugaeshi’ literally means ‘set change’, and that is the essence of the form – a series of beautifully painted screens sliding open to reveal image after image in rapid succession. It is a practice that has fallen out of favour in recent years, and the story of the form itself informs the content of Basil Twist’s homage. The screens we see here (modelled on original Japanese screens the artist unearthed on a research trip) combine with reminders of the heritage, for example in a section showing film footage of elderly Japanese villagers recounting their memories of seeing Dogugaeshi performed in their childhood.

The piece has a gentle narrative, being a reflection on the passing of time itself – everything dissolves eventually, and there is nothing left but a white light at the end of a tunnel. The piece could best be described as poetic and theme-driven rather than dramatic in the usual sense; yet it is filled with stories, a whole host of small dramas. A sensory delight of moving pictures unfolds as images bow in and bow out – now you see me, now you don’t. Sometimes in 2D, colours and patterns  – luscious orchids and frangipani, long-tailed curling dragons, art-deco-ish abstracts, monochrome high-heeled boots – emerging like living wallpaper, or like a big colourful flickerbook; at other times playing with 3D, real and imagined, perspective shifting with the eye, taking in the opening-up depths (some real, some an illusion created by the paintings on the screens, or by the video projection used with them). As the screens slide out and in and up and down (with an earthy, satisfying clunkiness), a landscape builds, dissolves, rebuilds; a place where traditional Japanese woodcuts and drawings, contemporary Manga and Anime, impressions of modern day Japan, and icons of twentieth-century design all contribute. The climax of the show gives us a sequence of no less than 88 painted screens as the destroyed palace re-instates itself, triumphant. A metaphor, yes…

The visual spectacle is augmented by the beautiful live Gidayu music of Yumiko Tanaka, Twist’s collaborator in this project. Together (and in collaboration with a second sound designer, Greg Duffin) they explore the tug between the old and the new. Tanaka straddles the world between traditional form and experimental music practice, her live Shamisen playing and singing blending effortlessly with the recorded soundtrack that uses electronics, sampled sound (snatches of old dance tunes rise and fall), and recordings of treated voice and acoustic instrument. At times it is hard to tell what is being created live and what isn’t – always a good sign. She is seated to the side of the screens and is sometimes visible and sometimes not. Although she often circles off on her revolving turntable when not playing, sometimes she sits quietly with her back to us looking at the screens – a wonderfully rapt and attentive witness to the action.

Also part of the action is a large puppet representation of a beautiful nine-tailed fox (a traditional Japanese puppet character) who is introduced occasionally as another witness to the dogugaeshi world explored. In one lovely moment, our fox friend dances across the front of the stage, and rests his/her head lovingly at Yumiko’s feet, honouring her contribution.

Behind the scenes, a team of three other puppeteers/operators – Kate Brehm, David Ojala, and Jessica Scott – join Basil Twist in what is no doubt a physically and mentally exhausting choreography of sliding and pulling and crouching and stretching, often in silent co-ordination with the person at the other end of the screen. Not to mention lighting and moving the real-live candles used in the show which somehow got pushed through UK theatre health-and-safety rules and regs!

Such a treat to see this show finally make it to the UK as part of London International Mime Festival 2015. A beautiful work, full of rich images and dreamy sounds that resound long after the very last veil is pulled across the dogugaeshi screen.

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.