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In his introductory remarks, Emil Kang, Executive Director for the Arts at UNC Chapel Hill, stated that of all the programs presented this remarkable season by Carolina Performing Arts (CPA), this was the one he was most nervous about. “This” refers to a CPA-commissioned work that goes back to 2008 of puppeteer Basil Twist’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We are closing in on the completion of CPA’s once-in-a-life, world-renowned “The Rite of Spring at 100” festival and the argument can certainly be made that this performance is the pinnacle of this entire celebration.
Much of the information about Basil Twist (unknown to me prior to this) was gleaned from two sources: the informative Q & A session between Kang and Twist presented after the performance and the profile of Twist in the April 15, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. One of the major points made by both of them was that this was not only a creation by Twist and his staff, but the palette for this work was Memorial Hall itself. Twist was effusive in his praise of the state-of-the-art infrastructure of the stage, backstage, and technical staff of Memorial. In fact, he went so far as to eschew any usage of the somewhat pejorative term “stagehand” and regarded everyone as puppeteers and equals.
Since Memorial Hall itself was the instrument upon which Twist would be “playing,” he had the unprecedented opportunity of spending the last four weeks and previous summers at Memorial honing his creation and practicing his instrument. The result, as Twist admitted during the follow-up talk, was a work of art unlikely to ever be replicated exactly as we had just experienced. We were part of a historical event. It was further enhanced by the live appearance of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, a New York City based orchestra guest conducted by Brad Lubman, whose 65-piece ensemble was the only orchestra this season to play in the pit.
The all-Stravinsky program opened with Fireworks, a four-minute romp that featured the trumpet. The curtains opened to reveal only about the middle two-thirds of the stage and what was basically a dancing cityscape. Patterned after the early 20th century Italian art movement known as Futurism, this was a fascinating use of inanimate movement, lighting, and frenetic movement that was supposed to depict a future metropolis. This was a perfect appetizer of what was to come and also what not to expect.
With the name “puppeteer” placed after Twist’s name, you’d expect, well, something resembling puppets. If you came to see a Muppet-like show, or even something more modern like War Horse or Avenue Q, you became quickly confused. When asked a vision of this very concept, Twist replied that his vision of puppetry is “breathing life into anything inanimate” and if you want to call him a “scenic designer” or any other title, the label is unimportant. For the most part this performance was abstract.
The closest thing to what the average American theater patron would think of as puppetry was up next. Set to Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque masterpiece Pulcinella, it started out very un-puppet-like as an army of puppeteers marched out to the Ouverture, covered from head to toe in black. Then a collection of varying sizes of white tubes resembling PVC pipe or shipping tubes was passed out, two to a customer. There followed a dance/display of configurations of the gleaming tubes. It got a bit tiresome and repetitive until larger tubes came out, many of the puppeteers used long poles to control higher movement of the tubes, and voila, we had a horse galloping in remarkably lifelike movement. The next scene morphed into a depiction of a giant man and woman that included their flirting and hugging. As it began, so it ended: they handed in their tubes and marched off stage. The orchestra was quite magnificent and easily eclipsed my favorite recording of this lovely work.
Five years in the making, the moment had finally arrived. With the start of that familiar, mournful bassoon solo we began a trip unlike anything ever experienced. Like previous performances of The Rite of Spring at Memorial, this opening was played to a closed curtain. But this time something you’d never expect happened: the curtain itself slowly came alive. I don’t mean just waving, but it somehow actually embodied organic, live movement. This normally inert curtain finally opened to the strains of those famous savage insistent chords and we were deliciously assaulted by a rapid series of falling curtains. If there was a theme to this creation it was fabric, silk in particular, and the skill and magic of infusing these with character and life. It was as if the long road from the spinning silkworm to UNC was one continuum.
There were also equal parts beautifully executed scenic designs, for the most part done in black and white as if to emphasize the primitiveness at the core of the Rite. I am certainly dating myself, but the word “trippy” came to mind while watching this and I had flashbacks to shows at the legendary Fillmore East in New York when the Joshua Light Show would have scenic displays behind the bands.
The start of the second part of Stravinsky’s masterpiece featured a large hanging wooden beam with what appeared to be three enormous wadded up pieces of paper, slowly being rotated by puppeteers. I know better than to ask the question which most creative artists detest the most: “What does it mean?” Although this was an abstract interpretation of the Rite, Twist did pay homage to the original 1913 with a single male dancer (the Chosen One) dancing himself to death in a sacrifice to the god of fertility. When a single white ribbon shoots out high above the audience at the conclusion, it is as if his soul has quickly ascended.