Sensation Without Representation

Basil Twist Puppet Master

The acclaimed puppet theater artist Basil Twist is the only American ever to attend the prestigious École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France. From April 30 to May 3, Twist brings his most recent piece, Dogugaeshi, to the Brooks Theater of the Cleveland Play House as part of the museum’s VIVA! and Gala Around Town series. Dogugaeshi is a fascinating synthesis of tradition and contemporary sensibility, as Twist describes here.

I studied puppetry in France, and while I was there I learned a lot about all the arts, particularly music and painting. It seemed to me that all these other art forms had evolved, but puppetry really hadn’t. I was inspired by the Abstract Expressionists, who had tried to be liberated from representation. So a few years back, I made a piece called Symphonie Fantastique, my first foray into nonrepresentational puppet theater. It was acclaimed and I was very proud of myself.

A bit later I was in France at a puppet theater festival, where I saw a little black-and-white film clip of traditional Japanese puppetry from the island of Awaji. All it showed was a series of sliding screens. It was strange and so beautiful that I stayed for hours to watch the whole video loop just so I could see that little 30-second clip again. Dogugaeshi, I soon discovered, is a tradition of puppet theater based completely on abstract forms. I was amazed and humbled. I had thought I was so smart, but here was this tradition that was already doing what I thought I had invented.

Dogugaeshi almost doesn’t exist anymore. It is part of a larger story in Japan of traditional arts disappearing. But at one time there were 60 nomadic dogugaeshi troupes on the single small island of Awaji. So I set out to create my own piece. I built a stage with sliding wooden doors. I went up into the mountains and interviewed old people who remembered dogugaeshi from decades ago. Troupes would haul everything up these mountain paths and light the whole thing with candles. It turns out I’m part of a small movement of Americans who have contributed to the preservation of these traditional art forms. But honestly, that wasn’t my intention—I just wanted to make a cool show. 

Traditionally, the whole performance is driving toward an image called sanjojiki, which literally means “thousands of tatami mats.” The idea is it’s like a palace, a vast space that is slowly revealed as these screens move back and forth, and eventually ends on an image of Mount Fuji.

Musician Yumiko Tanaka accompanies the puppet theater.

My show starts with a re-creation of that first little film I saw. Then, as the screens and doors move, there are silhouettes of people moving, carrying things—echoing those nomadic troupes. Then the construction of the sanjojiki begins, as in the traditional form, but soon it starts to get destroyed. That was my experience: I was in a vault of a museum and amazingly I found some of the actual screens that were in that original film, but they were all torn up. All around were other screens and designs that had been used in the dogugaeshi, and off to one side was a puppet of a fox with long white hair, gold teeth, and nine tails. I felt like it was guarding them.

So back home I made my best approximation of that fox, and in the piece it acts as our guide. The last section recreates a traditional dogugaeshi with the sequence of unfolding spaces—but instead of stopping at Mount Fuji, it goes beyond there and ends simply with a small and intense spot of light, like a single candle surviving from the ancient tradition.   

Cleveland Art, April 2009